At 44 points up midway through the third term, St Kilda looked home and hosed against Hawthorn and seemingly on the way to a big win to help set up their run home.
Make no mistake, this was a win that the Saints needed after what’s been a paltry run of form. Big losses to Sydney, Fremantle, Essendon and the Western Bulldogs have been offset with wins against Carlton and West Coast – the latter of those not being particularly convincing in their press for the eighth spot in the finals.
But for three quarters, the Saints did a lot of things right; they commandeered the clearances, they pressured well forward of centre and absorbed whatever run and carry the Hawks threw at them in the opening stanza.
And then the last quarter happened.
It’s as if they collectively clapped their hands together and called it a day earlier than their expected knock-off time. After Max King’s goal early in the fourth to send the Saints seven goals clear again, they just stopped altogether and the Hawks gathered momentum with five unanswered goals.
As Luke Breust kicked the Hawks’ ninth and final goal of the game, the Saints were two goals ahead with five minutes left to play. But by some ungodly miracle, the Saints held on and recorded a badly needed win.
With the Bulldogs dropping their game to Geelong later in the night, the Saints enter the top eight with three rounds to go. Unfortunately for them, they play Geelong at Geelong next week, followed by home games against Brisbane and Sydney to round out the season, which could easily mean three losses in a row.
But that’s a future St Kilda problem. In the meantime, they sit in the eight and that eighth spot becomes theirs to lose, especially if Richmond get up against Brisbane and reassert themselves in the race for eighth.
So, let’s get down with the autopsy of this game. It was a game littered with poor skills and bad decision-making, but for Saints fans, I think they’d be just happy to take the win and head into next week.
BARGIN’ THROUGH THE BIG BOY
There were two Saints that set the tone in this game, and I’ll get to the other one straight after this part.
However, we saw the best of Rowan Marshall in this one. It’s been some lean form in terms of impact over the last month and a half, but a career-high 49 hitouts against West Coast over in the West last week was a step in the right direction.
Marshall has made a name for himself over the past few years as that ‘modern day’ ruck who can not just win his lion’s share of hitouts, but also present himself as a player that can cover the ground and get his hands to the ball like he’s another midfielder type.
Without throwing shade or manure (pick your favourite) on Ben McEvoy, Marshall completely dominated him across general play, but also soundly beat him in the ruck contest as well. McEvoy competed in one more ruck contest, but Marshall beat him in the hitouts 35-26, with 12-8 to advantage in Marshall’s favour.
But it’s his follow-up work and his pressure in this game that immediately stand out as the most influential on the ground in this one. Prior to this game, his previous career high in disposals was 25 set late last year against the Swans.
He surged past that with his first 30-disposal performance in his career. It’s a very rare feat that we see ruckmen hit 30 disposals and 30 hitouts in the same game; Brodie Grundy did it three times, Max Gawn achieved that feat, Todd Goldstein once got 30 disposals in a game for North Melbourne, but was two hitouts short of the 30-30 game and I’m still waiting on Tim English to get there – any time soon would appreciated, big fella.
Of course, we need to break down on his disposals as the raw numbers mean sweet f-all; 13 of his 30 came from contested possessions, and he also had seven clearances, which shows that he was not shy of digging in again after the initial ruck contest. But he was also linking well on the outside in general play with nine marks (two intercepts) and with 21 kicks, 71 percent efficiency is absurd numbers from a big man.
But also, seven tackles and 26 pressure acts are huge defensive numbers from a ruckman, which leads me to the second player.
Particularly in the first half when neither side really got themselves going on the scoreboard, it was the work of Brad Crouch that helped the Saints dominate territory and general play.
Whilst a lot of people will turn to Jack Steele as per usual and say he played a brilliant game (don’t get me wrong, he was very good), but Crouch’s work rate early when the whips were cracking was the catalyst to help the Saints break clear and help build that commanding lead to start with.
If you’ve read this once from me, you’ve probably read it countless times, but pressure and tackles are key in football as it forces the opposition to think twice and thinking twice is something you can rarely afford in football, especially in the top flight.
