There is an old saying – things are never as bad as they seem, and things are never as good as they seem.
As we head into the Round Six fixture of the 2021 AFL season, I cannot help but feel that this rings too true to one game in particular, and it just so happens to be the game that wraps up the weekend of footy.
Whilst there will be copious amounts of press for the traditional Collingwood v Essendon Anzac Day clash, and plenty of coverage of the hatred between the Dogs and Giants, the mouth-watering Melbourne v Richmond game… hell, even the Cats and Eagles has a hell of a lot of storylines within it – the game that has captured my attention is somewhat buried in late Sunday slot.
Despite a hiccup in falling to the West Coast Eagles, Port Adelaide have started the year in exactly the way they would have wanted. At 4-1, they sit in the top four, eyeing off the prize in the distance of home finals. Yes, it is very early in the picture, but their win over the reigning premiers in Round Four lest no doubt as to their intentions in 2021.
At the other end of the spectrum, we have St Kilda. Despite doing the opposite of the Power and knocking over the West Coast Eagles in a stirring come-from-behind win, the Saints have been mediocre this year, falling to a 2-3 record following a pummeling at the hands of the Tigers last week.
And now, we have these two teams locking horns in what may very well be a pivotal clash when we hit September and look back at the season that was.
For the Saints, this trip to Adelaide should hold no fears. Prior to last season, the team had never won at Adelaide Oval. It was a graveyard of sorts for St Kilda teams and held an aura that they needed to dispel.
And that, they did.
A win over the Crows in Round Seven was followed the very next week with a resounding win over the ladder-leading Port Adelaide that really put the Saints on the map.
It was a win they would not soon forget. Nor would the Power.
Port have hit the 2021 season with a vengeance and look every bit the contender. This season, the Saints limp into their clash with the Power, hoping that a little of what they found in South Australia last season can be replicated to kickstart their 2021. But this is a different Port Adelaide to the plucky bunch that surprised so many in 2020. This year, you can tell they have their eyes on a flag.
Meanwhile, the Saints would be content with keeping their head above water.
This clash has the hallmarks of a make-or-break contest for both teams. A win for Port would see them entrenched in the top four, whilst a loss would send them back to the pack in the bottom half of the eight. For the Saints, a win keeps them in touch, but a loss… we could see a team start to fall apart should that happen.
Dougal will have a job on his hands when he stands next to his old teammate, Charlie Dixon, to open proceedings.
Whilst Port have been good, big Charlie has not yet exerted himself too much. Yes, the Power are winning without him taking a plethora of contested marks, but you know that in order for Port to be something special this season, Charlie is going to have to be a big presence.
What better time to start than with his old mate, Dougal on him?
There is part of me that wonders whether St Kilda may identify Jake Carlisle as a better match-up on Charlie? In the twilight of his career, Carlisle has the physical strength to combat Dixon in one-on-one contests, but his mobility could be an issue. If he is able to keep Dixon under wraps, the Saints will have one of the best help defenders, in Howard, unleashed to come over the top of contests all over the park.
Mitch Georgiades and Todd Marshall have both been important this season, and they will need to step up and ease the burden on Dixon. They need to keep players like Nick Coffield and Hunter Clark accountable and not just allow them to take uncontested intercept marks in the defensive fifty. The ball must come to ground.
Because if it does…
THE PORT SMALLS
I’m saddened, like most people, that Zak Butters is on the sidelines at the moment. For a diminutive fella, he sure throws his body in and creates a path for his teammates, and he is a favourite here at The Mongrel.
However, even with Butters on the sidelines, Port are blessed with enigmatic small forwards that can tear a game to shreds. Robbie Gray continues to be one of the best in the business despite his advancing age. He just tends to show up at the right time to do exactly the right thing, and if the game is close down the stretch, you can bet your bottom dollar that all he’ll require is half a chance to make the opposition pay.
Connor Rozee has not started the season the way he would have liked. Plantar Faschitus and a follow-up corked thigh have seen his impact minimised, but I am a big believer in him, and know it is just a matter of time before he makes his mark on the season.
Steven otlop may be in the process of compiling his best start to a season since his move to Alberton, and has looked like the most dangerous player on the park in periods.
And then there is Orazio Fantasia. I’m edging perilously close to a full and unreserved apology for Orazio as the weeks tick by. I have never been his greatest fan, and was quite displeased with his last two years at the Bombers – not just for his play, or lack thereof, but of his attitude.
He seems to have turned that right around at Port and is loving being part of a forward line that is both creative and unselfish. As it stands right now, he would have his name in the conversation for All-Australian small forward.
The Saints are going to have their work cut out for them to stifle the brilliance of that quartet. Coffield, Dunstan, Clark, Long, and Sinclair will have to be at their best to prevent half of the Port forwards from having an impact, but this is the kind of challenge that good defences thrive on, and this St Kilda defence has the makings of being a very good one.
That said… Ben Paton would have been very handy in this game.
Slotting into the Mongrel Punt Rolling All-Australian centre half back position this week, Aliir has been a revelation for the Power. Looking as though he has settled very quickly, his positioning has been first class as the floating defender in the Power defence, to the point where it appears the opposition is simply kicking it right to him at times.
A man mountain, once Aliir gets to the right spot, there is simply no moving him, and it will take some very intelligent forward 50 entries to bypass his aerial dominance.
Do St Kilda look to their small forwards to start carrying the load in this one? They may have to, with the Port defence absolutely stacked with quality stoppers. Tom Jonas leads Tom Clurey and Aliir as they demolish contest after contest, but it is the presence of Dan Butler, Jack Lonie and Jack Higgins that will be the worry for Port.
