I try to be a good listener. I reckon I am a lot better at it than I am at talking, and depending on who you listen to, I’m probably better at it than I am at writing, as well.
All week, I have been listening, and what I heard were St Kilda supporters utter two words more than any others when talking about the game against the Bombers – Danger Game.
I don’t know exactly what it was – perhaps the fact that the Bombers gave them a 75-point shellacking the last time they met, or maybe it was some weird combination of the Saints being due to play a bad one and the Bombers finally being ready to play a good one, but it was palpable. It was almost as though St Kilda supporters knew this was coming.
There was no confidence from supporters heading into the game, and as the first half unfolded, you could completely understand why.
I should make this abundantly clear – Essendon did not play great footy in the first half. Not by a long shot, but they were a damn sight better than the Saints, who seemed flat-footed, uninspired, and bloody lazy.
The Bombers poked the St Kilda bear a little to see what it would do. The answer was – nothing. It just lay there, and so Essendon stopped poking and started laying into the dozing St Kilda Football Club, opening up a 27-point halftime lead.
The Saints were insipid and heading into the sheds, the Bombers smelled blood. However, following the break, St Kilda had tended their wounds and hit back. And as they did, the Bombers started bleeding a little, too. Just a bit, but the Saints got a taste – it was up to Essendon to once again turn the tables.
In a ripping third quarter, St Kilda asked questions of the Bombers. And like the kingdom of Rohan when the beacons were lit (that’s for you, Mrs Mongrel), Essendon responded.
Let’s jump into the Loves and Hates of the Essendon win over the Saints.
LOVE – THE RED DOG
Before the 2021 season, I flagged Mason Redman as the guy that would make Essendon fans forget about the defection of Adam Saad. Redman was bigger, stronger, and more versatile than Saad, and could pinch-hit as a key defender at a stretch.
That season, Redman’s progress was probably overshadowed by the acquisition of Nick Hind, who did exactly what Saad was doing the year before, but did it at a fraction of the price. Redman was still solid – very good, in fact – but he didn’t tear games to shreds, as I thought he may.
But he is now.
This was Mason Redman at his most potent, intercepting, offering help defence, and rebounding the footy from defensive fifty. His ability to run into a crowd, raise the footy above his head, take the tackle and dish to a nearby teammate allowed the Bombers to attack from half-back, and often, that attack was through the guts.
Sure, he has a resemblance to Rocky Dennis from the movie, Mask, but his play was infinitely more attractive than poor old Rocky, with Redman acting as a defensive general, and the combination of Ridley and Laverde attacking the contest in the air.
He is just 0.05 disposals per game behind the 2018 mark he set (over two games), but his rebound and run have improved out of sight, and at 24 years old, he is about to enter a period where he’ll be at the peak of his powers. If the Bombers can get a legitimate contest killer for him to work off, Redman could become something special over the next couple of seasons.
HATE – GOING AWAY FROM WHAT GOT YOU BACK INTO THE GAME
Righto, there were two St Kilda sides in this game.
The first one was useless offensively, with Tim Membrey basically taking up space inside 50 and offering not much in the way of production. He took two nice marks in the first quarter and then disappeared along with half his team for 30 minutes.
It was only in the second quarter that the Saints started to claw their way back – they stopped the bleeding by sending Tim Membrey behind the ball, where he sat and picked off multiple rushed inside 50 deliveries. It gave the Saints a sense of composure and made them walk taller at the time. With Essendon pressing, Membrey gave St Kilda the means to press back.
As the third quarter got underway, Membrey was shifted back to the forward line, where he continued to do something close to nothing (thanks Prince) to the point he was a non-factor in the Saints’ resurgence.
When the Bombers started matching the Saints around the ground and clawed back control, the time was right for Brett Ratten to swing his swingman back into the swingingest spot in the playground… but he kept him up forward, where Membrey was completely and utterly ineffective.
Who knows how things play out had the Saints had someone of Membrey’s calibre patrolling the defensive fifty instead of stinking up the attacking fifty?
You could argue once the horse had bolted, and the Bombers started to flex their muscles again, that there was little point in sending Membrey into defence again, and much to the chagrin of Daisy ‘Broken Record’ Pearce, you’d be correct, but so much of modern footy is knowing when to hold ‘em, when to fold ‘em, when to walk away, and when to send an excellent intercept player back into defence.
If Brett Ratten were The Gambler, he’d be broke following this game. He refused to deploy him into defence when the momentum swung back in favour of the Bombers and instead, went all-in on Membrey up forward. He was soundly beaten.
Membrey finished with ten touches and nine marks for the game. Five each of those disposals and marks came in the second quarter when he was sitting in defence. For the remainder of the game, he was a complete non-factor.
LOVE – SHIEL’S GUT RUNS
I feel… I feel for Shiel…
That could make a good slogan – it’s not quite up there with “I have the need… the need for speed” but it rhymes, so… yeah.
