If ever we needed an example of what AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan meant when he pleaded for flexibility from the competition’s stakeholders we received it on Thursday. On five days notice St Kilda and Carlton met in prime time to open Round Five of the 2020 season. Yet even after being conscripted at such short notice, the two teams were nearly required to abandon their plans. A last-minute green light from Victorian Health Authorities required for the game to proceed after a Marvel Stadium security guard tested positive to COVID-19.
The reprieve would have been welcomed news at Moorabbin with the club having spent the week speaking positively of the opportunity. Simon Lethlean told SEN how the players reacted to the fixture shift. “For the players to roll in here thinking they’re playing Saturday afternoon and then to find out they’re playing in front of a million viewers, there couldn’t have been enough smiles on their faces.”
Speaking to saints.com.au Jack Steele also spoke of how the prime time opportunity affected the team. “We’ve all embraced it,” he said. “We just hope that we can perform like we have over the last week and against the Dogs at Marvel. It should be exciting,” he said before lamenting the empty stands that would confront them. “I just wish all the Saints fans could come and watch but at least they get to see us on TV which is good.”
As important as a return to playing in front of the most eyeballs possible was the opponent squaring off against us. Carlton, considered by respondents in the 2019 Herald Sun Fan Survey to be closer to a flag than the Saints, presented a perfect opportunity for the club to test itself out against another up and coming team. What better way to reacquaint yourself to the football world than by proving most of them wrong too?
While most mental health professionals will tell you it is unwise to spend too much time worrying yourself too much with others, the comparison with Carlton is an interesting one. As surprising as the results in the Herald Suns’ Fan Survey were, the accepted wisdom that the Blues collectively are as young or younger than the Saints is even more so. To put this fallacy into perspective the team Carlton fielded on Thursday night was on average two years older with 29 more games experience than the one wearing our favourite clash jersey. In comparison to the rest of the competition in Round Five, the Saints fielded the fourth-youngest and third least experienced team while Carlton had the ninth oldest and eighth most experienced.
On this alone it is hard to justify the public perception of the two teams in relation to each other. It is even harder still when you consider that the Saints have finished higher than the Blues every year since their last wooden spoon in 2014, and won five of the seven encounters between the teams during this period too. As opposed to the majority of the football world, a reasonable judge could only consider this evidence and conclude that not only was St Kilda more advanced than the Blues but they had greater room for improvement too. All of which would count for little if they lost to them under the bright lights of prime time. At the risk of being overly dramatic, it meant that the consequences of this match would be far greater than your regular Round Five match.
If there were any concerns about the Saints freezing under the examination again, as they had against Collingwood, they were quickly allayed with their early intensity. With Brett Ratten and the coaching staff once again spot on with their strategy and structures, the team dominated clearances and much of the early contest. Unlike St Kilda teams of the recent past, with speed and skill throughout the lines and a relative steadiness in front of goal, this dominance was quickly reflected on the scoreboard.
Once again the two-headed ruck approach was set aside and Rowan Marshall was left to shoulder the load for the majority of the match. His form in this role against Richmond and Carlton, alongside his work in 2019, is likely to mean that Paddy Ryder’s influence may be restricted to the training paddock. The other levers manoeuvered by Ratten to great effect was sending Jack Steele to Patrick Cripps and having the returning Jarryn Geary play a defensive role on Sam Docherty. We are also willing to give him credit for leaving the Carlton orchestrated match-up of Marc Murphy on Bradley Hill. While it meant the Blues were able to curtail the Saints highly paid recruit, as it effectively played out as a nill all draw, it came at the expense of one of their own prime movers.
This combined with the shutdown of Cripps and Docherty left them almost completely unable to compete in the first term. That said, to characterise Steele and Geary’s work as simply lock down roles would be a disservice. In the first term, Steele was behind only Callum Wilkie, who was on fire, for most disposals on the ground and was tied for most clearances. Not content with negating the creative Docherty, Geary hurt the All-Australian defender on the scoreboard too. The Saints skipper putting his hand up for a permanent forward role with two vital goals, to equal his career-best, in the first term alone. His second coming from an impressive contested mark that had him looking every bit the power forward.
As impressive as Geary’s contested effort was, it was less so than one taken by Ben Long early in the quarter. While Long would take another later in the match that will be more remembered, his brave first quarter intercept across half-back was an important early statement of intent. Reading the play well and taking the game on, the 22-year-old has prospered behind the ball in 2020.