With 19 pressure acts, 11 tackles for this game and four tackles inside 50, Crouch showed a defensive work-rate that I wish I saw more consistently, because if that happens, the Saints ultimately become a better side in a lot of aspects.
But it wasn’t just his tackle pressure that stood out, I mean sure, seeing him bury James Sicily in the goal square is pleasant enough, but his work around the stoppages and around the contested areas was also outstanding.
Nine clearances – seven out of stoppages – along with nine score involvements, five inside 50s, and a game-high 15 contested possessions from his 30 disposals outlines his importance to St Kilda’s midfield, which if you asked 12 months ago about that, I would’ve laughed about it, because he added very little to this Saints’ team.
Also, on the subject of forward pressure, big shout out to Ben Long for his forward pressure in this game. Nailing a tackle inside 50 is a thing easier said than done for a lot of forwards, but eight in a game is almost video game numbers. I love his aggression and I cannot understand why others can’t see that he at least has a backbone, and plays like he cares about the damn game.
Give your props to Sam Mitchell in the second half to flip the magnets in an attempt to get his team back in the game.
The Saints smashed them in the clearances in the second term; +9 in clearances overall. In a true sign of respect from the opposition, Brett Ratten sent Marcus Windhager to Jai Newcombe at centre bounces and around stoppages in the first half and limited his influence on the game to just five disposals at halftime.
Keep in mind, this was the same guy who absolutely murdered Tim Kelly last week. Windhager is a future 200-gamer, regardless of his role in the side, whether he is this decade’s equivalent to Ryan Crowley or he becomes midfield ace in three to four years’ time, his no-fuss approach to the game is admirable.
However, seeing Newcombe play more forward of the ball enabled him to get his hands on it a little more and with Windhager going off him in the second half, Newcombe’s influence across the forward half was more evident; two goals, from seven marks, 21 disposals – 11 contested – and seven score involvements was a good return from him after being smothered early in the game.
The other big move I liked was seeing Jack Scrimshaw moved from defence to forward. With Mitch Lewis out of the game in the second half and Jacob Koschitzke forced to compete on one leg for a large portion of the match, there needed to be a mobile, yet aerial presence inside 50.
Scrimshaw has had a good year across the defensive half, but was struggling to leave a mark on this, but once swung forward, he almost looked as if he had spent years playing across the forward half. He protected the space well for his first goal, and has the understanding of knowing when to leap and when to stay down and crumb.
The one complaint was seeing Emerson Jeka, when he came on as the medi-sub, used in the defensive half, took a nice intercept mark and spoiled well, but the Hawks could’ve been better off to try and kick it to the advantage of his run and vertical leap.
AND WHILST ON THE TACTICS…
Anybody else catch Mitchito Owens trying to run with James Sicily in this one? The future All-Australian Hawk didn’t want a bar of him, like the older sibling when the little sibling comes asking for a turn on the Nintendo and won’t piss off (we’ve all been there).
But fair play to him, he was handed a role and Sicily was made to turn the ball over a fair bit with pressure around him. I mentioned the tackle by Crouch earlier in the piece that gave him his goal, well Owens had a couple of moments that forced a Sicily turnover which led to a St Kilda goal.
What’s all the more baffling about Owens playing is that he was a late inclusion for Tom Campbell. Regardless if the Saints make finals or not, Brett Ratten must continue to give these kids games. I loved Owens’ performance, so much so, he might even sneak in for a vote.
He was relentless in his attack at both Sicily and the ball whenever it was in his general direction, and his crumbing work and his ability to finish on a tough angle in that third quarter shows that the kid has got a trick or two up his sleeve when it comes to finding the goals. I love this about young players, if you want to give them games, set them a task or a role in the game, much like what his running mate in Windhager has done the past couple of weeks.
Sicily’s impact on this game was severely impeded in this game; 16 disposals, 14 kicks at 85 percent and just two intercept marks from nine intercept possessions. Brett Ratten would’ve done his due diligence, having previously worked with Sicily at Hawthorn as an assistant coach and given the body of work he’s produced this year, that’s a massive feather in the cap for young Mitchito in his first year.
