The way that this R20 clash was talked about in its leadup, you’d have thought the Saints were out of finals contention. It was a very strange dialogue to see taking place. Ok, so St Kilda haven’t been setting the world on fire recently, but they’ve still played well enough throughout the season to earn that spot in the upper echelons of the ladder. And they were still showing the necessary determination to hang onto that spot, even though narrow grinding wins against such powerhouses as North Melbourne and West Coast aren’t results that inspire swathes of confidence. Nevertheless, it doesn’t really matter how you win, as long as you win.
And that was essentially the cornerstone of the result of this game. The Saints saw off their more inexperienced opponents, albeit not without a heart attack here or two, as is customary. But more to the point, it was as if they’d been listening to some of the outside noise regarding their allegedly fraudulent ladder position and took it upon themselves to showcase the grit and guts that many have accused them of lacking. Let’s jump into the moments and aspects of the game that caught my eye.
In the most recent fixture between these two teams, James Sicily put up a statline that wouldn’t have been out of place in one of those lopsided, rage-fuelled AFL Live games that you played to avenge a recent heartbreaking loss for your team. And from the opening minutes, it was clear that the Saints had no intention of letting him do the same again. Cooper Sharman was sent to him as a defensive forward and kept him in reasonable check, but more than that, the Saints actively sought to lower their eyes when heading inside 50 and avoid even giving Sicily the opportunity to pick off those deep forward entries.
I also noticed that Sicily looked more hesitant and uncertain with ball in hand than I’ve ever seen him. Propping, looking around searchingly, and showing a distinct hesitation in his decision-making. You could physically feel the alertness of the Saints whenever he had the ball. The mantra was clear; shut down the corridor, do not let this man find a free target in a damaging position. To Sicily’s credit, he still found multiple avenues through the Saints’ defensive web to initiate forward forays for his team, but the Saints went into the game with a plan regarding Sicily’s involvement, and despite his 26 touches, you’d have to award them the points in that particular battle.
It’s niche comparison time:
The Hawks play like the Trevor Gleeson-era Perth Wildcats.
You’re probably wondering where the hell this has come from, but hear me out. Both teams use/d space extensively in attack and on defence to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. In the Hawks’ case, the willingness to handball and achieve an overlap is obvious when you tune into any of their games. Their goal is to set off running, draw a defender, handball to a teammate running alongside, repeat this step if necessary, and achieve an unimpeded forward 50 entry. It makes it look like there are more of them on the field than their opponents. The commentators’ claims (unverified but I’ll trust them on it) that the Hawks are the top-ranked team in the competition for transitioning the ball inside 50 from defensive 50 backs this up.
The Wildcats played exactly the same way. A screen on the ball handler’s opponent at the three-point line gave newfound space. The ball handler would then have a choice; take an unimpeded three-point shot, (or) drive further in, make the defence collapse, and pass out to a now-open teammate, (or) pass to the screen-setter who was now rolling towards the basket. If the screen-setter received the ball, he too could choose, after driving, to take the shot, or otherwise pass it out to an open man whose defender had left to help defend the paint from the screen-setter’s drive. The priority; space, space, space.
I’m not going to go into the defensive side of this comparison too much, as this is a footy column, not a basketball one, but the core aspect of this style of play is the creation of space to cause disharmony amongst the opposition defence. A chain reaction of movements that forces defenders to commit and eventually results in an unobstructed look at the goal (or basket). Once Sam Mitchell’s team gets more experience and harvests more talent, this style of play is going to be extremely difficult to stop. Extremely difficult.
On the topic of attacking gameplans, St Kilda expressed a wholly uncharacteristically attacking flair in the game, showcased no better than in their nine-goal first quarter. I’m guessing that Ross and his staff have either been kidnapped and held hostage by disgruntled St Kilda fans, or perhaps they’ve finally come around to the modern style of the game. The Saints used the corridor extensively for their attacks and seemed to appreciate the value of fast movement at the risk of turning the ball and being exposed in defence. And with their good ball users and the Hawks’ tendency to turn the ball over, it made for effective results in spite of their somewhat ragtag forward line. It’s certainly my opinion that this strategy is something to pursue in the coming weeks against more highly-ranked opponents, and if they do pursue it, Ross-ball will be officially hanging by a thread. Might be time for arrangements to be made for a plaque at St Kilda cemetery in its honour.
Jack Steele is so often the yardstick for the Saints, throwing his body into the contest and giving his team first use, and it was the case again in this game. With Hawthorn in ominous form in the third quarter as they chased down a six-goal deficit with concerning ease, Steele didn’t win a clearance and lay just the one tackle. It was a display of pure dominance in the midfield as Worpel, Newcombe and co. ran riot, and it was no coincidence that when Steele’s intensity lifted in the next quarter, with tackles, pressure and clearances, so too did the Saints. He’s not just the leader of the team on paper; he’s their barometer. Brad Crouch will take the chocolates today with his 3 goals and 32 disposals, but if the Saints want September action, Steele’s the player who’s going to need to be playing his guts out more urgently than most.
Jarman Impey’s been a hell of a servant for the Hawks since crossing over from Port, but this wasn’t just a stinker from him. It was the football equivalent of Surströmming. Don’t let the 31 disposals fool you. He had ten turnovers and repeatedly killed his team’s momentum with a multitude of errant disposals and poor man marking. His worst moment came early in the last quarter when he bungled a regulation handball on defensive 50, allowing a Saint to collect, stream inside 50 and goal under very little pressure. It was one of the worst 31 disposal games you’ll ever see, and whilst he never stopped trying and did manage to be an asset to his team on the occasions when he didn’t turn the ball over, I don’t think there’d be a Hawthorn fan in this galaxy campaigning for him to remain in the team next week.
A mention also to Luke Breust, who has the canniest football brain of anyone on the Hawthorn team. The anti-Sam Frost, if you will. (God, that brain fade brought us to an entirely new level of Frostball, didn’t it). Breust ran rings around Jimmy Webster with his patterns of leading back and forth depending on where the ball was further upfield, and made the entire Saints backline look second-rate with six quality goals. Even though he’s well and truly entered the old man phase of his career and as such struggles to kick the pill more than 40 metres, he remains an incredibly valuable asset to his club and is the sort of bloke who you could imagine putting his hat into the coaching ring, and being sickeningly competent at it, too.
And that’s everything I have time to muse and abuse about today. Saints 19.8.122-Hawks 14.9.93. The Saints hold the advancing pack at bay and sow a seed of hope that they’ll be able to navigate the next month without dropping their bundle, whilst the Hawks put in what is now a standard performance for them; a twenty minute long spate of wild and mesmerising incompetence offset by several extended periods of promise and dare. The consequences of the game in a vacuum are very limited, but future results will lend them significance, at least in St Kilda’s case. As for my own consequences, I’ve written pieces on St Kilda three weeks in a row during a form slump for them, and am now watching North get torched by Rhett Bazzo and co., so I need a lie down. And maybe a lobotomy.