Anyway, he works as hard as anyone through the Essendon midfield and you could see him visibly trying to both lift his team and prevent them from falling in a hole as the Saints stormed back into the game in the third quarter.
His work paid off a couple of times during the game as his hard run and carry set up teammates for goals. He finished with ten score involvements and two direct goal assists as he relentlessly pushed forward and compelled his teammates to come with him.
The thing is, since the emergence of Darcy Parish, Shiel has started to look expendable at Essendon. Parish is younger, is breaking records, and his combination with Merrett in 2021 carried the Essendon midfield without Shiel in the mix.
Shiel is out there working his arse off, but you can sense where the hearts of the Bomber faithful reside.
HATE – SHIEL’S KICKING
Yep… what a pity he is one of the worst kicks of the footy when it comes to good mids.
One of the goal assists saw Shiel attempt to hack the footy forward twice, only to be rushed into kicking because he cannot kick with his opposite foot at all. Luckily, Matt Guelfi got on the end of it and converted.
That play occurred at the conclusion of a brilliant run from Shiel where he simply outworked everyone else around him to collect the footy that he had just delivered inside 50.
For years I have watched Shiel do just about everything right, only to see his kicking let him down. Whether he overshoots a player standing all alone, or botches a running shot at goal, it remains the biggest flaw in an otherwise excellent repertoire.
In his defence, he was extremely influential in this game, and didn’t need 35 touches to do so. I would take 25 from Shiel in this type of “hard work” mode than I would 35 from Darcy Parish in “collect the footy and go sideways” mode, and I hope those two and Zach Merrett find a way to work well together before the end of the season. It would be a shame to waste the potency these three possess just because they cannot find a way to co-exist.
LOVE – THE IDEA OF TWO RUCKS DOMINATING
In theory, the combination of Rowan Marshall and Paddy Ryder should have worn down Sam Draper and crushed him into the Marvel Stadium turf late in the game.
They should have been able to get the better of a workmanlike ruck like Andrew Phillips, as well. They should have been the dominant ruck combination on the ground and given their mids plenty of opportunity to get first hands on the footy.
But they really didn’t.
The idea of these two providing a ruck-hydra is a good one. The reality is… sometimes great ideas fall apart in practice.
HATE – THE REALITY OF TWO RUCKS AND ONLY ONE ABLE TO CONTRIBUTE AT ONCE
As you’ll read below, I was not a fan of the entire first half, but of all players that were disappointing up until that stage of the game, Rowan Marshall may have been the worst.
I know, I know… he was pivotal in the third quarter as the Saints stormed back, but it begs the question – what the hell was he doing for the entire first half?
With just four touches and zero marks to halftime, Marshall was a passenger on a train that Paddy Ryder was driving. Relegated to the forward line, he was soundly beaten and looked both slow and disinterested.
To St Kilda fans, it must have been extremely frustrating to watch a bloke that was touted as one f the next generation of top rucks meander about doing bugger all.
And then things clicked.
Marshall started to get heavily involved in the third quarter. With a move to spend more time in the guts, he started to get his hands on the footy. The only problem was… now Ryder was borderline useless inside 50.
Ryder had just two touches in the second half, which kind of tells me that as good as this duo have been, and as good as they could be again, there are going to be games where things just don’t work, and this was one of them.
LOVE – JADE GRESHAM’S RETURN
He’s been fantastic for the Saints since returning this season, and genuinely gives off the aura that he could lift a struggling side for a quarter or so and either pull them back into a game, or stretch a lead they already have.
Unlike most of his teammates, every time Gresham went near the pill, you had the feeling something was going to happen. Look, it may not always bee ultra-positive, as he does try a little too much at times, however, when nobody else is doing much of anything, can you really blame him?
He finished with three goals and 28 touches in an effort that was clearly the best for the Saints.
HATE – MAX KING UNABLE TO IMPACT
Before this game started, I was sent a little stat with the all the players that ad managed four or more goals against the Bombers this season. All key forwards, all taking advantage of the fact the Bomber defence has been forced to use Jayden Laverde as their number one man.
Really, he should be playing on the third-best forward, but as circumstance dictates, here we are, with Laverde taking on blokes way too big and strong for him.
It was almost as though Ben Rutten felt Jayden needed the night off to an extent, and instead we got Jordan Ridley taking the responsibility for keeping Max King quiet for the most part.
I expected Max King to have a great time playing against the undersized Essendon defence. If he was permitted a run and jump at the footy, he could have a bag to his name.
Alas, it was not to be – Ridley stuck to his task like something very sticky, indeed, and King didn’t help his cause by dropping a couple of marks he should have eaten up. He also kicked poorly for goal, which made things worse.
LOVE – A BETTER BALANCE IN THE MIDFIELD
I mentioned in the section on Dylan Shiel that the Bombers seemed better-balanced through the guts in this one. I must stress – this is NOT a knock on Darcy Parish.
