Surprise!!!

Last week I previewed the big Lions v Swans game as I believed it was the undoubted match of the round. The week before, it was Freo v Carlton that caught my eye and warranted a standalone preview. I’m happy to say that both articles got a very positive response from those who wanted a bit of a deep dive into important games featuring their team.

And looking at this week’s fixture, we have another top-four clash on our doorstep.

Might be time to head on over, unlock the security door, and let them the teams on in for a soecial Mongrel Preview.

So, with that in mind, if you like your dives deep ad your big games covered, then you’ve come to the right spot.

But if you’d rather a drip-fed approach to your footy previews, maybe try the AFL site. They’ll give you about 45 seconds of analysis either side of a gambling ad. No harm, no foul.

 

 

THE SETUP

The Dees continue to roll along. Last week saw them experience a couple of speed bumps, causing things to get a little uncomfortable against the Hawks, but you never quite felt the game was beyond their control. The Hawks came at them both early and late, but the middle part of the game belonged to the Dees.

Still, a ten-point margin may give cause to think a dip in form is upon them, right?

Oh, ye of little faith…

The Saints blew an opportunity to g to 6-1. Selling a home game to play in Cairns may have made the bottom line look better, but the one-point loss to the Power is the type of result that haunts teams at the end of Round 23, and could be a decisive factor in the direction of their season.

Ask any St Kilda supporter what they think of the decision to trade off a game at Marvel, causing the Power to travel, regardless, and they’ll tell you exactly what they think.

The Saints have a chance to rectify their errors of last week, whilst the Dees have the chance to extend the win streak to 15.

Everyone drops a game sometime, as the Saints found out the hard way in Round Seven. Is this the week the Dees are brought back to Earth? And if so, how does it come about?

Well, that’s what I’m here for. Let’s dive into the crevices and crevasses of the Dees and Saints on Sunday arvo.

 

IS IT TIME FOR ROWAN MARSHALL? OR IS LJ THE RUCK OF THE NEXT GENERATION?

I’m not a very tolerant man, at times. I like things done pretty efficiently, and done well. I don’t think it is too much to ask, particularly when we’re talking about people paid several hundred thousand dollars to do it.

Around 18 months ago, I wrote a column speculating as to who the best ruck in the league will be in five years’ time. It was an ambitious article – I’ll give you that – and it was based on exposed form at that point. Rowan Marshall was the man I choose as the number one ruck by 2025.

How is that looking right now?

Though Marshall is a quality player, and has turned into a very good ruckman, you could argue pretty convincingly that his impact on games is around the same mark it was two years ago. He is playing second fiddle to Paddy Ryder and is not kicking goals at the rate you’d hope for someone spending as much time as he is closer to goal.

Creeping up pretty quickly is the Melbourne relief ruckman. With athleticism to burn and a mind for the game, what we continue to see from Luke Jackson is a ringing endorsement of why the Demons took him at number three in the 2019 AFL Draft.

If we redrafted right now, is he the number one pick?

His ability to present as a marking option around the ground has made him a vital cog in the Demon machine. He is still just 20 years old and looks like he is becoming the dominant ruckman of, not just the next five years, but the next ten.

So, where does that leave the now-26-year-old Marshall?

It leaves him with something to prove, and the opportunity to do just that.

This game could serve as a defining moment in the career of Marshall. Is he content playing backup to Paddy Ryder, then moving into a number one ruck role for a few years before he starts to be transitioned out, himself? Or does he want to put his damn hand up and be more than just one head in a two-headed ruck combination?

I really rate Marshall. He can clunk marks, kick goals, and win clearances, but against the might of the Demons, he will have to be at his absolute best. The Saints will need him to be at his best.

On the flip side, Jackson is returning from an enforced week off due to H&S protocols and will be eager to continue his rapid development. Marshall has six years on him, yet there is no stark difference in where they’re at. Both are playing second ruck and moving forward. Both are below average in both hit-outs won and hitouts to advantage, but only one has years of development in front of him before he reaches his full potential.

