It’s difficult to know what to expect from the Saints at times this season. I am sure their supporters can extend that statement out to cover many years; not just this one.
However, for all the heartache and pain they’ve caused, sometimes things just seem to click, and the group seems “on”. The game against the Sydney Swans was one such occasion.
The Saints were hard at it from the opening bounce, working hard to shut down the space of the Swans, forcing poor disposals and preventing them from any of the run and carry they’ve become known for over the last month or two. Without Dougal Howard back to anchor their defence, the Saints looked to Cal Wilkie to lead some of the lesser lights in their quest to stifle the influence of names like Papley, Heeney and Franklin.
And those players responded.
Beating the Swans at their own game in many ways, the Saints hurt Sydney on the turnover, and moved through the middle with dare and dash, and it felt the Swans chasing tail for most of the game.
After three losses, this was the kind of football that has to become the norm for this St Kilda unit. Whilst they may have blown their 2021 chances, it is a style that will hold them in good stead heading forward, and they have the right people in place to make it work.
Here’s The Mongrel’s good, bad and ugly.
STEELE-ING THE SHOW
I have an admission, and Saints fans… please don’t hate me for it.
There was a time not that long ago that I was watching your team play and the commentators were wrapping up Jack Steele. Maybe it was a one-off, but in that game, there was way too much slamming the ball on your boot from Steele, and not enough considered, composed ball use. It created in my mind a perception that Steele can be a little wasteful with the footy.
So, I decided to pay closer attention to see if my thoughts were steeped in concrete or bullshit.
It turns out it was the latter.
Jack Steele proved me wrong long before this game, but almost as though he was serving to remind me of his stature in our game, he once again provided a vintage Jack Steele outing, notching 34 touches with six clearances, laying seven tackles and slotting a goal for good measure. It was as though he was looking into my soul and cursing me out for ever doubting him.
The thing that sets Steele apart from those around him is that he simply refuses to allow someone to wade through one of his tackles. He keeps the footy in his area and either wins it, or prevents his opponent from winning it. When people speak about two-way mids, they’re talking about Jack Steele above all others in this league.
Paving the way for others, such as Zak Jones and Luke Dunstan at stoppages, Steele’s heavy work is often ignored in preference to how many disposals he amassed, but when I watch him, it is the second and third efforts at stoppages, and the pressure he puts the opposition under that stands out.
In a few sections, I am going to wrap up the overall effort of the St Kilda defence, but in large part, the credit for their effectiveness has to go to Steele and his ilk. It was their midfield pressure that flat out refused to allow clear passage to the Sydney mids, giving the defence more than a fighting chance to break-even.
A lot of reports I read talked up the game of Rowan Marshall last week. Oh… he did this. Oh… he dominated the ruck. Oh… he had close to career-best numbers.
You know who else had career-best numbers? His direct opponent, Jack Silvagni.
I kind of got the feeling I was like an old man yelling at a cloud when I spoke about how Marshall didn’t dominate his position – he just won the ruck contests. At ground level, Silvagni was better, and that thought was reinforced with the coaches awarding Silvagni nine votes. Guess how many Marshall received?
Yep, you know it – none.
I was waiting for him to physically punish the undersized Silvagni. I was waiting for him to jump into him with a knee to ensure the tone was set. And I waited… and waited. It never happened,
So, coming into this game, against an opponent that has made life a living hell for many of his opponents this season, Marshall was charged with stopping Tom Hickey’s excellent clearance work, and establishing himself as the best big man on the park. And he wasted no time in doing so.
Whilst the hitout stats were relatively even for the game, it was on the deck that Marshall took control of the matchup, collecting a career-high 25 touches, including 18 contested possessions, to clearly get the better of Hickey. He also ensured that Hickey would not take the footy cleanly out of the ruck by parking his big body in the road and refusing to be pushed under the footy. As a matter of fact, he used that strength advantage to move Hickey off the ball and that resulted in an 8-4 individual clearance win to the Saint.