He only had 12 pressure acts and four tackles (three inside 50) and 11 pressure acts, but he also pulled through with eight score involvements and five ground ball gets for his trouble. Yeah, the kid’s got something alright.
MOORE, MOORE, MOORE
How do you like him? No seriously, how do you like him?
For mine, I love him and this dates to his days when he was a fresh-faced kid when basically everyone who wasn’t a Hawthorn supporter would give you the ‘who?’ treatment. I went to the 2018 VFL Grand Final as part of a University assignment, but as a budding football writer would, I got distracted a little bit by the action on the field.
And Dylan Moore was one who I took notice of. Not only did he kick the game-sealing goal for the Box Hill Hawks during their premiership, but as that small forward type, he knew exactly where to be and he was measured and precise when he played further up the ground.
In this game, call it underrated if you want, but he was one of a few Hawks that got up and running when they could sniff a comeback going in the fourth quarter. In fact, his entire second half was pretty good after such limited impact in the first half.
The pressure he brought upon the Saints players was remarkable – second of all players on the ground, behind Newcombe, for pressure acts with 31 for the game. But also came through with seven tackles, two of which were inside the attacking 50.
But he also contributed to eight score involvements, including one that he kicked in the last quarter – a classic small forward’s crumbing goal – he’s just an intelligent player to have at the feet of the tall forwards, but his presentation up the ground has also been a key feature of his game this season, with eight marks, three of which were inside 50.
You hear the expression ‘footballer’s footballer’ a lot, and Moore is indeed a player who just understands how the game works.
Certainties in life seem to be death, taxes, the Bulldogs guarding grass, and Callum Wilkie taking a massive forward scalp. This week was Jack Gunston; was held to just eight disposals and a goal by a man who is steadily getting his dues for a thankless art of lockdown defending.
Speaking of lockdown defending, liked the match-up of Josh Battle on an in-form Mitch Lewis. Before he went out of the game with injury, Battle had him well held in this game.
Interesting to see Finn Maginness run a negating role on Jack Sinclair in this one. I saw Ryan Clarke from Sydney do the job a number of weeks ago and take the chocolates and for the first half, Maginness was looking pretty good; Sinclair had 10 disposals to halftime and very little impact, but that match up was binned after half time.
How good is Josh Ward going to be when he hits his prime? Finished with 26 disposals, 446 metres gained, three clearances, five tackles, six score involvements and six marks. He’s just another young man who understands the game and the spots to run to in link-up play and he’s not shy of going in for a contest.
Seeing Dan Butler put the shake on bake on his brother was pretty special to watch. Apart from his goal in the opening term, he was hardly sighted with the ball, but 17 pressure acts is a solid defensive effort from a small forward.
Max King on James Blanck was an interesting duel to watch unfold. I think there’s a bit in how Blanck goes about his footy, but as the game went on, you could sense that the lack of experience at the top flight got him, as King went off the leash a little more easily. Could’ve been a day out for Maxy, but he’ll have to settle with 2.5 in this game.
Haven’t seen a lot of Will Day this season, but he has looked like he’s starting to find some rhythm and confidence back in his game in this one, looked more sure of his spacing in the defensive half and was hitting kicks on the 45 degree angle much better than previous weeks.
Ben Paton’s work across the defensive half was outstanding in this game; hardly takes a backwards step in terms of intercepting and his work at ground level was also at a premium; led all Saints for ground ball gets and intercept possessions with 11 and 13 respectively.
And on that note, that’s me wrapped up for this game.
The Saints have got the toughest test this year; Geelong at the Cattery, and after having seen them dispose of the Bulldogs in a powerful second half, that’s one mountain that’s going to take a biblical climb.
As for the Hawks, finals are done and dusted, but there’s a lot to like amongst the young boys of this group. Next week they’re back in Launceston to host the Gold Coast Suns in a game that they’ll fancy themselves in, given the slide the Suns have been on the past few weeks.