The third game of the second last round of the 2021 AFL season found Geelong and St Kilda doing battle at GHB… GMA… GMB… Kardinia Park, a venue that has seen the Saints leave winless at every attempt this century. However, as news filtered through over the last 24 hours or so that Cats defender Tom Stewart had injured himself at training and would at least be missing this match (later updates indicate that he will now be missing the rest of the season), joining the likes of Mitch Duncan, Zach Tuohy and Gary Rohan on the sidelines, I reckon the Saints might have felt like this was a great chance to break their hoodoo. Their form since a meek showing against the Bulldogs in round 10 has been pretty good (save for one bad night against the Blues), and with a chance at finals still on the line, at least mathematically, they had a lot to play for.
Their opponents, Geelong, had a lot to play for too, of course. Following the Bulldogs upset loss to Hawthorn earlier today, a win would see the Cats ascend to top spot on the ladder, if only temporarily, and set up a top-of-the-table do-or-die battle for the McClelland Trophy next week against Melbourne.
With the stakes set suitably high, it was the rampaging Saints who seemed to rise to the occasion early on, kicking the first five goals of the game. The Cats defence had their hands full trying to stop Max King, while midfielders Jack Steele, Luke Dunstan, Brad Crouch and Zak Jones consistently beat their better-credentialed rivals to keep surging the ball forward. Slowly but surely, however, the Cats fought their way back into the game, overpowering the Saints through the middle of the ground and possessing more dangerous options in their forward 50 than Meryl Streep has had Oscar nominations (it’s 21, I checked). Their resulting victory sees the Cats placed perfectly for yet another assault on September, while the loss finds the Saints in a position that has become all too familiar – watching on as other sides try for their shot at glory.
Without further ado, here are my four points.
- The Three-Headed Monster
Before the game today, I thought that the result would be decided by the impact of the big three Cats forwards – Tom Hawkins, Jeremy Cameron and Esava Ratugolea. They haven’t played together very much (today was Cameron’s 11th game for the season, while it was Ratugolea’s 13th), and with this being Cameron’s first game back since the Cats’ Round 16 encounter against the Bombers, it figured to be a pretty late dress rehearsal for a forward structure they may take into the finals.
Early on, it looked like the Cats forward line might have been one tall too many, as they were constantly cut open by the Saints on transition. In fact, in the first twenty minutes of the match, all three had barely registered a disposal, while at the other end the Saints had piled on five goals. With the likes of Jordan Clarke in the stands, I wondered at this point if Chris Scott and his assistant coaches may have felt like they would have preferred his run rather than an extra marking option in front of the ball. Of course, to lay the blame of the Cats slow start at the feet of their three tall forwards is a little like saying a grizzly bear would make a good pet – demonstrably and unequivocally wrong.
As the Cats midfielders started to gain ascendancy through the middle of the ground, it was noticeable how much they were targeting Cameron and Hawkins over Ratugolea. Both Cameron and Hawkins have won Coleman Medals (in fact, they’ve won the last two), and possess that x-factor charisma that great tall forwards have. It’s this charisma that forces a midfielder to check where they are when running through the middle of the ground. They may not get passed to every time, they may not take the mark every time they are passed the ball, but you can be assured that when any Geelong midfielder gets the ball forward of centre, they’re gonna have a look for Cameron and Hawkins.
I don’t reckon the same can be said for Ratugolea. It might be the case of the Cats having too many options, but he seemed lost in the forward line today – even before he got injured. He finished the game with three disposals and six hit-outs, and looked completely out of sorts. As we approach the end of the season and other teams start to take stock of their forward prospects, I wonder if Ratugolea and Geelong might come together and agree that his best option is ply his trade elsewhere. Either that, or maybe his future is in the ruck? (Don’t worry, I’ll talk about the ruck battle later on).
With regards to the other two, Hawkins and Cameron, I thought they were both instrumental in Geelong getting back into the game, and then keeping control. Cameron finished the game with 13 disposals, seven marks (three contested) and four goals in a performance that would have Cats supporters dreaming of September glory, while Hawkins was the superstar we all know him to be. Yes, there was a tackle that he might lose some sleep over in the coming days, but his ability to fight his way back into a game that looked for the entire first half to be one that would see him goal-less for just the second time this season, was nothing short of inspirational. He ended the game with 14 disposals, four marks, nine score involvements and three goals, proving that he still has a few good years left yet.
