Sitting at 5-1 and a game clear on top of the ladder (until Tuesday), the Saints are playing a brand of football that their supporters would have to be loving. Hard, fast, accountable… Ross Lyon has them playing to a level we haven’t see since 2020… and possibly even before.
Faced with the combined might of the Carlton power forwards, the Saints continued to push the envelope against the Blues, using speed on the ball and an insistence to take the game on to make Carlton look flat-footed.
There have been times this season when I have criticised the opponents of St Kilda, chastising them for their lack of ball movement, or their inept abilities to get any run from behind, but maybe I have got it all turned around. Maybe it has only a small part to do with their opponents and a hell of a lot more to do with this St Kilda team and their strangling, suffocating brand of defence?
This is a team playing with the thrill of the chase, a taste of what could, and with the enthusiasm of a club that now knows that this could be the start of something big.
It was a test for the Saints, taking on a fellow top-four team and a reputed premiership contender in 2023. It was a test they passed with flying colours.
Let’s jump into The Mongrel’s Good, Bad, and Ugly.
THE LITTLE BIG MAN
I’m not sure if he is going to get a lot of coverage this week or not, but I am going with my gut to give top billing in this review to Mitch Owens. He is playing out of his skin in 2023, and has been one of the primary weapons of the Saints as they’ve established their identity this season.
Owens attacks the all in the air like he is bulletproof – he takes no backwards steps and if the footy is there to be won, his judgement and lack of fear of contact see him right in the mix to claim it as his own.
Twice in the first quarter, Owens was the “Get out of Jail” target for the Saints as they exited defensive fifty, and both times, he did not let his team down. In the second, with Rowan Marshall needing a rest, it was Owens pulling his socks up (figuratively) and moving into the ruck, taking centre bounces and working way above his height around the ground.
To see a young bloke find his way in the league and come to the realisation that not only does he belong in the league, but that he could also be one of the best players in the game, is a joy to watch. It seems like just yesterday that we were watching him play and learning his craft? I mean, the Saints were going to cause no issues in 2022 – we needed a good news story.
That story keeps getting better in 2023, as Owens grows and develops into one of the game’s most versatile players.
What a contrast in the way both teams moved the footy in this game.
The Saints wanted the ball on the move, always looking to play on, always looking to take the game on and get it inside 50 where their forwards had a red-hot chance of getting some space.
And the Blues… well… they… you know… they…
… were a …. bit…
It was a complete contrast in styles as Carton refused to be hurried and the Saints refused to allow the Blues to hurry, even if they wanted to.
What resulted was a possession-heavy and slow-looking Carlton team and a much more effective and fast-moving St Kilda side. With speed on the footy, Carlton found it difficult to defend the length of the ground, playing right into the Saints’ hands as the Blues’ rebound work went nowhere fast.
You’d think that Ross Lyon would be thrilled with the way the Saints work so well in this game. Yes, they made mistakes, but their mistakes were all due to pushing the pace. As for Michael Voss, there would be no dimension where he would be pleased with what he saw out there. So many gun players firing so many blanks.
Time to reload, Blues, as you head out west to clash with the Eagles – don’t cock this one up. Meanwhile, the Saints will be up and ready for the Power next week in what should be a cracker.
A HILL TO DIE FOR
If nothing more comes of Ross Lyon’s appointment at St Kilda, one thing he can hang his hat on is the way he has brought this team together so quickly. So many individuals working collectively with one goal in mind… it is not an easy thing to do.
The other thing would be getting Brad Hill to play like he damn well means it. It has been missing for the last couple of seasons, and some would argue it has been absent since the last time he played under Lyon over at Fremantle.
Hill did things in this game I thought he was no longer capable of. His attack on the footy was… well, it was what you’d expect from an AFL-listed player. There was desperation in his chasing, there was mongrel in the way he threw himself at the boot of opposition players as they tried to exit the area, and there was heart and soul – complete and utter commitment to the cause in every single one of his actions.
Hil finished this game with just two contested possessions and one tackle to his name – forget that noise. Go and watch his effort to close down the defensive exits. Watch him diving to get a hand on the kicks of the Carlton defenders as they try to clear the area, and marvel at the work he puts in to get from one contest to another, just to ensure the Saints have numbers around the footy.
If you’re a critic of Brad Hill, and yes I have been just that over the last little while, jump into this game and enjoy a bloke that is obviously coming to the realisation that this team could be something special and genuinely wanting to contribute.
It’s great to have you back, Hilly… and a big thank you has to go out to Ross Lyon for paving the way for this to occur.
