When the Saints travelled to Adelaide in 1991 for their Round 22 encounter with the Crows they did so on the brink of a return to September action for the first time in almost two decades. With three games to play in the season, it loomed as an important contest with just ten points separating the then sixth-placed Saints and the ninth-placed Crows in the race for a place in the Final Six.
It had been a remarkable season for the Ken Sheldon led Saints and their champion spearhead Tony Lockett. Injured in the club’s opening Fosters Cup win against the Eagles, he would be forced to miss the first six rounds of the season proper. It would mean that on his return in Round Seven, he had missed 40 of 71 since claiming the Brownlow/Coleman Medal double in 1987.
Having scrambled to a 2-2-1 record in Plugger’s absence there was cause for optimism ahead of the big man’s return. Despite having been largely absence across the previous three seasons, his tally of 65 goals from 12 games in 1990 was equal to that kicked by Jack Riewoldt in claiming the 2012 & 2018 Coleman Medals. More impressively his 78 goals from 11 appearances in 1989 would have seen him claim the Coleman in all but one of the 10 seasons between 2010 and 2019. Despite the undoubted reasons for hope, not even the most optimistic Saints fan would have foreseen the influence Plugger would have on the 1991 season.
12, 10, 12, 4, 7, 5, 8, 5, 8, 5, 2, 5, 1, 13.
After kicking 34 goals in his first three games, Lockett kick-started the Saints charge for a finals berth and his own incredible pursuit of a second Coleman Medal. Remarkably, despite spotting Jason Dunstall 32 goals, Peter Sumich 31 goals, and Darren Bennett 26 goals, it was enough to see Lockett move into third place in Coleman standings after Round Nine. He would move into second place the next week and claimed the overall lead after Round 12. After just 14 games, sis club and venue record of 13 goals against Carlton in Round 21 at Waverley left him just three goals from the second-fastest century of goals in competition history. It meant after having been on the receiving end of Plugger’s comeback dozen in Round Seven, the Crows were set to be a footnote in another milestone for the Saints full-forward.
In front of their home fans, unlike the previous meeting between the teams when they suffered a 133-point hiding at Moorabbin, the Crows took it right up to the Saints. Yet when Lockett brought up his century from a Danny Craven daisy-cutter pass, the lead was out to 20-points early in the second quarter. Unlike when Fraser Gehrig brought up his century at the same ground 13-years-later, there was no ground invasion to accompany Lockett’s goalkicking feat. Despite this, the Saints may have been guilty of over-celebrating the moment as they allowed the Crows back into the contest. Conceding four of the last six goals of the term, Ken Sheldon’s men took a lead of just four points into the half-time break.
When the lead changed hands four times in the first ten minutes of the third quarter, the scene seemed set for a thrilling finish. Yet just as the home crowd dared to dream of an unlikely finals appearance in their first season, Nicky Winmar exerted his influence in the middle to blow the game wide open. On the back of Winmar’s work in the centre, the Saints broke away through goals to Lockett, Dean Rice, Tim Pekin, and Gilbert McAdam. The last on the three-quarter time siren stretching the margin to 26-points.
With the stuffing knocked out of the home team, the only interest in the final term was whether Lockett would kick his fifth bag of ten for the season. With six goals to his name after three quarters it would take some kind of final quarter effort to see him to double figures. He added a further three goals to his name, but despite his and his team mates best efforts with 14 seconds remaining the odds appeared stacked against him finding the elusive number 10.
A free kick to Stewart Loewe on centre wing gave him one last chance. Loewe quickly moved the ball to Paul Harding in the centre of the ground who bombed the ball long to Lockett who marked the pass over a tired Rodney Maynard, moments before the final siren sounded. Having already missed one chance moments earlier, he would make no such mistake when given another opportunity.
Having performed so sensationally after a week of attention, it was fitting that Lockett would have the final say in this contest. The victory that his efforts helped deliver, the Saints first-ever win at night after seven previous attempts, all but helped secure a return to September for the club after 18-years in the finals wilderness. As a result, after years in which his absence was keenly felt by the team, Lockett was afforded a well-earned break the following week to rest a nagging groin injury. For the first time in decades, there were bigger battles ahead for the Saints.
AFL 1991 ROUND 22
St. Kilda 4.4 7.7 14.9 20.12 (132)
Adelaide 2.0 7.3 10.7 12.9 (81)
Best: St. Kilda — Lockett, Winmar, Loewe, Coghlan, Grant.
Adelaide — Jameson, Klug, Fieike, Bartlett, Rowe, Mickan.
Goals: St. Kilda — Lockett 10, Winmar 2, McAdam 2, Harvey, Rice, Coghlan, Taylor, Loewe, Pekin. Adelaide — Jameson 5, Klug 2, Bartlett 2, Bickley, Mclntyre, Rowe.
Umpires: C. Mitchell, B. Sheehan.
Crowd: 45,440. At Football Park.