The stakes were as high as they’d ever been. Geelong, the reigning premiers don’t forget, were staring down the barrel of missing the finals completely, and anything less than a strong victory would likely spell the end of the dynasty. St Kilda, unlikely finals challengers, only needed to win one of their final two matches, but also needed to make a statement that they belonged in the upper echelon of teams in season 2023.
It was billed as a mini-elimination final, but largely, it was one-way traffic. Right from the first bounce, St Kilda grabbed the ascendancy and never relented. Geelong challenged them and threatened to send the fans into panic, but the Saints weathered every storm, and put together an impressive four-quarter performance, defeating the Cats by 33 points, and ensuring that not only do the Saints play finals, but they’ve just about rubbed out the ninth and final Cat life.
Here are my likes, and dislikes, from St Kilda’s victory over Geelong.
THE JOHN STOCKTON OF THE AFL
Gryan ‘John Stockton’ Miers. The assist king of the AFL. I must admit, coming into this season, I didn’t rate Miers at all. I thought if Miers was playing, Geelong mustn’t have their best team out there. But in 23 rounds, Miers has become one of the most important players wearing the blue and white hoops, not just for what he does for himself, but more for what he does for everyone around him. He has become a vital cog in Geelong’s forward line, and with this skill up his sleeve, his importance should continue into the next decade.
Miers has 41 goal assists this season. To put that in perspective, the next best is 24. It’s an astounding stat line, one that has many people calling for Miers to be included in the All-Australian squad, if not the final 22 itself. Now, before every Geelong fan’s head explodes with excitement, Miers has had a very good year, but he shouldn’t really be anywhere near the AA squad. Yes, he has recorded an astonishing amount of assists, but let’s not forget, he’s a forward that has only kicked six goals this year. Based on that alone, there are others that are well ahead of Miers that will miss out.
Nevertheless, hats off to you Gryan. You have most assuredly proven me wrong.
All the rhetoric surrounding the Saints has, frankly, been ridiculous. Has a team that has been as entrenched in the top eight as they have, been so criminally underrated by the so-called ‘experts’, whose sole job it is to provide commentary on the AFL? Fox Footy’s Power Rankings (hardly a reliable source, but just go with me) has racked St Kilda as low as 15th, despite landing sixth on the actual ladder. They’ve craved that absolute statement victory, one that rubber stamps them as a legitimate finals contender. They’ve come close, and have looked very impressive at various stages of the season, but no one ever gave the Saints the proper respect that their ladder position commands.
That’s what made this victory so important, and so special. Their opponents needed this win far more than St Kilda did. Sure, the Saints weren’t concrete in the top eight coming into the game, but the reigning premiers season was on life support, and anything less than a win would just about kill them off for good. And with that pressure coming the other way, the Saints finally found themselves. They finally grabbed that big, statement-making victory. This was the one win that sealed their return to September football, and in fending off a late Cats charge, St Kilda has, hopefully, proven all the doubters wrong.
THE KING (AND HIS PRINCE)
Even though they performed way beyond expectations without him, St Kilda are so much better when Max King is their focal point. Just remember that the Saints started this season without either of King and Tim Membrey in their attack. Now that both are back, the Saints are legitimate contenders and could do some real damage in September. King has kicked 25 goals from his 10 games this season, and while Membrey hasn’t had the scoring output from his six games, he provides the Saints with a strong marking target higher up the ground.
King and Membrey’s presence has a ripple effect on everyone else in the forward line. Jack Higgins and Dan Butler don’t get double-teamed anywhere near as much and can feast on the crumbs, the likes of Cooper Sharman, Mattaes Phillipou, and Anthony Camaniti can rotate as the third tall forward and will command a ‘lesser’ defender as a result, and the midfield finally has a reliable target to fire the ball towards.
FIVE? ONLY FIVE?
It is completely ridiculous that Geelong were only awarded five free kicks for the whole evening. 20 for the Saints, just five for the Cats. Now, nowhere in the AFL rulebook does it say that the free kick count needs to be equal, but for the umpires to only find five frees for Geelong is utter nonsense.
The Cats laid 52 tackles, and not one was cited for holding the ball or incorrect disposal. High tackles were missed, the dissent rule is out the window, and the Saints directly benefitted from some of the most inconsistent umpiring I have seen all year. Many fans tend to blame the umpires when the result doesn’t go their way, and while I’m glad that didn’t happen in this case, those affiliated with Geelong can feel rather aggrieved that their final chance at finals football was hindered by a lack of common sense and consistency from the men in green.
