Carlton v St Kilda – The Mongrel Review


The lead-up

Well, this is it. Where the hype hits the heat. Two long-suffering fandoms meeting in a battle to decide which team can realistically look forward to September, and which will face the ever-present storm of doubts, self-reflection and frustration as they look for a club representative on which to lay the blame for the current state of the team.

With a mathematically possible top-four spot eligibility on the line, both sides came in with optimism. St Kilda have been able to match anyone on their good days, and the Blues have hit a strong run of form, despite losing marquee forward Barry McKay while he tries to pursue free agency options in his North Melbourne persona.

Times are tough for everybody in this economy. Just last round I saw a Range Rover with a ‘for sale’ sign on it at a Melbourne game. You know it’s a rough patch for everyone when even the top end of town has to sell off their older vehicles rather than just park them in a barn on their weekend hobby farm that they bought as a tax write-off.

Anyway, as the week played out, both communities of fans followed the usual trend of being supremely confident at the start of the week, followed by doubts and worries sinking in as the week progressed, only for all those to be banished and replaced by zealous self-assurance that this one was in the bag before the first bounce was called.

For the Blues, their faith was rewarded, but the Saints were once again an abject lesson that pride cometh before the fall. The worst part isn’t that they were outclassed though, it’s that they definitely could have won it.


The ins and outs

While their victory over Collingwood sent near-orgasmic joy through the sea of Blues fans, losing Cerra and McGovern to shonky hamstrings would have been a touch of bitterness to an otherwise sweet victory. The outs though opened the way for Ed Curnow and Zac Fisher, two players that may not be considered the silkiest of blokes to hold a Sherrin, but will not shirk their given roles.

Longer-term, McKay will be sidelined with his knee for at least a further month, while Silvagni and Walsh may be out for a while yet.

St Kilda can feel happy with a very short injury list (an unusual place for the Saints to be in the past few years) with really only Zac Jones and Dan McKenzie looking at any notable sideline time. Jones’ knee injury from last week will likely see him packing it up until 2024, while Jack Billings was sent back to the twos after a bit of a lacklustre performance against the Hawks.

The return of Bradley Hill and Max King were very welcome though, greatly improving their ability to score and transition the ball.

Neither team can really blame an injury list for performance here, so it’ll be two sides with at least 18 of their best 22 taking the field.


The game

I know people love to lament the modern game as ‘soft’, ‘poorly-skilled’ or ‘full of people with weird haircuts that send an odd fizzing in the crotch of my Bonds boxer-briefs’, but I think much of that comes from looking at the past with rose-tinted glasses.

Sure, modern footy can look a little scrappy when you remember the long runs and precision passes of the bygone era, but watch them side by side on a decent screen and the sheer speed difference is easily apparent. Why am I mentioning this here? Well, mostly because during some of the live commentary online, it’s frequently used to talk down pretty much any team that’s not Collingwood, yet if asked to describe their perfect game that doesn’t involve their team winning, most will struggle to do so.

I say reject this idea that footy has to be endless clean possession chains of uncontested marks and runs. Reject the idea that the long drop punt is the only acceptable disposal. Embrace the hungry, chaotic, desperate nature of modern footy in a tight contest. Enjoy the players scraping and fighting for every advantage. Accept that there are a lot of really terrible haircuts. Trust me, you’ll enjoy yourself a lot more, and isn’t that why we put up with the shitty Kayo feed, really?

This game was a perfect example of what I mean.

Not as many free-flowing open possessions, but some great contested marks and strong tackles. Weitering, Marshall, Wilke, Martin, Curnow, Owens and King all had some great marks under pressure that may not win them a car, but are the sort of efforts that win you games.

And as for the physicality, the first-quarter bump between Sinclair and Kemp showed what can happen when two players refuse to deviate and take the easy option, but were both committed to contesting the ball hard (within the modern ruleset). Sure, some old lads in the outer may be yelling into their midstrength about it, but if you’ve ever taken that sort of hit from someone charging through with 100kgs behind them and not emerged with the worst corkie you’ve ever had, well, you’ve either spent your career peeling oranges or you’ve got the sort of legs usually reserved for rhinos and dive-bar stools.

There was also the push/pull nature of the scoreline, with both sides playing very tight on defence. The Saints came out strong, but Carlton responded in-kind, only for a late 1st quarter goal to once again swing the match in favour of St Kilda. Even when the Saints managed to string together some goals in the second to blast away to a 20-point lead, you just never felt that Carlton were out of it—which is a marked difference to the past few years. Probably decades, actually.

The third quarter was a match of resilience, as both sides started to slow down a little, but the ability for Carlton to burst out of their backline with pace gave them the powerful ability to counter-attack when St Kilda surged forward. They didn’t really blow the Saints away with a sudden explosion of goals, but rather they ground them down in the sort of way that Geelong have made a trademark in their current era.

