There are times in a season when you watch a game of footy and you can notice a chasm between the two competing sides. In the contest pitting St Kilda against Fremantle, we witnessed such a game. I just didn’t expect to see it this early in the year.
Coming into Round One, what you want to see from a team is hunger, desire, and a relentless attack on the footy. You want to see your team compete at a level that demonstrates that they’re up for the fight and ready to attack the season hard.
Only one team displayed those traits in this game.
St Kilda played this game like it meant something to them. Without a large number of best-22 players, their side possessed untried and untested players and they were competing against a club that has big things expected of them in 2023, in Fremantle.
However, it was the Saints that took the game on, whilst Freo seemed content to wait for the game to come to them. And that was the issue in a nutshell.
It never did.
While they waited, the determined Saints knocked them out of the way and took it from them. And I’ll cover it in our review as I ask the Big Questions about the Saints’ big win against the odds.
WHAT USE IS A BRILLIANT DEFENCE IF NO ONE CAN CAPITALISE?
Try this on for size.
Between them, Luke Ryan, Alex Pearce, Brennan Cox, and Hayden Young had 117 possessions and 44 intercepts. With immense numbers like that from their four pillars in defence, Fremantle should have monstered St Kilda on the rebound and punished them on the spread.
But they didn’t.
So dedicated and committed to the Lyon gameplan were the Saints that as soon as the ball landed with one of those four defenders, the Saints’ structures were already in place, leaving those backmen to try to create by kicking laterally to open the game up.
Though some will lament the standard of the game as a whole, winning ugly in circumstances such as this is something that teams need to learn how to do, and the Saints gave the Dockers a complete lesson in that. Whilst Freo had control of the ball, they were completely unable to translate that into genuine control of the game, with the Saints desperate both the air and on the deck.
Yes, stat heads will be lapping up the big numbers of the Freo defenders, and they were impressive, but what they were able to do with the footy was far less impressive than many will mention. Lyon and his Saints will be content for teams to chip sideways and rack up numbers as often as they like if it means that nothing comes of it. Go right ahead… knock yourselves out!
With a +12 inside 50 advantage as a result of that ball control, Fremantle seemed to believe the dam wall would crack and break eventually, but credit to the Saints and their work ethic – they stuck to their guns (except for a two-minute period in the second when they gifted two goals to the Dockers due to 50 metre penalties for pointing at the big screen) and refused to buckle. Some would call it ugly footy – it was in patches, admittedly – but it was winning footy. And it is a lesson the club will not soon forget. They would have lost that game last season, quite easily, too.
This year, they played with resolve and belief… let’s hope it’s catching.
HOW GOOD WAS CAL WILKIE? AND WHAT DOES IT SAY ABOUT NAT FYFE AS A FORWARD?
The press are gonna come for Fyfe after this performance – you know that, right?
The preseason is a different monster to the home and away season, much the same as finals footy is a different beast, all together again. In the preseason, with the pressure not really at 100%, Fyfe looked like a million bucks, leading hard, marking well, and basically doing everything you would have wanted to see from him as a forward in the making.
But he didn’t have to contend with an opponent like Callum Wilkie, who may have taken Brad Sheppard’s place as the most underrated defender in the game. In the end, Sheppard was eventually given his due, named as an All-Australian, and I wonder whether the same rewards await Wilkie at some point, as well.
He owned his contest with Fyfe, with the dual Brownlow Medallist forced to move way outside 50 to collect most of his nine touches for the game. Every time Fyfe flew at the footy, Wilkie was there to spoil. Every time Fyfe went to lead, he’d be slightly checked by Wilkie, but checked in a manner so expertly done that the umps saw it as all above board… because it was!
As though blanketing Fyfe was not enough, Wilkie also managed to work free of his opponent often, to offer the Saints an avenue to exit defensive fifty. He collected 24 touches, including 12 intercepts, and was once again the reliable, stout defender Saints fans have come to love.
Many will speak about how Fyfe failed – we know that. The media will have a field day because… well, they’re the media, but if they do not give Wilkie credit for his fantastic performance, call them the hell out, because if you don’t, they’ll never give the bloke the credit he deserves.
And he deserves a heap after this game.
HOW DID ROWAN MARSHALL HOLD UP AGAINST THE TWIN TOWERS?
Early in the game, I thought Sean Darcy was looking as though he was going to give Rowan Marshall a bit of the business. He looked up and about, and was bobbing up all over the place. Me, being a great judge and all, sat there wondering how long it would be until Darcy and Luke Jackson ran Marshall into the ground.
But they didn’t, and as much as I am going to praise Marshall, I reckon it is a bit of an indictment on that much-publicised ruck duo, as well.
This was a huge chance for the Freo ruck division to stretch the Saints, work Marshall over, and leave him chasing them around the field for the majority of the day, but either they didn’t want to put the work in, or were too occupied with the overall game to realise the opportunity the lone St Kilda ruck presented them.
Sure, we can look at stats and see that Darcy outmuscled Marshall at stoppages, leading to a +1 advantage in centre clearances, but overall, Freo were -6 in total clearances, meaning those ruck taps meant sweet bugger all.
Marshall managed to match it with Darcy around the ground, and was probably unlucky not to be paid a couple of grabs he seemed to take.
A couple of years ago, I tried to predict what the All-Australian team would look like in five years. Assuming that Gawn, Grundy, and Nic Nat would all be well and truly gone by then, I had Rowan Marshall as my man to be the top ruck in the game – that is how highly I rated him. And right behind him was Sean Darcy. Things change quickly in the AFL. New faces emerge and players either start getting much better very quickly, or fall a few rungs on the ladder. Marshall appeared to be in the latter category over the past couple of seasons, but based on his excellent work ethic in this one, maybe option one is still in play.