With injury clouds over Dan Houston and Hamish Hartlett, and first year cult figure, Lachie Jones rled out for a month, the Power may be forced to dig deep into their bag of tricks to combat the Saints at ground level. Burton, Byrne-Jones and perhaps even Miles Bergman will have to be alert when the ball hits the deck… which I expect it will quite a bit with Tim Membrey doing his best work up the ground and Max King having flashes of good play, but finding it difficult to sustain aerial dominance.
So, who’s better? The Saints’ small brigade of Higgins, Butler and Lonie? Or the Power’s Gray Rozzee, Fantasia and Motlop? And which defence is best structured to combat them?
LYCETT V MARSHALL
There would have been a little salivating from Scott Lycett watching St Kilda last week. Toby Nankervis, a ruckman not unlike Lycett, had his way with the Saints, compiling a game that had him regarded as one of the best on ground.
With Paddy Ryder making his way back to the club after doing whatever it was he was doing, and Rowan Marshall touch-and-go with a foot injury, the big Port ruck bully would have been licking his lips.
That eagerness may now be a little more subtle, with the Saints claiming Marshall will be ready for this game, but that does not mean the big Power ruck won’t be looking to test out just how ready Marshall is.
It is no coincidence that St Kilda’s comeback against West Coast commenced when Marshall re-entered the fray in the third quarter. Going down with the foot injury in the second quarter, the Eagles took over in the ruck and established what looked to be a match-winning lead, but the return of Marshall and his combative presence dragged the Saints back into it.
Lycett will have to be wary.
That said, Lycett is one of the more underrated rucks in the game. Able to handle any big man in the league physically, he can nullify their impact with his tenacity and second efforts. This contest shapes as a pivotal one, but part of me wonders whether the Saints are just a little too eager to get Marshall back in the game, and if they’ll pull a last-minute switcheroo and sit him out.
If that is the case and Scott Lycett is not in the best three players on the ground, I’ll happily make a human sacrifice of Joe Ganino to whatever denizen of the underworld you choose. Really, I don’t care that much about Joe Ganino.
You have to love what Jack Steele brings to the table for the Saints. Whilst they are ideally missing one more inside mid (Hannebery) to balance the group, Steele’s two-way game is the perfect blend of offence and defence.
He will be matched up on what is perhaps the best one-two punch of all AFL mids at the moment, the Boak/Wines duo. Together, they average 11.2 clearances per game. Yes, there are others that run through the guts for both sides, but these guys are the main inside players, and will dictate the momentum of the game.
Brad Crouch may be the x-factor for the Saints. Playing good, but not great, footy thus far in his St Kilda tenure, Crouch needs to give Steele the help he needs against this two-headed monster of the Port Adelaide midfield. Together, they average 10.3 and should be a good match-up for the Port pair. However, there is a sneaky way for Ken Hinkley to nip this in the bud and gain the ascendancy.
And his name is Willem Drew.
One of the more underrated contested players in the game, Drew thrives on the contest, and his attention to detail is excellent at stoppages. A potential tackling machine, I would be standing him alongside Brad Crouch to nullify his presence and make these clearance situations a two-on-one battle for supremacy. Yes, the Saints may counter by throwing Hunter Clark into the middle, but taking out Brad Crouch would cut the Saints off at the knees, and having watched Drew grow as a player back in 2019, I reckon he might be the best man for the job.
With Boak and Wines controlling the middle, the Saints will be unable to get the quick entries to give their forwards opportunity. If that happens, things could get messy.
Watch to see where Willem Drew goes at the opening bounce, or soon thereafter.
Is this the game Brad Hill steps it up? Let’s face it… he can’t really step down much further.
Port have a gut-runner of their own, with Karl Amon really establishing himself as one of the important cogs in the Power machine over the last 12 months. The Saints have Hill, who simply does not want anyone near him under any circumstance, and Jack Billings, who goes cold just as quickly as he goes hot – you just don’t want to catch him on a cold day, I guess.
Whilst the Saints’ wingmen can be hit-and-miss, Amon has been hit-hit-hit this season, and is producing the type of consistency that some have likened to that of Andrew Gaff a few years back. For mine, Amon is doing a little more with the footy than Gaff is at the moment.
The loss of Xavier Duursma hurts, but Port now have the option of deploying a defensive runner to curtail Hill – he won’t like that. Is it Sam Mayes, or does Kane Farrell get a call up?
Whilst the game will most likely be won elsewhere, there is a chance that the Saints can get hot out wide. With both Hill and Billings getting plenty of the footy, St Kilda looks a much better team, so Port will need to be particularly diligent in preventing those two from getting up and running.
So, is this the game where Port put their foot on the throats of the Saints and effectively crush their top four hopes? It’s Round Six… it has to be a bit early for that, right?
At 2-4, the Saints would be a dejected bunch, and a climb back to a meaningful finals position would seem like a bridge too far. They need this – and their wins here last year would have them walking tall.
Port are a bit banged up. Houston is probably more important to their structure than Hartlett, so there will be eyes on him in the lead up after having his arm in a sling last week. He adds so much poise to the Power that losing him makes them significantly weaker.
Despite rule tweaks and changes designed to benefit the forwards, this game will go the way of whichever defence sets up and adjusts best. Jonas, Aliir and Clurey v Howard, Wilkie and Carlisle in a test of which defence can settle the best and control the game.
And if Marshall doesn’t come up… watch out for Lycett to have a massive game.
Port by 26.