By the final quarter, the Saints had their noses in front, but the game was as much in the Blues’ hands as if it were a brown paper bag of off-the-books cash left at Princess Park back in the day.

To their credit, the Saints persevered, but the backline work of Weitering, Newman and Fisher was exceptional, not just with their one-on-one contests, but their ability to create a workable structure when the ball was coming in quickly, and a big reason why the Saints only managed 1.4 to the Blues’ 7.9 after half time. Yes, King managed a pair of goals and looked fairly dangerous, especially when he was able to find his small forwards in space with quick hands, but with the exception of James Sicily, I don’t think there is a backman in the league enjoying a run of this level of form at the moment.


Ruck battle

Both sides played their rucks in the less-traditional role of backstop floating a kick off the ball for much of the match. Marshall took the primary duties for the Saints, while Pittonet was the go-to big man for the Blues. Caminiti and De Koning played back up, but Caminiti was really a bit-part with only eight ruck contests to Marshall’s 70.

So, in Marshall v Pittonet, I think the pure ruck contest was a fairly even split. Marshall had slightly more hitouts (30-23) but attended more ruck contests (70-51). They had a similar amount of clearances, and the same number of hitouts to advantage. In the ruck contests, I kind of have to give it to Pittonet on his efficiency. He was exceptionally good around the stoppages, and was instrumental in linking up with his mids.

But, as a ruckman, I think Marshall had more impact on the game. His intercept and contested marks frustrated the St Kilda attack repeatedly, and his ability to hit targets by foot was far more effective than most big men.

De Koning managed more clearances than both of them, however, but didn’t really do enough work to bring in his mids to the game as the other two.

So, with that in mind, I’m giving the nod to Marshall. He was strong at stoppages, but also a big reason why this loss wasn’t a blowout with his defensive work.


Stats that matter

Over the course of the match, it was obvious that Carlton’s structure around the contest was superior. 46 clearances to 22 is a belting in that area. Carlton managed to equal the Saints’ total clearances in the second half alone, and dominate the inside 50s 18-8 in the last quarter.

Stoppage clearances were especially heavy in Carlton’s favour 37-15, showing just how well Voss has drilled the structure into his mids.

Another indicator was, oddly enough, bounces. These favoured Carlton 12-2 with Saad’s run out of the back half providing five of them alone.


Other bits

Mitch Owens had some great moments in the game. Breaking open packs and just looking like he was a danger to tear the game open. He didn’t quite mange it, but that’s less on him than it is on the people around him. He wouldn’t have had to try and break so many tackles if there was a fellow mid willing to put their body in between him and an opponent.

This win gives the Blues the longest streak (seven) since 2000. It’s a pretty long time between decent winning runs. Almost as long as Essendon’s finals drought.


Race to the finals

With this win, Carlton and St Kilda essentially swap positions, with the Saints dropping down to seventh while the Blues put Port Adelaide’s top four spot under a little bit of heat on the back of their four-game losing streak.

St Kilda have less percentage than Geelong, Sydney and Adelaide, and will need to win big at some point in their run home to secure their spot. While I’d say that most Saints supporters aren’t really expecting this to be their year to win it all, getting some finals experience into their team will be a huge long-term benefit, so it’s well worth pushing themselves to get the chance.

Next up, they have Richmond at Marvel. They’re in with a real chance here as the Tigers look vulnerable with big losses to the Dees and Bulldogs. Richmond can expect some quality players to return to the fold though, so it won’t be an easy run for the Saints, but I think with what is at stake, they should be able to handle what the Tigers can dish out, especially at Marvel.

After that, they have Geelong at Marvel, and Brisbane in Queensland in the floating fixture final round. Geelong always look dangerous late in the season, and will be very keen to avoid the ignominy of going from flag to missing finals, and I think their experience with the pressure will see them beat the Saints. It may then come down to that final game to secure a finals spot if other results benefit the teams below them. That will be a big danger game, as Brisbane when they’re in full flight look especially dangerous, and I think they may be too strong at home.

Are twelve wins enough to make it? It’ll be very, very tight and may come down to percentage. If that’s the case, the Saints need to absolutely smash the Tigers next week.

Carlton’s draw in round one has them half a game ahead of the pack surrounding the Saints, and it may prove a vital little buffer. They face the Demons at the MCG next week in a true test of their mettle. A win pretty much guarantees finals and puts the hype train into hyperspeed, while a loss creates a huge amount of pressure.

For my money, I think the Dees will be too solid with their defence far stronger than those Carlton has beaten recently, and it should allow them to sneak by.

The Suns and Giants are genuine threats, and while the Suns are currently in the dreaded ‘mathematically possible’ bracket, the Giants could well be in ‘do-or-die’ mode when they face the Blues.

I can see the run of Carlton putting a hurt on either team if it is allowed space, but both squads have decent run-with options. I have to go on current form though, and with both of those sides coming off losses this weekend, I’m tipping Carlton to hit September with momentum, and potentially, threaten a top four spot.