It was a gutsy win by the Saints, journeying North to the Giants’ home away from home to take the four points in what could only be termed a dour struggle.

Actually, I could term it quite a few other things, but for the sake of keeping this article as one of those featured in Google News, I’ll go with that PG-version of the contest.

I’m sure we’ve heard the comparison over the years – GWS were like the Ferrari – we’re all familiar with that, right? Then what does that make the Saints in this one?

They were more like a tradie’s ute – a little dinged up, not afraid to get dirty, and at the end of a long day, or night as the case may be, they head home knowing they did the grunt work to get the job done.

And that’s what this St Kilda team is – a team full of grunt. Whether it is the midfield punch of Jack Steele, Brad Crouch and Seb Ross, or the workmanlike defence of Dougal Howard, Cal Wilkie, and Jack Sinclair, this is a side that has had the penny drop in the last 12 months and they are now happy to be the Billy Hoyle to everyone else’s Sidney Dean.

You can look good and lose. The Saints don’t mind looking untidy and winning. Go watch White Men Can’t Jump if you don’t get the reference… I cannot be explaining everything to you.

Let’s jump into The Mongrel’s Big Questions stemming from the game that saw the Saints move to 5-1, and the Giants fall to 1-5.

 

HOW MUCH OF THIS WIN WAS BUILT ON GUTS?

A tonne of it. An absolute tonne.

The Saints had a key forward that simply could not his the ocean from the beach in this one. He was praying it all over the place like Joe Ganino at a swingers convention in the type of performance that many a coach has looked back on and lamented as a reason they lost a close game.

But not this coach, and not this team.

The Saints dug deep in the last quarter. With no legitimate ruck, they were murdered in the hit-outs, 77-19, and as a result, dropped the overall clearances, registering ten fewer than the Giants. However, the extractions from GWS were hardly ever clean, with the desperate Saints lunging at them from all angles to reduce the quality of the disposal. It worked a treat, allowing the defenders and defensive mids a chance to push back into defensive 50 and play the roles of disruptors.

There was a five minute stretch in the last quarter where the Saints took time off the clock and with it, watched GWS’ chances evaporate before their eyes. It was the work of a mature collective of players, absorbing all that GWS could throw at them before finally hitting back to seal the game.

No rucks, no dominant key forwards, and a solid midfield unit opposing them – the 2021 Saints would have rolled over when the Giants came hard at them in the third quarter, but the 2021 Saints are a thing of the past – this St Kilda group has an eye on the future, and at 5-1, finals now look like something that can be openly discussed.

And maybe it might even be time for the words “top four” to be used when we discuss the Saints?

 

WHO SAW THIS VERSION OF JACK HIGGINS COMING?

I’ll give you a hint. His first two initials are HB and his surname sounds a lot like Meyers… probably because it is Meyers.

Here’s an excerpt from the Mongrel Season Preview of the Saints – it was members only, so many of you would not have read it.

Jack Higgins is someone I am legitimately barracking for in 2022, and he is also one that has the potential to have a huge season.

Higgins is a footballer. Others are athletes, or in the side for their height – Higgins is in there because he loves the game and can flat out play it. His sense of the game is matched by few others, and one has to wonder where he’d be had he not had brain surgery a couple of years back – seriously, the bloke has a massive scar on his head you’d normally associate with a car accident victim and he was out there snagging 27 goals for the Saints in 2021.

I reckon a 40-goal season is not beyond him.

It may not be 2022, but at some point, Jack Higgins will thrust his name into All-Australian calculations for a small forward spot.

Truth be told, I didn’t expect too much from Higgins at St Kilda in 2021. Recovering from surgery of that magnitude, I anticipated he’d be in and out of the side, up and down like Joe Ganino’s pants at a high school reunion (he went to a Boys school), and merely preparation for a full-scale assault in 2022.

Well, if 2021 was the entree, I cannot wait to see what Higgins dishes up as the main course.

Eh? Not a bad shout, hey?

With 14 goals from his first five games of the season, Higgins is looking every bit like an elite small forward, and if he were not already in the calculations to be the AA small forward, it is time to insert his name into the conversation. He is elusive, opportunistic, and has such a footy brain. He could have had six or seven in this one, particularly as he handed another one off on the goal line to Brad Crouch to ice the game.

Having Higgins play at this level is aided by the work of Jade Gresham, but we should also look at the lack of offensive output from Dan Butler and be just a little worried. He had only six touches in this game and failed to hit the scoreboard. The hope would be that when Higgins has a down day, Butler steps up. That’s how excellent one-two punches work, and that’s how good sides cover for each other.