Before Paddy Ryder came on the scene at Moorabbin, Marshall was a very competent lone ruck – people tend to forget that. Sure, having Ryder in the team allows Marshall to drift forward and cause headaches, but there is no question in my mind that when asked to elevate his workrate, Marshall has the capacity to respond. And the next time he gets matched up against an undersized ruck like Silvagni, I really want to see some killer instinct from him – a big knee to the chest to set the tone for the day and put the fear of God into his opponent would suffice. Rowan Marshall with a killer instinct would be a force to be reckoned with.
MISSY NO MORE
When some hack at a news website conjures up a shitty nickname for you, such as the “Missy Higgins” one bestowed upon Jack Higgins after kicking 1.6 earlier in the year, who knows how I want to see him respond?
Not by having the club issue a please explain to the newspaper about something that is pretty bloody self-explanatory. No, no, no… games like we saw in this one from Jack Higgins are the way you want to see him respond. All forwards have a bad day in front of goals here or there. All have down days. It’s not about how you handle that criticism on the day – it is how you can bounce back and respond. It’s called resiliency, and it is something lacking in a lot of players at the moment.
But not in Jack Higgins. He knows what it is like to be knocked over and how to get back up again.
I honestly believe he did not need the club to make a song and dance about a headline on a news site at the time – he has games like this one in his arsenal to answer way more emphatically than a “please explain” ever could.
Truth be told, I did not expect too much from Higgins this season. At a new club, in a new system, and with new teammates, I expected him to take a good 12 months to get to know how things were going to work at Moorabbin.
It turns out that Jack is a quick learner.
He kicked four “snags” for the Saints as he gave the very reliable Harry Cunningham the run around in this one, and finished as the most effective forward on the park. Knowing what you know about Higgins, it is difficult not to smile when you see him enjoy this level of success in a game. As one of the true characters in footy, his appeal over the journey has been his larrikin persona, but his footy IQ is off the charts, and there is a touch of Toby Greene about him in the way he sees the game unfolding and reacts accordingly.
I still think that Higgins, at 22 years old, has the time to develop into an AA-level small forward. The skills are there. Now, he just needs the consistency. I’ve got him pencilled in for 2024, just for the record.
I have to tip my hat to Luke Parker.
Whilst his teammates were struggling through a game where they seemed to lack a spark, Parker was there rubbing two sticks together as vigorously as possible to catch a flame. He finished the game with 30 touches and a game-high 12 clearances, as he was in and under at multiple stoppages all over the park.
The Swans definitely seemed to miss Callum Mills, who was a late withdrawal from this one, and with George Hewett, Ollie Florent and Justin McInerney all registering below 20 touches, and sub, James Rowbottom, looking as though he was not ready to play, Parker was forced to do some incredibly heavy lifting for his team. He was admirable in the role, but with the Saints possessing five of the top seven disposal-winners on the park, it was obvious that Parker needed a little more help on the inside.
On Rowbottom, I was surprised that John Longmire didn’t just send him to Jack Steele and have him tackle him every time he moved. Rowbottom is a capable stopper, and whilst I understand that tagging cannot be an everyday concurrence, neither is being dragged up from being an emergency right before the game. Rowbottom is a good stopper, and with minimal preparation, he could have been given a specific role to play in this game to capitalise on a bad situation.
THE BACK SIX
I don’t want to individualise, here but it’s hard not to. The defence of the Saints was absolutely excellent in this game.
Tom Highmore started the game like he owned it, and though the nature of modern defences is to be in a constant state of switching to allow for blocks and sneaky forwards, he was responsible for the job on Isaac Heeney for large parts of the game.
Whilst Franklin commands the attention of the football world at the moment, I am a strong believer that Heeney is the one that ignites this Sydney team. He is clean as a whistle below his knees, has great balance and can take an overhead mark like few his size – he is a tremendous challenge for any defender, and teaming with Nick Coffield, Highmore was able to put the clamps of the emerging Swans star.
Heeney ended up with 15 touches for the game, but it is important to note that just one of them came inside 50. He had to be moved up into the midfield to get involved – this is largely due to the constant attention he received from the St Kilda defence as a whole.
