Melbourne v St Kilda – JUST The Big Questions

 

 

The Dees once again flexed their muscles, putting on a show in the first half to bring the Saints to their knees in a game that was meant to test them.

It was an early statement from Melbourne, who beat the Saints in every facet of the game through the first quarter and a half, with the lead ballooning out to more than seven goals before St Kilda started to fight back. By that stage, it was far too late. Working uphill against these Demons is a monumental task.

The Dees had winners all over the park, controlling the tempo and preventing any clean ball movement from their opponents. It was only following the main break that St Kilda managed to break the shackles and start breaking even.

Unfortunately, breaking even with a team once you’ve fallen so far behind is a road to nowhere.

St Kilda had a brief flurry late in the game, and as much as Anthony Hudson attempted to talk up their chances, anyone with any sense knew the game was dusted way earlier – Melbourne were on cruise control. In the end, the Dees ran out 38-point winners and moved to 8-0, clearly the best team in the league to start the season.

Here are The Mongrel’s Big Questions.

 

 

DID BRETT RATTEN LEARN NOTHING FROM LAST WEEK?

Ed Langdon was tagged last week by Hawthorn’s Finn Maginness. Though the youngster had nowhere near the skill of Langdon, he was able to match him aerobically, and as a result, the Demons’ best runner was unable to have an impact on the game.

Sure, there were other factors at play, but when you look at the way Hawthorn corralled Langdon and forced him to work for his touches, it soon became apparent that the majority of his touches were going to come with no one else around him. Take them out of play and you restrict the impact of the running man.

But if Brett Ratten learnt that lesson, he is probably a lot like myself in Italian class. By the time the lesson was over, I couldn’t remember what the hell was going on.

“HB e sempre in ritardo”

Look, I know that means I am always late, but I always suspected the teacher was insulting me, as well.

Langdon was permitted to run free, up and down the wing, with little to no pressure on him for the first three quarters until the Saints decided to put some physical pressure on. The horse, and Langdon for that matter, had already bolted by that stage.

If you view this on replay, watch how many times he is involved in defensive fifty, only to bob up again as the play reaches attacking fifty. He outruns the play!

The Demon runner finished with 39 disposals for the game. 29 of them came uncontested, with Langdon all by himself out wide, relishing the space he was afforded. I don’t enjoy taking potshots at coaches – their jobs are bloody hard – but the decision to play Langdon on his merits was a complete brain fart from Ratten – a stupendous error in judgment that caused his team to be cut to ribbons on the outside.

Let’s say Langdon got off the chain for ten uncontested touches with someone breathing down his neck – his 20 touches would have still hurt, but his 39 touches were a death blow. He ran at 80% efficiency, worked both ends of the ground, and did so much unrewarded running that the club should name a half-marathon after him. Both Dan McKenzie and Mason Wood were charged with the responsibility of him at different times, but the 54 touches from Langdon and James Jordon far outweighed the 33 touches McKenzie and Wood managed.

Hawthorn handed Brett Ratten the template to restrict Langdon. He chose to ignore it, and St Kilda supporters should be asking the question – why?

 

SO, WHERE ARE THE WEAKNESSES OF THIS DEMON TEAM? HOW DO YOU BEAT THEM?

There is a balance to this Melbourne team that sits perfectly at the moment. There is equal parts defence and attack. There are equal parts inside and outside work. There are equal parts hard work and finesse. And there are equal parts aggression and skill.

Not many clubs can balance these aspects successfully for a long period – occasionally, they get it right for one game and they are lauded for the way they picked a team apart. Yet this Melbourne outfit does precisely that week-in and week-out.

Players know their roles, and whilst they are happy to stray into another lane in order to help a teammate or do what is right for the team, they quickly shift gears and don’t go off chasing the footy when they know they have teammates that are better-positioned and more capable of doing the job.

I touched on it above – have a look at Ed Langdon in this game. I know I rambled on about him in the opening section, but watch the way he maintains his space. He is always the release man, ready to receive from a teammate at a stoppage or in a contest. He doesn’t think he is some type of midfield bull. He doesn’t try to run through tackles – he does what he is good at and does it better than anyone in the game.

Switch to Charlie Spargo. Whilst he can hit the scoreboard and hurt teams that way, it is his pressure around the footy that stretches teams. Multiple efforts in the same chain see him put pressure on two consecutive players and impact the opposition’s ability to kick accurately to their forwards.

Why not jump over to Angus Brayshaw? Now in the role of half-back, he zones off at the perfect moment to intercept the footy and knows when his opponent is leading to places the ball is simply not going to go. It often bemuses me how forwards think they’re genuinely leading their man away from the footy when they’re only taking themselves out of the play. Angus knows this, as well, and he just lets them go while he concentrates on guarding the dangerous area. 11 intercepts for the game tell us he is doing that quite well, right?