 

WHAT WAS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE GAME OF DOUGAL HOWARD AND THE GAME OF SAM TAYLOR

If you’re a stats-person, and let’s face it – we all are to some extent, you may have a bit of a glance at the number of spoils/one-percenters for each of Dougal Howard and Sam Taylor in this game and think they were around about even for the game.

Dougal had 17 big one-percenters, and really, I expect that kind of output from him these days. Sure, 17 is a big number, but it is still five short of Howard’s personal best. He is one of just three men to record 21+ one-percenters in a game, and I am willing to bet that he could give that PB a shake by the end of the season.

At the other end, Sam Taylor was working his backside off to get his first to as many contests as possible. He ended up with 15 one-percenters for the game – absolutely nothing to sneeze at.

Ah…….

Ahhhhhh….

AHHHHHHH….CHOOOOO!

Actually, it was something to sneeze at, if you were someone that genuinely watched the game. You see, the difference between the two defenders was that when Dougal Howard attacked a contest, he killed it – stone cold dead. But when Taylor went up and spoiled, he seemed to have his timing slightly off, meaning that the ball was either only partially spoiled, or did not clear the area, allowing the St Kilda small men to swoop and keep the play alive.

Taylor’s inability to control the aerial contests to the level we’re used to seeing from him meant that Jack Higgins was able to capitalise at ground level, and though he missed his fair share of shots early in the piece, it was his work off the spills that set St Kilda up.

I should specify that this is not a hit job at all on Taylor – he is a great defender, and when people have called him “one of the best YOUNG defenders in the game”, I have been quick to correct them and remove the word “young” from the equation, but I don’t think he will be satisfied with his inability to crash the packs and send the ball rocketing out of defence as a result. Howard was able to do it – multiple times, in fact, but Taylor seemed to struggle to make sweet contact in this one, and it cost his team.

Throw in the seeming confusion about whether to take an intercept mark or spoil from Taylor, and you had one excellent defender looking as though he was master of his domain. And then you had Sam Taylor looking like he thought he did not belong. He does… but he played as though he felt like an imposter.

 

HOW DOES JACK STEELE DO WHAT HE DOES AND I SOMEHOW MISS HALF OF IT?

There are players who manage to get under my guard here and there, and chief amongst them would be Jack Steele.

Sometimes after a game, I will sit and peruse the stats to see where they match up with my observations, and I know this may decrease the already-low level of respect you have for me, but there are times I look at Jack Steele’s numbers and I try to remember what I saw from him that really stood out…

… and I draw a complete blank.

If anything, I seem to remember his tackling, and his pressure acts more than I remember his offensive output, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but in terms of recognition, it isn’t a great thing, either.
The more I think about it, offensively, Steele strikes me as a jack-of-all-trades. He does everything really well, but doesn’t have that specialised weapon that stands out against the rest.. His tackling is wonderful but that is a defensive trait. Offensively, he just seems to fit right in with whatever the Saints require of him.

Crouch not getting clearances? Steele will pick up a couple.

Outside runners not delivering well inside 50? No probs – Steele is on the case.

So, I suppose I throw this one to you guys, and it’s a genuine question – what should I be looking for when I watch Jack Steele play? How can I truly appreciate what he does when my feeble, distracted mind can barely remember what I ate for a snack about ten minutes ago (it was some sort of crackers Mrs Mongrel foolishly left on the table. They’re now gone).

Help an old fella out. I know he does everything well, but what does he do best in your opinion? What are the things you see from him that make you nod and smile? You tell me, and I will be watching for them.

 

DO SOME SAINTS FANS OWE SEB ROSS AN APOLOGY?

I listen to you guys. I read what you write and hear what you say, and the target of some pretty savage online sledging over the past couple of years has been Seb Ross.

Yet, here we are, the first game of Round Six done and dusted, and Ross looks like a man completely settled in his role at the club, and is working his way back to the form that carried him to two Trevor Barker Medals.

At 24.2 touches per game, and with seven clearances and nine score involvements in this one, Seb Ross is once again an integral part of the St Kilda machine as they continue to impress.

Look, I can understand the frustration the Saints fans felt with Ross in 2020/21 – I watched the same games as them, and at times it looked as though we were watching a player simply going through the motions, but in 2021, it is as though Ross senses something about this team and wants nothing more than to be a part of it. He was on the chopping block last season – at least in the eyes of the supporters, but he turned his back on any potential suitors (or maybe there wasn’t any?) to re-sign with the Saints.

And now, he is paying dividends.