ON A WING AND A PRAYER
Playing the role of a defensive wingman is a rather thankless job. You work up and back on the fat side of the ground and nine times out of ten, you’re unused. You run up and down the ground waiting for the switch that may never come. And when you push forward, it takes a pretty bloody cluey bloke with the footy to find you.
And then there are days like this one.
I could say that Blake Acres had a lucky day. Sometimes in footy, it is better to be lucky than good – the ball finds you sometimes – but that would be giving no credit at all to how hard Acres worked.
His diligence to get back and support his back six had to be admired in this game, as he amassed 36 disposals at over 660 metres gained for the game. It was a career-best game from him and his hard work should be lauded.
However, if we’re talking impact, Acres likely falls into the same category as many of his teammates who had plenty of the footy.
If we look at the man who he was opposed to for much of the game, we see a very different role and a very different result.
Mason Wood was able to work the length of the ground, as he has done all season. He collected 22 possessions as he meshed well with Ryan Byrnes and Brad Hill in the wingman roles, getting forward to slot a goal of his own and assist on another.
On the other side of the ground, another who has found is home in the role of wingman, Ryan Byrnes, put in the work, as well. Byrnes played a more defensive role than Wood, but was very good in traffic for the Saints as the Blues started to apply pressure in tight.
Finally, Ollie Hollands occupied the space between the arcs for most of the contest. Still learning the ropes, he had 22 touches and looks like h will find a permanent home running on the outside for the next few years in navy blue, as well.
It is great to see the wingmen getting such prominent roles in the game at the moment, and playing them in such different ways. It is a tip of the hat to how versatile you have to be to truly dominate on the wing, considering the variations the position offers. In tis game, Acres, Wood, Hill, Byrnes, and Hollands all made considerable contributions to their teams and depending how you argue their value, you could probably get away with highlighting three of them in the best players on the field. I love seeing that from those occupying the most neglected position in the game.
About halfway through the first quarter, I screwed my nose up a couple of times when watching the efforts of the St Kilda small crew.
Dan Butler half-chased down the wing before giving away a downfield free kick to Mitch McGovern for an idiotic late, and soft push. It resulted in a goal to Harry McKay.
Not long after, Jade Gresham executed a kick… and by “executed” I mean that he killed it, barely hitting his boot as he attempted a 15-metre pass on the wing.
Watching those two acts, I got the feeling that these guys may have been “off” and given the way the Saints needed their little man to fire, it could have spelled trouble.
You have to give enormous credit to the way they recovered.
Butler finished with three goals, working into the game from abut five minutes into the second quarter, as Grehsam quickly went about making amends for his wayward early disposal.
The pair combined for 33 touches, nine marks, and 15 score involvements, as they applied a heap of pressure inside attacking fifty, and really started to become hunters once the ball hit the deck.
I’d been worried about Butler for a while, if I’m being honest. After his ripping 2020 season, where he looked like he was playing with a point to prove, his pressure hasn’t really been anywhere near that level again. But it was back up in this one.
With Jack Higgins quieter this week, the lift from Butler and Gresham was exactly what the doctor ordered for the Saints, and their contributions to this win were undoubted.
THE EVERYWHERE MAN
You could sense the dynamic shift when Jack Sinclair moved into the middle. He just carries himself like a bloke who is acutely aware of what his capabilities are, and is determined to be one of the best in the S Kilda lineup every single week.
Consider the mission accomplished this week.
After playing an excellent first quarter, he was a bit quieter in the second, prompting a move into the guts in the second half. Seeing Sinclair forward of the ball and hitting forwards on the chest with his foot skills gave the Saints a sense of calm, almost as though seeing him with the footy in his hands assured them that everything was going to be okay.
Sinclair has been one of the best stories out of Moorabbin over the last few seasons. He finds the footy with ease, and unlike so many who get a heap of it, genuinely does something with it. In this one, his run forward of centre gave the Saints a renewed sense of confidence going forward.
Some teams have a barometer, and I reckon Sinclair is exactly that for the Saints. Is he their most important player? Probably not, but there was a reason the Swans sent Ryan Clarke to him last season when the teams clashed, and I would not be surprised to see more teams putting work into him as th Saints rack up more wins and Sinclair continues to create opportunities.
MISSING THE RUN
How much did the Blues miss the run and carry of Adam Saad in this game? Unable to generate any run and carry, the transition of the Blues was slow and stagnant. It was the same rubbish that Fremantle served up on Friday night against the Bulldogs and against the Saints back in Round One.
Without anyone to break the lines in any meaningful way, St Kilda were able to structure up behind the footy and nullify any ball movement the painfully slow Blues were able to conjure.