As I said, I am not a very tolerant man at times – I want to see Marshall producing big games on a big stage against quality opponents. Against the best team in the land, with the best ruckman and the best backup ruckman, the challenge is before him right now. Is Rowan Marshall going to be THE best ruck by the time 2025 rolls around, or is he just going to be going about his business, wondering how Luke Jackson ascended so high, so quickly?

I guess we’ll soon find out.

 

IS JACK STEELE THE MAN TO STAND UP TO THE DEMONS POWER MIDFIELD?

As some of you may know, I have a little thing I invented called the Midfielder’s Championship Belt. Each week, the champion defends against other mids he is playing against.

The catch is, to become the champ, not only must you turn in a better performance than the champ, but your team must also win. With the Dees undefeated, Christian Petracca has enjoyed seven straight title defences and remains the man.

Is Jack Steele the man to put a stop to it and become the man, himself?

In contrast to Petracca, Steele’s game is understated. Petracca does the explosive stuff, bursting from packs and kicking long inside 50. Steele is more measured, doing the grunt work and playing a more accountable role. This is evidenced by their inside 50 and tackling numbers

Petracca is +3.7 inside 50 deliveries per game. Steele is +4.3 tackles per game.

But can he play that accountable role on the champ and beat him into submission?

The St Kilda midfield matches up on the Dees quite well when it comes to the top two. Brad Crouch is no slouch (ooooh poetry), and in concert with Steele, should be able to match the Demons’ intensity at the coal face. It is vital that these two, with Seb Ross, and Zak Jones, do not permit either of the Oliver/Petracca combination to get goal side at centre bounce contests.

We’ve seen what can happen.

It’s not pretty.

For the Saints to curtail the Dees’ midfield, they need to play a collective defence in the middle that corrals and forces the Dees backwards when they win a clearance. That means always remaining goal-side of their respective match-up. Players like James Harmes, Jack Viney, and Tom Sparrow can all come in and add to the mix, but it is the big two at Melbourne that make the game plan work. They get great service from Max Gawn and they punish teams, time and time again.

If the Dees midfield gets a hold of the Saints, well… we’ll explore what occurs next a little further down the article.

 

Mongrel Midfield Championship Title Belt – Can Anyone Stop Petracca?

 

DOES ED LANGDON COP A TAG?

What’s this? Flying out of left field… it’s HB’s hot take of the afternoon.

Buckle up, people… this is a good one.

Who is the best runner in the competition right now? It’s Ed Langdon, right?

But what we saw in Round Seven was that if you have an elite runner of your own, you can largely negate his influence and take him out of the game. Hawthorn did it with Finn Maginness, and if the Saints are within two goals late into the last quarter, they’d start to like their chances. Once things get a little frantic, anything can occur.

But who has the tank to run all day with the Melbourne wingman and make him accountable going the other way? Daniel McKenzie could do the job – he is an excellent runner and is not the usual outside player that inhabits the wing. There is a hardness about him that many wingman lack.

How about Seb Ross? He’s been known to put in some defensive work from time to time, and also likes to dance naked at the local club. Okay, one of those statements is completely false – I’ll leave it up to you to work out which. Besides, I’ve liked what Ross has done around the contested footy at points in 2022 a bit too much to abandon what he is doing for the Saints.

But how about… Bradley Hill?

“Get the hell outta here, HB. You’re nuts!”

Hear me out! I am not a crackpot. I may be many things – an idiot, a pig, a crackpot, but I am not a porn star!

Ed Langdon is no contested ball beast. If he does not get the footy on the outside, he basically doesn’t get the footy. He is averaging 7.4 contested touches per game, but 15.9 uncontested. Hill’s numbers off half-back are not too dissimilar. He is at 5.4 and 14.3.