Currently, his combination with Steele and Crouch is working wonderfully well. Ross does not overstep or attempt to be anything he isn’t, but how that dynamic continues once Zak Jones re-enters the fray will be something worth keeping an eye on.

 

DID MATT FLYNN HANDBALL THE GIANTS’ CHANCES AWAY?

After kicking two lovely set-shot goals earlier in the game, Matt Flynn took another excellent contested grab inside 50 and suddenly, it seemed as though his goalkicking confidence completely deserted him.

Of course, this was probably aided by both Harry Himmelberg and Toby Greene crowding around him like seagulls after a wayward chip, looking for the handoff.

Despite defenders in close proximity, Flynn handballed the footy to Himmelberg, who promptly sprayed the shot at goal and not only made the job of the Giants that much more difficult, but also made himself look like a right git for taking the footy off a bloke that had nailed his previous attempts, and was well within his rights to have a shot of his own.

Did he handball the chance away?

Yeah, he did, but if Himmelberg kicks the goal, all is forgiven. It’s hard to fault the big guy for trying to do the team thing, so we won’t.

Instead, we’ll blame Himmelberg.

 

HOW DID THE RETURN OF TOBY GREENE GO?

Average, at best, which I suppose, is to be expected when you’ve been parked on your backside watching games for the first five weeks of the season.

Look, whether you think the punishment for Greene’s moment with Matt Stevic was fair, or like me, think it was blown out of proportion, it must make you pause to think that the AFL scheduled his return to footy on a standalone Friday Night game, huh?

It was almost as though they campaigned for the penalty they wanted and then they scheduled things to to get the ratings they needed. Pity neither Toby, nor the game itself, came to the party. In all honesty, it was a horrid game of footy, and considering there were no heroics from Greene in this contest, I kind of feel like the AFL got a bit of whack back.

It is always difficult to front up and play a starring role without so much as a rehearsal, but when you factor in that you have an opponent the likes of Ben Paton shadowing your every step, things become infinitely more difficult. Paton was great in curtailing the dangerous Greene, who, like a good racehorse, will be much better for the run.

 

HOW MUCH CREDIT SHOULD GO TO JOSH BATTLE FOR HIS EFFORTS IN THE RUCK?

A massive amount of credit.

With Jack Hayes out and Rowan Marshall nursing a pretty nasty corkie, Josh Battle was thrust into the ruck, where he “battled” manfully against not only Brayden Preuss, but Matt Flynn as well.

If we are talking simple ruck contests, the stats tell you that Battle was slaughtered. He had one hit out for the entire game, but if all a ruckman did was stand there and tap it, then Brayden Preuss would be the best big man in the caper.

And he is definitely not that.

Battle was sensational around the ground, particularly in the final quarter, where he picked up nine disposals and three clearances, at times stealing the footy from a GWS ruck tap in order to take the footy away.

At 23, Battle has been tried in a number of positions, but relief ruck is probably something he did not expect to become part of his skill set. In truth, it isn’t, but the way he was able to counter his opponents’ strengths and play to his own speak of a highly-intelligent footballer who knows how to capitalise on the weaknesses of his opponent, whilst using his strengths to wallpaper over his own areas of concern.

Three votes – Josh Battle.

 

IS JACK SINCLAIR THE BEST FORWARD TO DEFENCE SWITCH OF THE LAST FEW YEARS?

Hmmm, how far do we go back? Jeremy Howe? Darcy Moore? Brennan Cox?

If we’re looking at the results of the 2022 season, Sinclair would be right up there. He continually finds himself in the right spots., attacks the contest hard, and by god… are those calf implants, ala Buff Bagwell???

Another 25 touches for the mulletted man, playing the sweeper role to great effect. If the season were to draw to a close right now, Sinclair would be head, shoulders, knees, toes, and perhaps two or three other body parts deep in the discussion around All-Australian defenders. Yes, he has been THAT good.

 

HAVE THE GIANTS GOT ANY IDEA WHO THEIR WINGMEN ARE?

Nup – they don’t have much of an idea about anything, it seems.

Answer me this – who are the wingmen at St Kilda?

As I can’t hear you, I’ll answer for you. Right now, they are Daniel McKenzie and Nasiah Wanganeen-Milera. When Jack Billings comes back, he’ll probably slot into one of those roles, whilst Mason Wood also drifts out on the wings.

Now, how about GWS?

I got this.

There’s Lachie Whitfield, who played there today, Xavier O’Halloran, Matt de Boer, Josh Kelly, Jake Riccardi, Daniel Lloyd, Harry Perryman, Nick Haynes, Finn Callaghan, Callan Ward, and Lachie Ash.

