After, and amid, great uncertainty the Saints 2020 season opened against North Melbourne at Marvel Stadium. The expectations of the off-season appeared to be well-founded when the team took a 29-point lead into the half-time break after a dominant first half. Unfortunately, a second-half capitulation put paid to the hopes of a first-up victory that appeared a formality at the long break. Instead of a morale booster in a difficult time, Saints fans forced to watch from home were left with a feeling similar to the stands that surrounded their team – empty.
In the aftermath of the disappointing result, it is difficult to reconcile the contrasting performances of the first and second halves. Where for the first two quarters the group looked swift, crisp and decisive, after the long break they appeared slow, clumsy and tentative. After their maniacal running with and without the ball rendered the Kangaroos helpless, an inability to cope with a renewed vigour from their opponents saw them surrender four premiership points that were theirs for the taking.
As if to compound the sense of opportunity lost, post-match it was announced that the season would be suspended upon the completion of the round. Can the events of one afternoon truly extinguish the high hopes and expectations held over a long off-season? As Sunday afternoon became Sunday night, it most certainly felt possible as the club, and its supporters, were left to contemplate the bitter taste of this defeat accompanying them until at least June.
It can be easy at times like this to focus only on the negatives from a painful loss but there were some genuine positives before the tide turned. All six first time Sainters gave reason to believe they will fill the need they were recruited for. Paddy Ryder took the first bounce and split time in the ruck with Rowan Marshall against the dangerous Todd Goldstein. Although the Kangaroo ruckman had moments, helped as always by his teacher’s pet status with the officials, the twin tall strategy worked well for large sections of the game with both bobbing up inside forward fifty at different stages.
Brad Hill started slowly and gave away the free-kick that resulted in the Kangaroos first goal. Thankfully his services weren’t required on the last line of defence too often and he worked his way into the contest. It took until the second quarter for him to register his fourth possession but it was the kind that has Saints fans and forwards alike licking their lips in anticipation for what lies ahead. Seemingly effortless, he eased his way through the middle of the ground and found Tim Membrey with a perfect pass. It was the type of ball movement that immediately brings to mind Bruce McAvaney saying ‘Special’ inappropriately.
It was a familiar face in an unfamiliar position though who would kick the first goal of the game. Jack Steele opening the scoring after he outmuscled his opponent to clunk a hurried Luke Dunstan kick forward. His goal would give the Saints a seven-point lead after earlier misses from Dans Hannebery and Butler. The former was a welcome sight after his injury-hampered 2019 campaign while the latter was perhaps a surprise to some fans with his running and tackling prominent. Both would have reasons to be happy with their output on this day but would question their decision making later in the match when within range of the goal the Saints ultimately fell short by.
Living his lifelong dream, Max King created a moment he’ll never forget deep in time on in the first quarter. Wearing the number 12 jumper made famous by Nick Riewoldt, to the great delight of Saints fans, King booted his first goal for the club. Not content with this, having spent the 2019 season on the sidelines, he nearly wrote a fairytale finish for himself too. His second goal helping the Saints take a late lead.
Dougal Howard and Zac Jones also had reason to be pleased with their first outings for the club. Howard’s first impact on the contest sure to have left a lasting impact on Tarryn Thomas. While his efforts across the rest of the afternoon was less stirring, they did quell the influence of Ben Brown. With 22 possessions for the day, along with Seb Ross, Jack Steele and Dan Hannebery, Zac Jones was the Saints leading possession winner. His hard running also reflected in his five tackles for the day which was only bettered by Steele and Butler. In the end, with 0.3 for the day, the only blot on his copybook was his finishing in front of goal.
Jones wasn’t on his own though, between Max King’s first two career goals, the Saints kicked 4.9 while building and surrendering a 29 point lead. Despite two goals from Jack Billings and one from Paddy Ryder and Tim Membrey, the recipient of Brad Hill’s ‘delicious’ pass, inaccuracy prevented the team from landing the killer blow. A shocker from Jade Gresham, whose absence was keenly felt after halftime, and a miss from King before the long break and from Jones and Kent immediately after, left the door ajar for the Kangaroos.
Each was eminently kickable as were opportunities for Hannebery and Luke Dunstan on the run that did not register scores. Just like a Bond villain who refuses to take advantage when they have their nemesis on their knees, the Saints watched on in horror as the Kangaroos lifted themselves off the canvas. Yet even as their opponent’s improbable comeback gathered momentum, opportunities to thwart it continued to present themselves.
Despite ultimately being unable to answer North’s increased pressure in the second half, one more goal would still have seen the Saints hang on to the four premiership points. As their opponents kicked six of the last seven goals of the game to pinch it, there was two clean cut opportunities that could have seen an entirely different result. After the first three goals of the five-goal run that saw the Kangaroos pinch the lead, the hard running of Jones gave him a chance to stem it from 30 metres on the run. Then with time almost expired a strong Rowan Marshall mark gave the young gun the chance to win the game for his team.
In the end, both would miss their chance and instead of a grim win we were left instead with a disappointing defeat. Unfortunately, the result paled into insignificance by afternoon’s end as the competition succumbed to the debilitating pandemic that is changing life as we know it. Despite the weekly escape the game offers needed now more than ever, it could no longer be safely contested.
Rather than focusing on the West Coast Eagles in Round Two, the players and officials are spread far and wide as we all combat something much more serious. Like so many individuals, businesses, and industries, the St Kilda Football Club is now locked in a battle for its survival. Having already navigated 147 years, the ravages of two world wars and near financial collapse, it is unusually experienced in overcoming tough times and with a passionate and committed fanbase will do so once again.
Together we endure. Together we survive. Together we rise.
AFL 2020 ROUND ONE
NORTH MELBOURNE 1.1 2.2 6.7 8.8 (56)
ST KILDA 3.3 6.7 6.11 7.12 (54)
North Melbourne: Brown, Larkey, Goldstein, Simpkin, Hall, Taylor, Cunnington
St Kilda: King 2, Billings 2, Steele, Membrey, Ryder
North Melbourne: Cunnington, Polec, Simpkin, Macmillan, Higgins, Dumont
St Kilda: Billings, Hannebery, Steele, Jones, Ross, Clark
Umpires: Chamberlain, Stephens, Brown