Are the Saints willing to sacrifice what Hill is giving them in order to prevent the run and carry from Langdon, or do they rate the touches Hill is able to gather higher than they rate those of Langdon. The thing is, when Langdon struggled in Round Seven, the Dees did as well. I half expect Simon Goodwin to redeploy Angus Brayshaw to the wing position across from Langdon this week, just to give the team a little more stability. Dylan Moore tore James Jordon up last week – I doubt he would have been given the same leeway from Brayshaw.

So, would you trust Hill to play such a role? Would you back him to stick to the task and ensure Langdon is taken out of the game?

Hill has been up and down his whole tenure with the Saints – more down than up, actually. To see him knuckle down in a role such as this and contribute in a manner that he has not done in his career to this point, would be a nice form of payback.

 

ARE THE DEES JUST TOO BIG AND TOO STRONG UP FORWARD?

At times, I struggle to understand the potency of the Melbourne forward line.

When you look at them, there is no Jeremy Cameron-type. There is no Tom Hawkins, or even a tyro like Max King. They are just good at what they do in every facet of the game. Not exceptional – Ben Brown is slow, Tom McDonald drifts out of games, Sam Weideman goes missing, Bayley Fritsch is opportunistic but not a genuine star. Kysaiah Pickett is all pressure and then… more pressure.

They are the epitome of a collection of players having more currency than the sum of its parts. Like a good jigsaw (not like the shitty 100-piece Disney one I bought my daughter that doesn’t even go together properly!) they fit within a game plan that accentuates their strengths and minimises their weaknesses.

Like five fingers, or six fingers as is the case here, fitting into a glove, the Melbourne forward line all fit perfectly (assuming we find a six-fingered glove).

So, how do the Saints stop them?

You guys know I am a stan for Dougal Howard. Underrated and barely talked about, he is the leading spoiler in the league right now. I reckon he controls whoever he plays on in this one, but it’ll be up to those around him to do their roles and not get bogged down in pure one-on-one contests. That spells trouble for the Saints.

Callum Wilkie is very solid, and will likely slot in as the matchup for TMac.

Josh Battle makes a nice third tall that can double as a runner/rebounder, and Ben Paton’s return from that horrible broken leg has been way better than anyone had the right to hope for. Part of me wants to see him give Bayley Fritsch the business, but people often do that, only to see Fritsch get off the hook and finish with four goals.

The answer to the question of how to stop this Melbourne forward line lies not in what the defence can do, but in the section on the midfielders. Blokes like Steele, Crouch, Ross… and whoever lands the job on Langdon – they simply cannot allow them goal side too often. If you do, you could stack this defence with Danny Frawley, Stephen Silvagni, Geoff Southby and Glenn Jakovich – it won’t make a lick of difference.

Melbourne are so well-drilled and so adept at finding the RIGHT spaces that unless you pressure the ball carrier, they’re going to hurt you.

Sadly for the Saints, that’s exactly what I think will happen if they slip for just ten minutes. It may be the difference in the entire game.

 

DO WE GET TO SEE THE TWIN TOWERS STAND TOGETHER THIS WEEK?

I don’t know if you’ve felt the same way, but all season long, I don’t think we have seen this duo perform at their collective best. Steven May has been enormous, but Jake Lever has been in and out of the side due to injury and the dreaded H&S protocols, leaving a two-headed defensive monster with just one head.

Actually, scrap that – too many people have forgotten what Christian Salem added to this team last year – it was a three-headed monster, which is now down to two. The return of Jake Lever last week was relatively subdued, and it would be reasonable to think that he may not be back to 100% as yet, which would explain why we have seen such a lift from May.

So, what do you do to exploit this?

Lever is a match-up dependant player, but the sad fact for other teams is that more often than not, he manages to get the exact match-up he wants. And once he gets that, he can float in over the top to help May, Petty, Tomlinson, Smith, or whoever else the Dees have slotted into defence whenever his own match-up decides to make himself redundant by leading to places he cannot possibly impact the contest. You have to make Lever accountable and looking at the St Kilda list going into this game, the Dees will have to combat some tall timber at times. Is this enough to make him work?