THE NEED FOR SPEED
The contrast between game styles told perhaps the biggest story of the night. The Saints pressured the Cats into submission, and moved the ball with ferocious speed, while Geelong were content to move the ball methodically. Put simply, one worked, one really didn’t. The Saints were able to possess the ball more often, had 59 inside 50s to 41, they took more marks, had double Geelong’s marks inside 50, and piled on 28 scoring shots to just 15. Had St Kilda been more accurate in front of goal, the Cats would’ve been staring down the barrel of an 8-10 goal loss, rather than the more flattering 33-point beating the Saints gave them.
Geelong’s slow ball movement played right into St Kilda’s hands and they were able set up behind the ball, essentially waiting for the Cats to make the inevitable error by foot, and on counter attack, Geelong’s team defence had no answers. St Kilda’s forwards benefitted greatly from the quick ball movement, while at the other end…
FORWARD LINE MISFIRINGS
For a team that boasts two of the game’s greatest modern-day key forwards, and another with an All-Australian jacket, how can the Cats have been so meek forward of centre? Geelong’s slow ball movement did them no favours, but even when given the opportunites, the forwards couldn’t capitalise. Hawkins kicked his two goals, but Brad Close, Jeremy Cameron, Gryan Miers, Ollie Henry and Tyson Stengle only kicked two goals combined. Sure Cameron had 23 disposals, but most of them were so far up the ground that it almost didn’t matter.
Over the course of the season, Hawkins and Cameron have been excellent, with 102 goals between them, but once they go, and with Hawkins that may only be a few weeks away, what happens then? Can Ollie Henry, who has kicked 38 goals this season, step up and become the reliable second banana? Can Tyson Stengle, who has 25 goals, down from 53 in 2022, recapture his All-Australian form? Can Brad Close continue his development? Can Gryan Miers hit the scoreboard himself while also giving others opportunities?
THE RUCK CONUNDRUM
Chris Scott has many questions to answer about his team going forward, but his biggest headache has been around for years, and as yet, doesn’t have a definitive antidote. Who is Geelong’s number one ruckman, not just now, but for the future? Ask any Geelong supporter, and they’ll tell you that Rhys Stanley is ok and that the Cats did win the premiership with him in the square, but if given the opportunity, they’d upgrade him without a second thought. Scott has tried Esava Ratugolea, Mark Blicavs, Sam De Koning, and Shannon Neale at various points of the season, and while Neale is the only pure ruckman of that quartet, he is still a fair way away from being physically ready to hold down the ruck mantle.
All of Ratugolea, Blicavs, and De Koning are needed behind the ball, and even then, Blicavs will be 33 before the next season commences, and Ratugolea is a trade target for at least three other clubs. If Geelong believe they are still in premiership contention, and despite this season’s failure, I think a final tilt at a flag is firmly on their minds, they’ll need to solve this problem. Is it as simple as trading for Brodie Grundy? Do they fully commit to Stanley or Blicavs, and take any hits that come from that? Or do they back in Neale, and try their best to accelerate his development, much like the Dogs did with Tim English? Whatever answer Scott and his team come up with, they’ll need to find it, fast.
I’ve said everything that needs to be said about this game. St Kilda played fast attacking football, and Geelong had no answer. Geelong’s season is over, their premiership defence has been shattered, and the Saints finally put the doubters in their place with a commanding performance.
But the biggest story of the evening came from the across the border, and has huge ramifications for, at last count, seven different teams. When writing this review, I had the last quarter of the Adelaide vs. Sydney match on in the background. Like all of you, I saw the Ben Keays goal. And yes, Ben Keays kicked that goal. This is the AFL’s worst nightmare. Not just because Adelaide’s season has been ended on a botched goal decision, but three other teams are directly affected by this result. Adelaide were robbed. Right in front of me. Twitter, sorry, X went bananas, the media was in a frenzy, and a team has been left holding an explosive.
Geelong’s season has been ended, St Kilda are still not assured of September, GWS will (very likely) enter Round 24 out of the top eight, Essendon are percentage too far back (which is their own fault, but this hasn’t helped the cause), and the Bulldogs are the only team left outside the finals with a chance to claw their way back in.
I don’t know what the AFL does now. Through poor technology that they themselves brought in, the AFL has put themselves in an impossible position. If they overturn the result based on the clear video evidence that the goal did not hit the post (which it didn’t), Sydney will then say that with still a minute left on the clock, there was enough time for them to re-take the lead. But Adelaide, and everyone else this affects, are justified in feeling very hard done by, given they won’t play finals because of this.
Gillon McLachlan has since come out and apologised for the whole kerfuffle, but for the Crows, Cats, Saints, Giants, and Bombers, an apology doesn’t really cut it at this point. Playing careers could be affected. Finals hopes dashed. All because of a lack in process, and piss poor technology hastily brought in to, as they said at the time, stop the howler. Yet here we are, with a howler of a decision. Well done.
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