Written off by most pundits after the disappointment of Round One, the Saints couldn’t have been much more emphatic against more fancied opposition in Round Two. The Western Bulldogs, considered by many a premiership contender pre-season, were made to look second rate by a St Kilda team that comprehensively outplayed them. Hungrier, more disciplined, and more skillful, the Saints weathered an early storm before easily running away with the contest in the second and third quarters of the match.
Max King opened the scoring with his third career goal. The 202cm youngster displaying a deft reading of the play as he crumbed the ball beautifully off a pack before dribbling the ball through. In just his second AFL game he showed enough to have Saints fans salivating at what he will be capable of once fully developed. He would bookend the game with his second goal to conclude the scoring for the night but presented well throughout. While we need to remain patient, he is only 19-years-old and a few years off filling out his long frame after all, he does look likely to prove the steal of the 2018 Draft.
The Bulldogs answered quickly through goals to Mitch Wallis and Jack Macrae and began asking questions of the Saints structures. Their ability to find short targets inside forward fifty counter-acting the pressure they were facing at the contest. If not for misses to Laitham Vandermeer, Bailey Dale, and Aaron Naughton, this might have proved extremely costly for the Saints. Naughton’s miss proved a fillip however, with the resulting kick in leading to a goal for Jack Billings.
It would be the first of three for the night for Billings who was central to the Saints taking over the game from the Bulldogs. Crisp and creative with the ball, he would finish with 24-possessions and six score involvements as he helped cause much of the damage inflicted on the visitors in the middle two quarters. Five years after his first breakout game, the famous comeback against the same opposition in 2015, the 24-year-old now looks ready to consistently take his game to the elite level.
A pleasing aspect of how the Saints went about their business on Sunday night, was the speed and accuracy in which they performed it. This was equally true in attack or defence with the sight of St Kilda players racing to pressure opposition players with the ball a constant throughout the contest. It was also exciting to see them able to manufacture deep forward fifty entries without blindly bombing the ball forward. A great example of this was Jake Carlisle’s pass to Jack Lonie just before quarter time. Rather than blaze away towards the hotspot from sixty metres out, Carlisle pulled his kick and delivered a bullet to Lonie all alone 35-metres out. The resulting goal saw the Saints retake the lead and they would not surrender it again for the duration of the match.
The twin towers of Paddy Ryder and Rowan Marshall terrorised Tim English in the ruck. Some of Ryder’s palming reminiscent of that which earned him All-Australian selection in 2017. St Kilda was almost unstoppable at the centre bounce as a result which played a big part in the pressure they were able to build. On the backfoot, the Bulldogs were consistently left to run the gauntlet through the Saints forward and midfield defensive structures. Unable to find a way through, they would handball themselves into trouble or kick indiscriminately long where it was usually cleaned up by St Kilda’s halfbacks.
Those who feasted most on the intercept were Callum Wilkie, Ben Paton, and Hunter Clark. Wilkie has been a revelation since joining the Saints in 2019. Rarely, if ever, beaten he is perhaps one of the most reliable defenders in the competition. Not content with intercepting the ball, his decision making and disposal are equally elite. The same is becoming true of Clark who has revelled in a permanent position down back. A brave and committed competitor, the 21-year-old made a number of telling contributions throughout the night.
Goals to Billings, Nick Hind, Jack Steele, and Dan Butler blew the game open in the second quarter. Butler in his second game for the club was busy throughout the night and caused the Bulldogs constant headaches. While he might want to take back his choice of kick in the first quarter which saw him miss a gilt-edged chance for goal, there was little to fault with his performance. His two way running meant he was consistently a threat in attack and defence. His fierceness at the contest seeing him lay a team-high six tackles, four which were inside forward fifty and his positioning and reading of the play were at the heart of both the first and last goals of the second quarter.
The first, kicked by Jack Billings, came as a result of him crumbing a spilt Rowan Marshall mark at full pace and having his shot for goal marked by his teammate on the goalline. His own goal to end the second quarter came about as a result of him continuing to run and present. Despite having seen his efforts at half forward result in a mark to Brad Hill in the pocket, Butler ran past a number of opponents to present for the over-the-top handpass and an easy score. The disparate level of efforts from players on opposing teams in this play a perfect illustration of where the game was ultimately won and lost.
Similar running would see Butler claim a second goal in the third quarter when he found himself on the end of a Max King pass unopposed. It was the second goal of the quarter scored as a result of a Bulldog error. Billings kicking the first after finding himself the happy recipient of a misguided Marcus Bontempelli kick. After the grief Billings has had to endure as a result of being taken in the 2013 draft with the selection before Bontempelli, it was a well deserved gift for the Saints star from the Bulldogs captain.
Zak Jones would be the next to get his name on the scoresheet with his first goal in St Kilda colours. A proud moment for a player who grew up a Saints fan and whose family has a strong connection to the number three jumper he now wears. Jones’ brother and former Melbourne captain Nathan, was named after the great Nathan Burke who famously made the number three his own during his decorated career at Moorabbin. Jones’ performance against the Bulldogs was one worthy of the famous jumper. One of the best for the Saints, he finished with game-high numbers in possession and clearances.
The performances of Seb Ross and Jarryn Geary also deserve mentioning. Two players that have received more than their fare share of criticism from Saints fans along the journey they both performed important roles for the club against the Bulldogs. Ross spent much of the night opposed Marcus Bontempelli at stoppages and in doing so curtailed the input of the young champ while collecting 24-possessions himself. Geary was deployed as a defensive forward to thwart Norm Smith Medallist Jason Johannisen. Despite suffering an injury that will see him miss next week against Collingwood, his efforts drew particular praise from Coach Brett Ratten post-match.
We have also really enjoyed the physicality of Dougal Howard down back. Not afraid to throw is body around he has added extra steel down back. Ben Long is another who has been strong across half back. One of the beneficiaries of the 12-week break between Rounds One and Two, due to the time it afforded him to recover from an ankle injury, Long delivered a bone crunching tackle and broke free of a number of tackles with a fierce fend. The stat sheet doesn’t reflect it, but Tim Membrey was another player whose efforts we loved. After doing it week in and week out for the last six years, it is no longer a surprise but still worthy of acknowledgement every now and then.
If there was any fault to be found on a positive night for the club, it would be that the seven-goal three quarter time lead didn’t ultimately translate into a 10-goal plus victory. That said, this shouldn’t take away from a performance in which the Saints proved themselves capable of playing fast, attractive, and effective football. Their use of the ball and decision making was as good as it has been in some time. As a result, they consistently moved the ball from one end to the other with style and purpose. We will learn a lot about this team over the next two weeks but in the afterglow of this win, it feels as if they are building something exciting at Moorabbin.
ST KILDA 3.1 7.3 12.4 14.4 (88)
WESTERN BULLDOGS 2.4 3.4 5.6 7.7 (49)
St Kilda: Billings 3, Butler 2, King 2, Lonie, Hind, Steele, Jones, Marshall, Hannebery, Membrey
Western Bulldogs: Wallis, Macrae, Vandermeer, Richards, Williams, Naughton, Dunkley
St Kilda: Billings, Butler, Jones, Ross, Steele, Hannebery
Western Bulldogs: Dunkley, Smith, Lipinski, Macrae
St Kilda: Nil
Western Bulldogs: Nil