All in all, I think it’s fair to say that the impact of the Cats tall forwards did decide the result of the game. When the Saints mids were on top and they controlled the flow of the ball, they could get back in numbers to help out their defence and force the Cats forwards to chase rather than lead. However, as the Cats mids started to take over, their forwards, namely Cameron and Hawkins, proved themselves to be the most threatening tall forward duo of any in the top eight. If the Vats are to salute this year, it will surely be with Cameron and Hawkins inside 50.
There was one match-up today that threatened to turn the game into a one-sided shellacking. Before I get to it, I have to say that I think Chris Scott is a fantastic coach. He has only missed finals once as coach, he’s won a premiership and often seems to have his team peaking at the right time of the year (and this year is no exception). However, if he has one downfall, I reckon it’s that he might out-think himself. For example, the 2019 Qualifying final against Collingwood – Scott decides to drop his number one ruckman just they’re about to face one of the best ruck’s in the game, Brodie Grundy. What happens? Grundy destroys Geelong, having 21 disposals, 47 hit outs and seven clearances as Collingwood go on to upset the Cats and win by 10 points.
There are other examples, but suffice to say Scott has an ability to try and be a little cute when it comes to match-ups and selections. Today was no different. As I mentioned in the intro, Tom Stewart was missing from the game today (and probably will be for the remainder of the season). He’s an extremely important player in Geelong’s defence, is a great ball-user and just seems to be able to read what is going to happen about five seconds before it does. With him out of the team, and the Saints forward line really reliant on one potentially generational forward, I thought the obvious match-up would have been to send Mark Blicavs to Max King. Blicavs has done jobs like this before, has played on the best tall forwards in the game, and kept them quiet.
Failing that, I thought the only other option would have been to send Lachie Henderson to King. Henderson is an experienced defender who, like Blicavs, has done jobs like this before. But no, Scott opted to go with an ostensibly medium-tall defender in Jack Henry. Now, Henry is a good player, and in fact may become a very good player, but there is no way known that he should be given the role of playing on a 202cm tall forward whose arms threaten to tear satellites out of orbit. If you don’t believe me, watch the first 15 minutes of todays game. If King’s dominance had continued for another thirty minutes, we may have been looking at a double digit haul of goals.
As it was, King seemed to injure himself, going down with what I heard was a groin injury. With him off injured, the Saints seemed to sense that their best chance of winning was gone and Geelong got back into the game. By the time King came back on, the complexion of the game had changed dramatically, and his opponent had too – now Blicavs manned him. King would kick just one more behind for the game.
Cats fans – let me know, do you get annoyed with some of Chris Scott’s choices as coach, or do you figure, ‘hey, he’s got us this far, maybe he is a genius?’. Let me know in the comments.
- The Midfield Battle
There’s a nonsensical phrase that many people use to describe games of footy like today’s that I’d like to use right now – it was a game of two halves. I know, it’s a silly phrase, but I promise there’s a reason I am using it.
At half-time in today’s game, the Saints best midfielder, if not their best player, Jack Steele, had 21 disposals and was completely dominant. He’d had six clearances, including three from centre, and with King hobbled, Steele appeared the Saints best chance at keeping their season alive. He has had an extraordinary year this year, and having only fallen under 30 disposals twice in the last nine weeks, is in aa rich a vein of form as he has ever been in. Through the first half today, he was basically able to do as he pleased, rarely being manned at any contest by an opponent paying more than the most cursory of attention.
The second half, however, was a different story entirely. It looked at times as if the Cats had moved their premier two-way midfielder, Cam Guthrie, onto Steele, and if so, Guthrie deserves commendation. Steele had just nine disposals in the second half, adding only two more clearances to his first half tally. That the Saints were only able to add four goals across the third and fourth quarters should come as no surprise given their primary ball winner was so well held. His game tally of just five tackles (one in the second half) was his equal-lowest this season since the Saints round three loss to Essendon.
I’ll be perfectly honest. I don’t really like Patrick Dangerfield. I don’t like that he left Adelaide in their hour of need, I don’t like that he accentuates contact to the point that even a soap-opera director would tell him to rein it in, but mostly I don’t like him because he’s a bloody good footballer who doesn’t play for my team. And his second half today was all the more infuriating because I have to say good things about him.