So, how d you beat a team so drilled and so well-oiled that they roll through games with barely a clunky gear change?

There is no easy way to beat this team. It all comes down to hard work.

You have to close Langdon down and punish him physically – bumpers up at every opportunity. You have to come in and lay a big shepherd on Spargo as he strains to reach the second tackling target – make him think twice, or at least look over his shoulder. You have to come over the top and remind Angus Brayshaw exactly why he has to wear that helmet – you may have a duty of care as a player, but you have a duty of care to your damn team to make sure there are no easy intercepts, as well. You have to be ruthless. You have to be cold-hearted. And you have to be driven.

Right now, I am not sure any team is as ruthless, cold-hearted, and driven as the mob in red and blue. It makes it pretty bloody hard to beat them.

And I reckon they know it, too.

 

HOW DID THE BATTLE OF THE TWO-HEADED RUCK MONSTERS GO?

Am I the only one disappointed that Rowan Marshall has not flat-out demanded the number one ruck role at St Kilda just yet? Is he waiting for Paddy Ryder to retire?

All around the league, young rucks come in, learn for a while and then seize the number one spot. The young lion takes over and the old lion either accepts a place as the secondary ruck, or moves on to to somewhere he can occupy the top spot for a while longer.

Paddy Ryder still resides in the number one spot at St Kilda, and I am at the point where I am questioning Rowan Marshall’s desire to take the number one role as his own. He is 26 – he is no baby. And though he managed to snag a couple of goals in this game, his return of eight disposals, 12 hit-outs and two goals (his only two score involvements) speaks of a man that plays like a boy.

Ryder was solid, winning 19 of the 39 ruck contests he contested and snagging a goal along the way, but in a contest where the Saints needed their big men to really elevate their game, it was the Dees with a 15-11 centre clearance advantage.

Gawn was not dominant, so the Saints duo get a pass, but I get the feeling that more was expected of them in this game. I know I expected more.

 

WHAT WAS MAX KING DOING WRONG?

Hmmm, I don’t want to foist blame on him for the predicament he found himself in, but how many times did you spot him standing flat-footed, calling for the footy with Steven May standing right next to him?

Hell, he may as well have been standing next to a block of flats, trying to match strength with it.

Have you ever tried to leap at the footy, or if you play basketball, leap for a rebound with someone leaning into you? You can’t do it – that’s why all good basketball coaches preach that you have to put a body on the good rebounders – you cannot allow them a clean jump at the ball.

That is what Steven May did to the big forward in this one. KIng was grounded, his biggest asset taken away from him by a very intelligent and effective defender. The contested grabs that King did manage to hold seemed to surprise him – hell, one of them surprised me as it looked like King had no idea where the footy was at that point.

And when it wasn’t May piling on the pressure, Harrison Petty and Jake Lever closed ranks to provide a pack so dense (as in thick with people… not inhabited by thick people) that King was rendered as useful as one of those balloon men you see outside vacuum cleaner stores.

Where were his hard leads up to the wing? Where was he running hard to stretch May and make him work hard?

They were nowhere to be seen, as King and his midfielders looked to bomb long to a Melbourne defence that ate up close to every chance that came their way.

 

HOW DO YOU SUM UP THIS MELBOURNE TEAM?

I’ll give you one word to use – JUST.

They JUST work harder.

If there is a loose ball, you don’t get to meander over and collect it. You have to contest. They make you contest. They turn 70/30 situations into true 50/50s

They JUST make better position

At stoppages, in defence, up forward, it seems that positioning is too often dictated by the Demons. It is as though the game belongs to them and they’re letting you play.

They JUST read the play better

How many times do you see them with loose men, whilst the opposition end up in contests when they collect the footy?

They JUST trust each other more

When one Demon is in a contest, the others immediately move to position for the next disposal. Such is the trust they have that their teammate will win the footy. When you play with the complete and utter trust of those around you, you play infinitely better.

As a result, they are JUST a cut above in every facet of the game at the moment.

8-0 and being reigning premier says it all.

JUST… too good.

 

WHAT IS THE ONE THING CLAYTON OLIVER NEEDS TO REMOVE FROM HIS GAME?

First, some good stuff.

Clayton Oliver is one of the best players in the league right now. He has arguably the best set of hands at ground level you’ll find, and every aspect of his game has continued to improve over the last couple of years.

Hell, his kicking was maligned by media figures and Dees fans, alike, but he seems to have cleaned that right up. He has amazing vision, makes great decisions with the footy in-hand, and punishes teams on the turnover.

But he stages.

He is seemingly fine throwing himself to the ground to milk a fifty-metre penalty and really, it is getting to the point where it is becoming embarrassing. The way he went down after he ran at Zak Jones, and Jones gave him a forearm to the chest in the last quarter screamed “flop” and if the AFL is serious about stamping this crap out of the league, it has to make a stand when stars of the game do it, especially if they have a history of it.