Cal Wilkie took on the role of curtailing Lance Franklin, and pulled the job off as though it was scripted for him to win. He matched Buddy step for step on the lead, and worked his arse off to remain on his feet in marking contests. We all heard from the commentators how they thought Franklin could out-muscle Wilkie, but he only really got one opportunity to do that, given the pressure applied through the midfield.
Wilkie’s stats will not leap off the page at anyone. If you’re a stats-head, he will barely register a blip on your radar, but the eye-test… oh, that is where Wilkie’s game gets its high rating. With Howard out, he stepped up in a big way, and whilst the football world was looking forward to counting down to the low teens, or possibly even single digits, Franklin managed just one goal and even that came via a free kick against Brad Hill. It was a defensive day out for Wilkie.
Jack Sinclair was also fantastic. Tag teaming with Coffield in the intercept role, he picked off an equal game-high ten possessions as he leaves no doubt that the decision to play him off the half back flank was a good one from Brett Ratten. Jimmy Webster also deserves a heap of credit for his close-down role on Tom Papley. The little bloke ignited the Swans in the third quarter last week, and Webster was hell-bent on preventing that from happening this week.
The result of that commitment? Three touches and no goals for Papley in the premiership quarter.
Overall, this was a watertight effort from St Kilda in defence. Against quality opposition, they were able to hold their structure and rebound effectively to turn defence into attack. If we could award them votes as a unit, they’d deserve the top honours.
Well, well, well… what have the Saints found here?
With two marking options inside St Kilda’s forward fifty, in Membrey and King, it was the work of Cooper Sharman that really stood out for.
A really good pair of hands, a lovely kicking action (the one that went through for a goal from the tough angle, anyway) and the ability to lead up at the ball carrier added a dimension to the Saints that they’ve been missing.
I’ve been looking at the way he moved at the footy and attacked it. There was a little of Bayley Fritsch about him, but he also reminded me a bit of a young Jack Gunston. If the Saints get a hybrid of those two out of Sharman, there is plenty to look forward to.
And also, poor bugger is nicknamed ‘Coops’ and he represents the Saints. Maybe Tom Morris can secure an interview where Coops can assure us he is the sole third forward in the St Kilda line up… just in case anyone was wondering.
UNFORCED FORCED ERRORS
I know that is a contradiction in terms, but bear with me… I might be onto something.
Did you notice the number of handballs the Swans were attempting to get themselves out of trouble in the first half? Did you notice how many times they grassed one or two of those disposals in succession?
St Kilda were applying the pressure, but the Swans seemed to amplify it with lazy and overconfident handballs that went nowhere and put the next guy in the chain under more pressure. This is not a new thing, and teams should be well aware of what is coming in the modern game. Richmond have been playing this style for years and everyone else has emulated it to a point. The pressure is coming, and you need to be clean with the footy – one slip up and the pressure intensifies on the next bloke.
Things tend to get infinitely worse when a player tries to be cute and attempts an underground handball, which takes forever to get there, and by the time his teammate takes possession, he has two or three opponents closing in fast.
The Swans well and truly fell into this in the first half, and it allowed the Saints to get the game on their terms. Pressure creates implied pressure, and from that point on, Sydney were not just battling the actual pressure from St Kilda, but that which they thought may be coming their way. Check out some of their hack kicks for verification of this theory – they’re throwing it on the boot and hoping for the best, and making Dwayne Russell sound like a prophet in the meantime when he states they’re “making it someone else’s problem.”
I feel lucky he wasn’t commentating this one – I may have got sick of the phrase.
St Kilda have not been a great pressure team at times this season, and I reckon the Swans were expecting that team to show up again for this game. But every Mr Hyde has a Dr Jekyll, and the Saints donned their white coast and picked the Swans apart in this one.
Many floated the idea of the Swans resting Buddy Franklin for this game, and… wait on – just let me put on my Captain Hindsight outfit here – perhaps they should have listened.