Dangerfield’s second half today was extraordinary. Faced with being six-points down at half time, he came out and proved that he is still one of the best players in the competition, and he may very well be one that has a legendary September. Across the final two quarters, ‘Danger’ gathered 19 disposals (14 of which were contested), had four clearances and took five marks – four contested. This stat line in-and-of-itself is brilliant, but it still doesn’t do justice to how balletic he is, how single-minded he can be about winning a contest, how he can be like a wrecking ball when he splits a pack open and darts through a tiny gap, ball in hand.
There’s not much grace to his game, but then again there’s not much grace to the game itself. It’s a balls-to-the-wall, throw-your-weight-around, put-your-head-down-and-run-as-hard-as-you-can type of game. And ‘Danger’ may be one of the best to ever play it. His mark and goal in the last quarter only served to solidify his greatness, and as much as I am going to hate it, as much as I don’t want to admit it, it’s going to be a mark and goal that I think about for a long time to come.
- The Ruck Battle
I certainly didn’t see myself writing this a few hours ago, but I reckon Rhys Stanley won the ruck battle today. In fact, that’s unfair, Rhys Stanley won the ruck battle with no doubt today, and potentially shapes as one of Geelong’s most important players for their upcoming finals campaign. If today is an example of what he will deliver, I’m inclined to tip the Cats for the flag.
Anyone who has seen Stanley play before has seen a performance like this – one where he threatens to be amongst the most dominant ruck-men in the game. He had 16 disposals, five tackles, four marks, six clearances and six score involvements – the sort of stat line that would make someone who hasn’t seen Rhys Stanley before assume that he is an elite footballer. And really, there’s no reason he shouldn’t be. He’s rucking to an elite midfield, he has seemingly no competition for the role, and at 30 years old, is at the peak of his powers.
In many ways, Stanley was the player who got Geelong going today, kicking their first goal and then proceeding to dominate the ruck contest like he has a few times throughout his career. His athleticism seemed to trouble his opponent, Rowan Marshall, as he constantly pushed forward and put Marshall in uncomfortable positions – when Marshall could be bothered to go to those positions, of course. As the Cats gear up for a top-of-the-table clash next week against Melbourne, Stanley should be the player looking forward to it most – it’s not often you get to play on the best in your position one week out from the post-season.
I was pretty disappointed with Marshall’s game today. I know that he has missed some games through injury this year, and today missed his ruck-mate Paddy Ryder, but his team needed him to stand up and he did not deliver. He gathered only nine disposals today to go with 21 hit outs and three clearances, and just seemed to be heavy in the legs in the way that unfit players seem at the end of the season. I hope that he can hit next season at full-tilt, because the Saints need him and Paddy Ryder isn’t getting any younger.
- Looking at the teams from today, I figured that there were eighteen players across both who had their starts at other clubs – ten from the Saints and eight from the Cats. I have nothing else to add here other than that’s pretty interesting, right?
- It was nice to see Dan Hannebery back out playing football. I must admit that I thought this was a strange decision by the Saints selectors to pick him this late in the season, but their year was on the line and he looked pretty good. He fought his way through to get 18 touches, four clearances and three score involvements – not a bad return at all. Hopefully, it’s a sign of what to expect next season.
- Jack Sinclair’s kicking off half-back for the Saints is elite, and they have to try and get the ball in his hands any time they can. His kick inside 50 to nearly find Tim Membrey (only for Membrey to drop an undroppable mark) was incredible, and if I was a leading forward at the Saints I’d be doing anything I can to ensure that he is the guy putting the ball on my chest.
- I’ve made it far too long into this review to not talk about Sam Menegola, so here goes. He was fantastic today, running up and down the wings with a speed that made me think I was watching tennis. He collected 35 disposals, had nine score involvements, nine marks and six inside-50’s and was head-and-shoulders the best player on the ground. For a guy that finds himself at his third club (the first to give him a game), I have to say that it’d be a nice story to see him win a premiership medallion.
- I’m not sure if he’s going to hold his place for the rest of the year, but I really like the look of Sam Simpson. He’s an old head on a young body, looks a great decision maker and exactly the sort of player you want running around the half-forward line.
A great game between adversaries from the 2009 grand final saw a similar result – the Cats winners and the Saints season ending. Next week finds the Cats doing battle with Demons in a top-of-the-table clash, while the Saints host Fremantle in a game that still has a lot on the line.