That said, with players like Jye Caldwell winning the hard ball and feeding it out to Merrett, the Bombers seemed to have a great balance in there. Shiel was working hard at stoppages and matched it with Brad Crouch, allowing his teammates the opportunity to work into space.
What is the right mix in the middle for the Bombers?
It is something they’ll need to address over the off-season, and perhaps experiment with for the remainder of 2022. Caldwell is a must in there, from where I sit. He is combative and likes to mix it up defensively. Merrett is capable of doing just as much damage playing on the wing (and much more damage than Brayden Ham did (he looked to be really damaging the inside of his nose when a tight shot of the bench caught him in mid-pick). And of course, you then have Jake Stringer waddling in here and there, and Darcy Parish, who simply cannot be ignored.
The ideal set up would see Merrett on the wing, Parish, Shiel and Caldwell in the middle, roving to Draper. Merrett can still provide the option as a second-release player, but it is on the outside he carves teams up, and you don’t get much more outside than playing on the wing.
It’ll be interesting to see how Rutten sets this group up once Parish returns.
HATE – THE ENTIRE FIRST HALF
Did you hear the commentators mentioning that the crowd seemed dead in the first quarter? It was pretty difficult to miss it; they mentioned it about a million times.
However, there was a good reason for it. The teams played stagnant footy, and I don’t blame the live crowd for sitting on their hands waiting for something to happen… and it kind of never did.
Really, the Bombers should have punished the lacklustre Saints, but their inaccuracy kept their fans feeling nervous. Hopeful, but nervous.
When a game is played primarily between the arcs, it lacks a bit of a spark, and whilst you would not scoff at a 27-point lead at the main break if you were a Bombers fan, they played what I would term methodical footy to get there. Nothing too fancy, noting spectacular… just solid, sound footy.
And St Kilda did… something, as well.
Of course, as so often occurs after a lull in the first half, the third quarter exploded into life, and that is where we find all the things we love in our game.
LOVE – MASSIMO
With a name like that, I reckon he would be right at home in any movie set in Ancient Rome, but with what he brought to the table for the Bombers, it was obvious that he was right at home at the top level.
Rolling off half-back, Massimo D’Ambrosio had a fine debut, racking up 15 touches, four rebound fifty disposals, and three intercepts. What stood out more than numbers was his composure with the footy, refusing to be rushed into haphazard kicks or shallow D50 exits.
Nice work, young man.
HATE – NOT PAYING HOLDING THE BALL
FFS, can we start getting umpires that are unafraid to hurt a player’s feelings and ping them for holding the ball?
I looked at Dylan Shiel at one point, after he laid a great tackle inside the centre square on Jade Gresham, only to see the ball spill out (the ump must have thought it was a handball) and play continued. In that moment, you could see in Shiel’s eyes that he was enormously frustrated with the umpire’s reluctance to reward what was a great tackle.
Instead, the ump’s non-decision advantaged the Saints, who swooped on the loose (dropped) ball and surged forward. Personally, I would rather the umpires reward tacklers more readily. Blokes seem to be pinged for too high, in the back, too low, holding on too long, and any other tackling infringement way more than they earn holding the footy. It makes me wonder how tackling will continue to survive in the game, at times.
Reward good tackles – it is pretty simple. The Bombers had six successful tackles. The Saints had eight, but given a couple that were completely missed, the successful tackle count should have been about even in terms of effectiveness
THE LAST LOVE – THE ANSWER
We all have moments where we are proud of the team we support.
Maybe they upset a contender? Maybe the kids start to mature and you see signs that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and it isn’t just a train speeding toward you.
And other times, the team shows some ticker and fights back when challenged.
When the Saints burst out of the gates in the third quarter and drew level with the Bombers, you kind of expected Essendon to roll over a little.I mean, they haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory this season – why would they start now?
But you learn a lot about your team when they are challenged, and the fact the Bombers were able to absorb everything the Saints threw at them and then composed themselves and bounced back to re-establish a commanding lead was a moment of pride for the group.
Jake Stringer played one quarter of footy in this game – it was in the third as the Bombers fought back. Mason Redman took the game on, Ben Hobbs stood up, and Peter Wright showed some deft skills to set up two goals by hand and add another off his own boot.
It would have been easy for the Bombers to roll over when the Saints came marching in, but instead, they slammed the door in their face and went back to work. That, my friends, is how a team builds a collective character. And that is where teams start to recognise that the group has much, much more to offer over the next however long.
And that will do me. Just quickly, I am a big Archie Perkins fan. I think he’ll be a star. And Nick Hind was great providing run and carry. Once I get over about 3K words, I have to wrap it up, though.
Next week, the Saints lick their wounds, and other parts of their bodies if they’re lucky, and get the Swans at the SCG. It’s a tough road trip.
The Bombers head over to Optus Stadium and should make it two on the trot as they play the Eagles.