Harrison Petty has quickly become an indispensable part of the Demons’ back six. Or at least as indispensable as any of the others. He will likely take either of Max King or the resting Rowan Marshall, leaving a tantalising clash between Jake Lever and Tim Membrey on the cards.

Simon Goodwin, because he is not an idiot, will likely look to avoid this clash, and have someone like Trent Rivers do some time on Membrey, whilst he gives Lever the freedom to operate in a more attacking sense, but should Membrey be able to get off the chain, suddenly, the Melbourne defence is under pressure. If he is getting free in and around the 50, Goodwin may be forced to use Lever as more of a stopper than a floater. That means contests are not as often interrupted or won for the Dees, and the Saints’ small men can come into the game at ground level.

Jack Higgins, Dan Butler, and perhaps Jade Gresham – they are all capable of blasting a game open. They’ll have Jake Bowey, Angus Brayshaw, and perhaps either of Jayden Hunt and Tom Sparrow dropping back. Beating those blokes is no easy task in and of itself, but if the St Kilda talls cannot break even or win their contests, the little men will quickly be taken out of the game. If the ball isn’t hitting the deck, what good are they?

Last week, Hawthorn seemed to place additional pressure on Steven May as he contested in the air. Whether it was a late spoil or some additional bodywork, allowing him to take intercept marks was not something Hawthorn permitted easily. Sure, they gave a couple of free-kicks away in the process, but they also made a few timely spoils, which opened up the game for their smalls. The Saints need to do the same and not give May easy access to the footy.

I watch a lot of footy, and May is as important to the Dees as any player is to any team in the league. Get him on the back foot and you get the Dees on the back foot.

 

NOT CHECKING BACK IN

Currently, Luke Dunstan has not been named in the team to take on the Saints. What a shame.

This was his chance to prove his old coach wrong.

I’m not sure how many of you have seen or read interviews with Dunstan, but not longer after signing with the Dees, he was asked what the issue was at the Saints – he was quite honest about it, stating that Ratts didn’t rate him.

That had to have stung. But that sting may have been enough to drive him to make a big difference in this contest.

It is almost the perfect scenario for Dunstan. His former team is coming off a crushing loss. His current team is undefeated. To walk out there and play a big role in sending the Saints out of the top four… what better way to send a message to Brett Ratten that he got it wrong?

Sadly, it looks like we’re not going to see it, but I do secretly hope for a late change and for Dunstan to check back in.

 

SO, WHERE IS THE MATCH WON?

At the MCG, mate. That’s where it’s being played.

Brilliant.

I’ve touched on it several times, but the middle is so vital in this game. I reckon by the end of the first quarter, we will have a good understanding of which way the game is headed. If Melbourne get the break and run toward goal directly from the centre bounces, the Saints are not in this contest. If they are forced to go the long way and the St Kilda defence can be bolstered by numbers to rebound effectively, we may see them make a stand and challenge the champs.

Between Marshall and Ryder, you’d want to see the Demons’ “get out of jail” marking targets cut out of the game. If Gawn and LJ starting clunking marks to open the game up, the run and spread of the Demons will wash over the St Kilda defence like a red and blue wave.

And finally, there is this bloke names Clayton Oliver.

Christian Petracca gets the headlines – he is a star and a Norm Smith Medallist. Max Gawn is the premiership captain. But Clayton Oliver has just about the cleanest hands I have seen in the last 20 years. You have blokes in history like Greg Williams who made a living out of not fumbling – Clayton Oliver is that type of player… only he doesn’t whack people as often. There is a young bloke at GWS who is similar in terms of his contested work, but no one has the complete package (yes, he has improved his kicking) like Oliver.

I rate him as the best onballer in the entire league. If he is winning the footy at will, the Saints will be in trouble.

In the wash up, too many things have to right for the Saints to topple the Dees, and travelling back from Cairns (don’t sell your home games, people), I cannot see them upsetting the reigning champs.

Dees by 22.

 

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