I am sure this won’t sit well with some Dees fans – you have every right to worship the bloke, considering the level he has aided this club getting to, but we are now at the point where Clarry is garnering a reputation as being a diver. You’ve heard opposition fans speak derogatorily about Matthew Lloyd, right? Hell, the ones who weren’t booing Adam Goodes due to racism claim they were doing it because he was a diver. Is that what you want for Oliver, too?

“Oh yeah, he was an excellent player, but he used to dive all the time.”

No one wants that asterisk attached to one of their champions, and Clayton Oliver will go down as a champion of this club. He needs to drop the theatrics, and just as importantly the umpires need to stop falling into his crap and penalising him when he tries it.

I saw Zak Jones having a word with him right after Oliver threw himself to the deck. I reckon he may have been echoing my exact thoughts – “you’re too good a player to pull that shit.”

I really hope Clayton works that out of his game. And for the record, the tunnelling of Ed Langdon that led to the incident was pretty ordinary from Jones, too.

 

 

HOW DID YOU RATE JACK STEELE’S GAME?

Hmmm, he was combative, but if we are rating the top mids on the ground, he would come in about fifth or sixth.

Steele is a worker, but his disposal in this one was poor, often banging the footy on his boot without looking, and hoping for the best. Three of his nine first-quarter touches ended up as turnovers as he was one of the main culprits in kicking the ball high, long, and directionless inside 50, giving Max King little hope of contesting.

If he was working on the premise that gaining territory was his number one option, then I understand, but in the early going in particular, I don’t think I saw him lower his eyes once, giving the Melbourne defenders every opportunity to kill contests.

 

SO, WHO DID DO THEIR JOBS FOR THE SAINTS?

Tim Membrey did a good job keeping Jake Lever occupied and aside from his brain fade after the quarter-time siren, played a solid game.

Seb Ross had a few good moments and was pretty good in the clinches.

Brad Hill got better as the game progressed, but I hated seeing him take his eyes off the ball with Clayton Oliver coming the other way in the second quarter.

Jack Sinclair was good, but often looked to be more concerned with running out of defence than running back in to clog things up.

And though he did not deliver in front of goal, Mason Wood did some nice things from the wing.

 

AND STILL…

Another Demon win, another Midfield Championship Belt defence for Christian Petracca.

That takes him to eight successful title defences, now just one behind Scott Pendlebury, who is third, all-time. The Dees have West Coast next week, so I expect him to retain then, as well.

Ditto for Max Gawn, who has held the Mongrel Ruckman Title Belt since last season, and has 11-straight defences. That puts him in third overall, behind Sam Jacobs, who had an amazing (and very lucky) run in 2018, and Brodie Grundy, whose 2019/20 seasons saw a very long reign.

These columns will be updated this week, but I cannot see any player on the West Coast list currently that is capable of beating either of these blokes.

 

THE HARMES WAY

Prior to James Harmes running around for the Dees, the last bloke I can remember with that surname was Wayne Harmes, who carved teams up from half-back and ran through anyone dumb enough to stand in his way.

He was part of the Carlton teams that ran roughshod over the competition in the late seventies and early eighties, and has the premiership medals (and a Norm Smith Medal) to prove it. The one thing I remember about Harmes, being a youngster at the time, is that he was physically imposing. I saw him on Lygon street when I was around six… he looked like the hulk.

James Harmes may not strike as intimidating a figure as Wayne Harmes, but he plays the game as hard as anyone, and if I was running one way and he was running the other, you may mistake me for Brad Hill.

Harmes plays the game hard. He runs hard, he tackles hard, and he reaps the rewards of his hard work. His story is a great one – taken in the 2014 rookie draft, he has climbed the AFL ladder on desire and hard work. So many of the little things he does are brushed over, or completely ignored by commentators as they look for the next time they can yell into the microphone. The bodywork, the little knock-ons, the physical pressure… Harmes is the ultimate team man, doing the work without needing praise heaped upon him.

The thing is, the Demons have a few who are of that mindset. It’s what makes them so damn good!

It was great to see Harmes get on the end of a couple of goals late in the piece – that is the reward a player like him deserves. Though I am sure he is recognised by the club internally, he gets nowhere near the level of credit you’d like in the media.

But we see you, James. And we like what you’re about here, at The Mongrel.

 

DID ANYONE SPOT JADE GRESHAM AFTER QUARTER TIME?

Looked like he was ready to tear the game apart in the first quarter and then…

… word has it he was last seen hanging around Angus Brayshaw, Jayden Hunt, and Jake Bowey. They’re pretty unsavoury types – best avoided if you’re a smaller forward. Just ask Jack Higgins.

 

And that’ll wrap this one up. A clinical win by the Dees, doing the work early and setting up their win with a wonderful first quarter and a half. Saints fans can take a bit out of the third, but for mine, by the time we got there, we were just playing out time until the Dees were declared the winners.

 

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