And maybe, just maybe, that speculative selection of Marshall as one day being the best ruck in the game is not as ludicrous as it may have sounded 12 months ago.
CAN ROSS LYON GET THE BEST OUT OF BRAD HILL AGAIN?
You know… I think he just might.
In reading the stats, I don’t think we are seeing justice done to Hill in this game. They list him as having just three contested possessions for the game, but I cannot help but feel that his influence in all facets of the game was far more profound than that, particularly when the ball was in dispute.
This is;t meant to come across as harsh, but I reckon Ross Lyon knows when Brad Hill is not putting in and he is not the sort to tolerate it. What we saw from Hill, especially in the first half, was hard running, straight-lining the footy, and genuinely cracking in. It was the version of Hill we last really saw when he was at Freo under Lyon, but we saw a bit of it again here…
… and I liked it!
I have not been a big Hill fan during his time at St Kilda. There have been times when I think he has simply not put in, but watching him in this game, you’d be hard-pressed to be anything but impressed with the way he went about it. A big thumbs up from me.
HOW’D THE YOUNG GUNS GO?
Well, well, well… just last week I wrote an article on how people should not be so quick to write off St Kilda. It was met with the usual comments, batting it straight back at me and telling me they were ordinary.
Look, they may be – that remains to be seen, but when you have a group of kids being given responsibility on the team, you just don’t know what you’re gonna get… do you, Forrest?
With Anthony Caminiti, Mitch Owens, and Mattaes Phillipou entrusted with holding the forward line together, there was always going to be a chance that the veteran Freo defence was going to dominate, but the thing is – these kids didn’t have to dominate. No, not at all – they just had to compete and bring the ball to ground. They had to make sure that when an opportunity presented, they did everything they could to capitalise on in.
And they damn well did!
They may have kicked just three between them (Phillipou with one, and Owens with two), but the way they attacked the footy in the air would have been enough to make Saints’ fans smile widely. Phillipou’s hands at ground level were good, Owens’ recovery and second efforts were excellent, and Caminiti continued to present all game despite being outsized by any of Cox, Pearce, or Ryan that he found himself matched up on.
Ross Lyon would be pouring over the vision of the way these young fellas attacked the footy, how they gelled and worked cohesively, and will most likely lead rounds of applause for some of their little actions when the Saints review the video. This was supposed to be where the Saints fell down, remember? This was their weak link – no King, no Membrey, no Hayes, no nothing!
But they found something.
And that something has planted the seeds that may one day lead to something great. Sure, stat heads might look at the big Docker numbers and scoff at the contributions of the kids – that’s why so many people don’t rate those who work at Champion Data… they cannot see the oak trees in the acorns.
But real footy lovers do, and there are some very, very green shoots coming through at Moorabbin, indeed.
WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO JOSH TREACY?
Gotta put it out there – I thought this was the chance he needed.
Watching him over the past couple of years, Treacy’s attack on the footy was always something that impressed me. Back in 2021, he was like a wrecking ball at the contest, throwing himself in there and taking out players left, right, and centre.
And then we get to today, with two more years on the clock – bigger, stronger… should have been better, but he was horrid in this game. Absolutely terrible. Some may point to the standard of delivery he received and those people would have a point, but even when the opportunities were there, it was as though he slowed up a step or two before launching and it threw his balance right off.
I’m not one for whacking a bloke after one bad outing. Fyfe was poor, as was Matt Taberner – they’ll get more chances, and Treacy probably deserves a few as well, but his effort in this one was far below what I’d come to expect from watching him in his debut season. Maybe that’s why he couldn’t crack the team in 2022?
For all the numbers I talked about above, with the Freo defenders, the best numbers man n the ground in terms of both racking them up and doing something with the footy, was likely Jack Sinclair. Ran hard, had multiple plays where he took the game on and delivered well… just another in a long line of stellar outings for him.
Looks like Jaeger O’Meara may take a while to find his spot in the middle with Will Brodie. I feel they both play a very similar role – maybe too similar to each other, actually. JOM is a different beast to David Mundy and is not a run-and-spread type. Thing is, neither is Brodie. Might need to mix it up a little as Freo looked very one-paced in the middle, particularly with Brayshaw having a middling type of game.
I really liked Ryan Byrnes’ work on a wing, even if the commentators did continually call him Jack Bytel. His 27 touches and hard defensive run are EXACTLY what the Saints need in that role.
Hi, I’m HB Meyers and I’m a Dougal Howard fan. I have no idea why some people dislike Howard, but do not count me as one of them. His lunging spoil on Fyfe late in the game, making up several metres before diving forward… just excellent. The guy is a greyhound on defence and has been doing his best to hold the St Kilda defence together (with Cal Wilkie) for two years, now. The bloke deserves great credit.
Caleb Serong was good for Freo, but I felt like he was playing a lone hand way too often in the guts. I also liked the game of Sam Switkowski, who could be one of the best small forwards in the game if he can go injury-free.
And that might do for me. Not the prettiest win, but damn it, it was an excellent, hard-fought win for the Saints. One that they should be proud of. I am not a Saints man, but I was proud for them.
They get the Dogs next week, who have a suspect back six. If the kids bring that effort again… look out!
As for Freo, this was not the type of game they excel in. They were too methodical to the point they were predictable. They had no risk to their play and thus, were easy to defend against. I expect a big win against North next week, or there may start being some big questions asked about them as a whole.