In a promising sign of things to come for Brett Ratten, Long isn’t the only youngster learning fast down back. With the exception of veteran tall Jake Carlisle, St Kilda’s defensive half has been guarded mostly by a group of players 24-years or younger. Despite still being early in their careers, Dougal Howard, Callum Wilkie, Hunter Clark, and Nick Coffield have quickly formed an impressive group. Howard with Carlisle, like they have all season, kept Carlton’s key forwards quiet. Wilkie, Clark and Coffield along with Long again showed great poise against the Blues in repelling their forward thrusts and quickly turning defence into attack.
Max King helped the Saints get away to the perfect start. Despite a new hair cut making it a little hard to recognise him at first, he yet again hinted at just how special he will eventually be. He kicked the first goal of the match after easily outmuscling Jacob Weitering who had entered the match in good form. By the time he did the same again early in the next term for his second, the game had been blown wide open with the margin 32-points.
When the Saints went coast to coast in two possessions nine minutes later, the match was effectively won. Dan Butler’s calm finish from 40 metres after two bounces extending the margin to 37-points. Brian Taylor’s cringeworthy soundtrack to the action the only dampener on an electrifying piece of play. It was the kind of commentary that makes you realise why he was voted the most annoying commentator in the Herald Sun’s Fans Survey of 2019. He wasn’t done there though.
As if St Kilda fans, or Sain Kilda as BT refers to the club, hadn’t endured enough of his nonsense he would declare that the Blues would be confident of their chances at half time despite having only kicked two goals and trailing by five. It brought to mind the old adage to be careful what you wish for because you might just get it. Having been granted our wish for Channel Seven exposure we now had to sit through another half of this mind-numbing commentary. Is it too much to wish for Foxtel to get simulcast rights so that they can provide their own commentary like they do with the NRL?
The inevitable Blues challenge came in the third term. Unlike St Kilda teams of the recent past, this one rode the change in momentum, their ability to capitalise and score from Carlton turnovers proving invaluable. After conceding the first goal of the term the Saints would answer quickly. Max King would show his remarkable agility to interrupt a Liam Jones pass, then recover the loose ball and pinpoint Dan Butler in the goal square.
With the Channel Seven commentary team cheering them louder than a degenerate gambler with money riding on the result, Carlton would close to within three goals. Will Setterfield kicking two goals either side of Ben Long’s Mark of the Year contender to apply the blow torch. With the intensity rising so too did the Saints attack at the ball and man. Jake Carlisle laid a heavy bump on Mitch McGovern. Seb Ross and Dan Butler won a holding the ball decision inside defensive 50 to relieve pressure on the defence before Jack Steele completed an important intercept.
Quickly the ball went through the hands of Clark and Coffield who showed calm heads in heavy traffic. Onwards it travelled through the hardworking Dean Kent, Jonathan Marsh and Josh Battle before settling in the hands of Jack Billings within range of a settling goal. The classy 24-year-olds battles in front of goal are well documented, coming into the 2020 season he had a career strike rate of 77.98. Those troubles have not been seen this season and nor where they here with him kicking truly to, improve his season’s record to 6.0 and extend the lead back out to 23-points at the last change.
Having survived the Blues third quarter surge, Tim Membrey and Dean Kent quickly settled the result inside six minute of the restart. If you were to be critical of anything, it would be the fact that they did not go on and turn this 35-point lead into a comprehensive victory. Kent and Butler would both miss chances to extend the lead as Carlton kicked the last three goals of the game. The last a junk time special by one-time St Kilda whipping boy Jack Newnes.
There are still a number of unforeseen twists and turns lying in store for teams to overcome as the season is completed under the shadow of a global pandemic. The teams that can take these challenges in their stride will be the ones that succeed. Having passed the first one thrown in their path, and sitting in the top four, the Saints appear as well placed as any team to succeed under these most trying of circumstances.
CARLTON 1.1 2.4 5.6 8.7 (55)
ST KILDA 4.3 7.4 9.5 11.7 (73)
Carlton: Setterfield 2, Betts, Philp, Martin, Cripps, Gibbons, Newnes
St Kilda: Geary 2, King 2, Butler 2, Battle, Gresham, Billings, Membrey, Kent
Carlton: Martin, Setterfield, Curnow, Cripps
St Kilda: Steele, Long, Billings, Marshall, Coffield, Wilkie
Carlton: Fisher (gastro) replace in selected side by Philp
St Kilda: Hannebery (hamstring)