Okay, so it’s easy to point out what didn’t occur – what could the Blues have done to remedy this situation?
Zac Fisher flittered between half-back and half-forward, but using him as the primary driver from half-back int eh first half may have been something th Blues could have explored. He spent more time getting back there as the game progressed, particularly in the second half, but even then, he seemed to slot into the slow build and provided very little in terms of breaking lines.
Matt Kennedy was one that spent a bit of time back in defence, perhaps trying to remedy the absence of Sam Docherty, but he is far from the presence the Blues needed. He had 21 touches, but at under ten metres gained per disposal, he was not going to trouble anyone with his disposals.
Moving Kennedy up to the wing, or even into the middle could have released Sam Walsh to play his first game back in the team off half-back – to ease him back in.
I know, I know… you’re going to argue that he dominated anyway, right?
Well, 38 disposals is one thing, but with only 250 metres gained from Walsh, it indicates that as often as he received the footy, he wasn’t exactly doing a hell of a lot of damage with it.
Penetration off half-back has become such a weapon in the modern game, and a team with players who can break lines with hard run are invaluable. Carlton had nobody willing to do that in this game. A Walsh/Fisher combination running out of defence may have been enough to get the Blues past the St Kilda zone, and with Curnow and McKay ready out the back, it may have changed the complexion quite quickly.
A HEAP OF THE BALL, BUT LITTLE ELSE
The way Carlton executed a flawed game plan played right into the hands of the Saints who set up so well and easily repelled their repeated futile attacks.
Carlton had a massive +86 disposal advantage. The main ball winners on the ground were Adam Cerra (39), Sam Walsh (38), Blake Acres (36), Patrick Cripps (34), George Hewett (29), and Nic Newman (27).
And after we get all those blokes out of the way, you get your first Saint on the list – Jack Sinclair, with 27 touches.
Okay, so what were the Blues doing with the footy?
Cerra had nine inside 50 deliveries, but between Walsh, Cripps, and Hewett, only eight more were added. That’s a lot of sideways and backwards kicks.
This has been one of the main sources of criticism for Cripps’ game when people want to take a shot at him, but what he adds in terms of his inside work more than makes up for it. What is the excuse of Walsh and Hewett this week? They had four between them.
Good teams have the ability to kick things up a notch, like Elzar in the kitchen when he pulls out his spice weasel (this is a thing – it doesn’t not mean his penis). The Blues weren’t able to kick anything – not forward, anyway.
Carlton demonstrated a complete lack or urgency all game long and thoroughly deserved the loss this week.
A FEW QUICKIES
Interesting to see Jack Silvagni able to nullify the impact of Cal Wilkie in defence. Silvagni is one of those players you cannot leave alone, as he does remain involved in the action (he doesn’t just lead to no man’s land in an effort to drag his opponent away), so Wilkie was forced to go with him. In theory, that should have permitted both McKay and Curnow a heap of space, but credit to the remaining St Kilda defenders – opportunites may have gone begging, but four goals from the Carlton pair – that is the only number that matters.
Speaking of Curnow… got a pretty nice rub from the umpires in this one. I’m not saying the free kicks he received weren’t there, but I will say that they definitely didn’t miss any when it came to him. If anyone has the stats for free kicks inside 50, I reckon it’d make an interesting read…
Not sure the St Kilda forwards got anywhere near the same amount of love, but maybe they just didn’t have the same gravitas that Charlie did. I counted three free kicks to Curnow in the first half and a 50-metre penalty that resulted in a goal, as well.
That’s a very nice run for a forward, in anyone’s language.
I see St Kilda still playing Zaine Cordy forward. With Membrey back, they’re probably one more tall coming back away from shifting him into defence. Let’s face it – it’s where he belongs.
Speaking of Membrey, he looked very solid early in the game. His hands were excellent and it went a long way to giving the Saints mids a great target to straighten them up.
It was Adam Cerra’s best game in navy blue. He looked like one of the few Blues that had an urgency about his play and may be one of the blokes spared the wrath of Michael Voss.
Check out this heat map to see where the teams had most of their footy. You want to know why I haven’t written much about the big numbers of the Carlton team in terms of possessions? Look where they were – all behind the footy. Let the stat heads and supercoach enthusiasts get excited about that shit – in terms of the game, itself, it was a heap of meaningless possession.
And that’ll do me. Another really impressive win for the Saints, who continue to surprise. As for the Blues, that style of play is garbage, and they deserved to lose this one.
Massive thanks to all who support this work. It doesn’t do itself, y’know? Cheers – HB