There ya go – there are two wingman positions on the field, and at Round Six, we have this bonehead, Leon Cameron, basically throwing shit at the wall to see if it sticks. Ten players in the first six rounds have cycled through the wing positions – I have to ask the following….

How the hell can a player feel settled when he is being shunted around week after week to try new and exciting things that aren’t really all that new, and sure as hell are not exciting?

Leon Cameron must be terrible in bed – just as his partner would be getting used to something and that something may actually work, and there’s Leon, wanting to change positions again. Just settle down, Leon – it’s not a contest to see how many positional changes you can make! Allow your team to get settled and own their roles. and apologise to your missus, as well!

In terms of Cameron’s other moves – Connor Idun playing forward and Lachie Ash covering Brad Hill, he looked like a bit of a genius early on. Idun was potent at half-forward, and despite not hitting the scoreboard, added something to the GWS attack before being thrown back to help out on Jack Higgins.

The most significant win he had on the day was Lachie Ash doing a complete number on Brad Hill. The former Docker and Hawk managed just ten touches for the game, as anything looking like a remotely tough ball to win was one he was not going to have a bar of. That, to me, is the blueprint of how to stop Hill. All you have to do is make him work for his touches in close. He hates that.

All teams should adopt it and make him beat you with something that doesn’t come easy to him.

 

IF THERE WERE ONE PLAYER YOU’D WANT TO REMAIN HEALTHY, WOULD IT BE JACK HAYES?

What a disaster for the big man, firstly injuring the knee, and then almost trying to will the injury away so he could keep living his dream.

In a cruel blow, after so many years of striving to make the big time, Hayes had his knee buckle under him in a contest. He tried to run it out, but when he went to man the mark at the next contest, his knee just appeared to give way under him. That, as anyone who has ever suffered an ACL knows, spells enormous trouble.

Take it from someone well-versed in the nature of these injuries – your knee feels as though it is going to collapse underneath you – it is damn scary, and as I saw him limping as he tried to run the injury off, as though it was a knock, I was rooting for him to be able to do it. And then, to see it give way on him like that… what a heartbreaker.

When that happened to me, I was standing outside the local TAB at about 19 years of age – yeah, I was a classy unit – and I just crumpled to the ground. I thought someone had kicked my leg out from under me, such was the suddenness I went down, but it turns out it was just my body telling me that until I had some surgery, I was cooked.

Hayes didn’t have to wait that long to draw the same conclusion. His night, and pending the diagnosis, his season could be over and I have to tell you, it has left me feeling pretty bloody flat. Whether you’re a Saints fan or not, we all love a good footy story, and that of Jack Hayes started brilliantly in the AFL. At 26, he has good footy ahead of him, and if there is such a thing as good timing for an injury like this, then I guess this would be it – he will be just about ready by Round One next season to get back out there and continue to demonstrate that he belongs at this level.

On a night where the guts and determination of the Saints were on full display, this was the blow that sucked the air out of the St Kilda sails. I hope the Saints offer him an extension – he deserves it. Get well soon, Jack.

 

ANYTHING ELSE TO ADD, MONGREL?

A couple of things.

Callum Wilkie would just about have to be the most underrated defender in the competition right about now. Barely ever puts a foot wrong, and the way he makes ground to close down a marking target should be played to aspiring young defenders s the textbook version of how to make up ground and impact a contest without clumsily giving away free kicks.

Leon Cameron… at 1-5, is he toast?

I think he makes it to the bye, depending on who is available in coaching circles. I mean, what could Al Clarkson do with this GWS list? That’s probably a pipe dream, but right about now, I reckon Giants fans would latch onto just about anything.

Lachie Whitfield… remember when he was the best running player in the game? Pepperidge Farm remembers, but it seems like such a long time ago. I have to ask – when was the last time you saw him break lines, have a bounce and hit a leading target?

It’s been a while, huh?

The dissent rule?

Well, only poor old Daniel McKenzie got hit with it… for motioning toward the ground and indicating the ball hit the deck before the mark was completed. Yep, that’s a paddlin’.

 

And that’ll do.

In the wash-up, this is a stellar win for the Saints on the road. With soldiers down and guns misfiring, they found a way. It wasn’t pretty – hell, it was an incredibly ugly game of footy, but the Saints brought the heat and the Giants could not match it.

St Kilda gets Port Adelaide next week… this is gonna be great. They could kill off Port next week. Meanwhile, GWS get the other South Australian boys, The Crows, and the way Adelaide have been playing, they’d almost go in as favourites.

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