John Longmire made a statement along the lines of “Buddy knows best” when it comes to his body. Well, I have no question that Buddy knows bodies – he bestowed upon himself a nickname in the Summer of 2008 that demonstrated just how many bodies he’d come to know, but if you’re relying on a footballer to tell you he’s not ready to play, you may be waiting a fair while. Some players could have their leg fall off and declare themselves a pretty good chance to get up for the game – I reckon Buddy is one of those players.
We didn’t see much of Lance Franklin on the move in this one. You would have heard the commentators state he wanted it one-out against Callum Wilkie to show his strength. That’s great… but when that doesn’t work, what next?
Franklin looked like he needed a rest in this one, and whilst I am not taking anything away from Wilkie at all for his defensive work, perhaps the match committee and coach should take a little more responsibility as to who plays and when, as opposed to leaving it up to the player when a goal kicking record is on the horizon.
Am I being harsh? Maybe, but I could count the amount of times Buddy was on the lead in this game on one hand. And that should tell you a story about the game he was ready to play in this one.
WHERE IS JORDAN DAWSON’S BEST POSITION?
He played half back, wing and even started half forward at a couple of bounces in this one. Sure, it can throw an opposition off, but eventually, do the Swans have to pick a spot for him and stick to it?
If it were up to me, he starts on a wing and owns the role. You can go back and check out my season previews to confirm this (LINK HERE) but I have long been a fan of a player bedding down a role in a team and making it his own. Dawson owns a wing and half back, but eventually, does he have to choose one or the other?
IS ZAK JONES THE PIECE THAT MAKES THE ST KILDA PUZZLE COMPLETE?
He is a strange bird, this one. Crashes in like a contested mid, but runs like the wind and does damage on the outside as well. Players like this don’t just happen by that often.
St Kilda are a better side with him in it – he is a chaos merchant, and sows the seeds of disharmony in the opposition when he throws himself into the contest. There was little to no ill-will in this one against his old team, but against a side he has little affection for, Jones could be an absolute weapon.
HOW DO YOU RATE DAN BUTLER’S GAME?
Higher if he could kick on his left foot. FFS, you’re a professional athlete…
Anyway, that part aside, I loved his pressure in this game. It has been an aspect of his game that has not reached the same heights as 2020, but with this performance, the capacity to change the game with pressure and tackling alone are there in plain sight. If he applies himself defensively like he did in this one, there can be few complaints for Saints fans.
IS NICK BLAKEY A PERMANENT HALF BACK?
For the next 12 months, yes.
The way he is attacking the footy on the deck speaks of a young man gaining confidence in what he is capable of doing. I still believe he will transition back to the forward line eventually, but it will not be until Buddy and Reid move on, and space opens up.
A forward line of Logan McDonald, Isaac Heeney, Tom Papley and Nick Blakey… that’ll be a handful.
The danger of having kids in your side is that they can drop their bundle when things go awry. I reckon we saw a little of that from Errol Gulden in this one. His kick across goal was intercepted and cost a goal. From that point on, he really didn’t have a lot of say in the game. Just one touch in the last quarter demonstrates to me that his turnover got to him. Debrief with the boy, Horse!
Add to his disappearance the games of Sam Wicks and Dylan Stephens, and you can see how the Swans were unable to get the game back on their terms.
Good to see Dean Kent turn up and answer some of his critics. He has been average in some games this season, but three goals against quality opposition is a tremendous way to stand up and let everyone know you belong. I say that because a couple of weeks ago, I said he’d make a good country footballer. Shut up HB… right?
And on that note, I will.
The Saints get Geelong next week… that’ll be interesting. They either play their guts out, get a win and stay alive in the finals hunt. Or they fall to Geelong and it’s season over.
As for the Swans, they SHOULD pick themselves up and beat North Melbourne, but at this stage of the season, you cannot take anyone lightly. I would not be surprised to see them rest Franklin for this game, whether he feels as though he is fine, or not. Records be damned – there are finals afoot!
Massive thanks to our members – as always. You guys enable me to do this work, and I appreciate your support greatly. – HB