Well wasn’t that a kick in the guts.
Though it ended so painfully, the afternoon couldn’t have started better for the Saints with Michael Walters winning the opening clearance and belting the ball the wrong way. A holding the ball, followed by and 50m penalty, and Tim Membrey had the first goal of the game inside the first minute. After the statement made the previous week against the Blues, St Kilda looked set to make another when the margin had blown out to 36-points by quarter time.
While not particularly clean with the ball, the Saints had a first-term disposal efficiency of 72% which is about the competition average, their second efforts, defensive pressure, and structure was too much for the Dockers. As a result, they were able to turn a narrow clearance lead into a domination of possession and territory. Their run to compete and create reflected in large discrepancies in both contested (36-21), and uncontested possessions (49-29). One of the best quarters they have produced in years was capped off by their efforts without the ball too, winning the tackle count despite spending most of the quarter in possession of the Sherrin.
One of the few statistical areas they weren’t able to win in the first quarter was the one determined by the umpires whistle. While we aren’t in anyway suggesting the officiating was at play in the final result, it gives us a chance to segue to the ridiculous Alastair Clarkson led crackdown on holding the ball. It was a classic piece of misdirection from the Hawks coach, that the football media lapped up without a second’s thought. The nonsense of the whole situation evident in the Hawks receiving just one holding the ball free kick in the first week of the ‘crackdown’ and playing a part in one of the worst games of the season in the second.
While the AFL dispute that it has responded to the four-time premiership coach and that they had always intended to change the interpretation, what can’t be argued is that the result is a dog’s breakfast. Nick Coffield was the first to feel the wrath of this new lucky dip style approach. The umpire impressed enough to reward Sean Darcy’s ‘perfect tackle’ with a shot at goal. The fact it didn’t comply with any other aspect of the holding the ball required to warrant a free-kick seemingly inconsequential. Rowan Marshall was the other most notable victim when tackled in the third quarter.
Both ill-gotten shots at goal were missed meaning that they did not have the full effect on the scoreboard that they otherwise might have. This cannot be said for the decision made less than 24-hours later, that trumped these two as the worst of the round, when Sydney’s Callum Mills was penalised for a rushed behind despite being pushed across the goalline by Jack Riewoldt. The most outrageous thing about a knee jerk direction to umpires to enforce a different interpretation is that it is entirely unlikely that they will maintain it. There is zero chance that an umpire officiating on Grand Final day will award a free kick for anything resembling any of these three examples which makes the whole thing a shocking waste of time.
Speaking of shocking wastes of time, that brings us to the final three-quarters of this game. While there were unquestionably larger issues at play, after praising his team for their game sense against Carlton, Brett Ratten must have been enraged by their complete lack of it against Fremantle. His team’s inability to manage the tempo at crucial stages proving costly in the face of the games’ changed circumstances.
There was no surprise that, in the wake of the Saints devastating opening quarter, the Dockers made a number of tactical adjustments at the first break. Much of their efforts now hinging on their ability to hold on to the ball and avoid kicking long to a contest at all costs. In doing so they limited the Saints opportunities to win possession back off them and to hedge them in on the occasions that they did. As is almost always the case in big comebacks, as much praise as the winning team deserve for turning it around, the result is only possible through key blunders by the losers.
As much as the Dockers made it more difficult to score in the second term, the Saints had more than enough opportunities to hit the scoreboard and quell the charge. Less than a minute into the term Jade Gresham missed one that will haunt him in his dreams after second and third efforts from Max King kept the play alive. Then after leaking a soft goal to Lachie Shultz in the goal square, the Saints threatened again to put the game to rest. In the space of five minutes, Max King goaled once and missed twice before Dean Kent missed the tall forward with a pass inside 50 on the back end of clean movement from fullback.
With the game now into time on in the second quarter and only seven points erased from the quarter time margin, these missed opportunities seemed of little consequence. They only became pivotal when these five wasteful minutes were followed up with five lazy minutes. Kent’s pass, originally intended for King, was picked off by James Aish. Seven uncontested possessions later and Matt Taberner was lining up to close the margin to 25-points.
The Dockers would win the resulting centre clearance and drive the ball inside attacking fifty but it was quickly rebounded by Jake Carlisle. Not sensing the changed momentum in the match, he floats his kick to a dangerous position and watches on in horror as three Dockers overwhelm Rowan Marshall and rush forward. A series of handballs ends up with Brett Bewley who kicks the Dockers closer still.
Seb Ross comes up trumps at the next centre clearance but as he drives the ball forward, Brad Hill gives away an in the back free kick to Michael Walters. He would give away another to the same opponent in a dangerous position moments later. Rather than take the kick, Walters handpassed to Nathan Wilson who kicked long to a pack. With a five on four numbers advantage at the fall of the ball, that included both defensive talls and ruckman Rowan Marshall, Wilson’s kick should have been easily cleaned up. Instead it would be marked by Nat Fyfe whose resulting goal cut the margin to just 13-points.
It would take just another seven after the long break for the margin to be eroded all together. While the Saints would ultimately ride their luck before mounting a Tim Membrey led fightback, the match was lost in this 12-minute period either side of half-time. As much as they were outplayed across the final three quarters, it was these efforts that cost them a victory that was all but assured at quarter time.
Twice now they have thrown away big leads in a season in which one win is all that separates second from 13th. Rather than looking to consolidate a position in the upper reaches of the ladder in coming weeks they now need to fight to just stay in touch. The other fear beyond the implications for this season is the long term effects these kinds of defeats have on their psyche. Saints fans won’t need reminding of the 1999 team who went from top-four contender to basket case after blowing big leads two weeks in a row midseason.
The 2020 team does not have to accept that fate. Thankfully, unlike Round One, they have the chance to immediately make amends for their performance. Will they stand up and be counted or will they meekly accept their fate? Against a team without a win this year, but that we haven’t beaten for nearly a decade, we might find out an awful lot about what makes this team tick.
FREMANTLE 1.2 6.4 9.7 12.7 (79)
ST KILDA 7.2 8.5 8.5 11.7 (73)
Fremantle: Taberner 2, Fyfe 2, Schultz 2, Darcy, Lobb, Bewley, Tucker, Serong, Banfield
St Kilda: Membrey 3, Jones 2, Billings, Kent, Butler, Lonie, King, Gresham
Fremantle: Walters, Brayshaw, Taberner, Fyfe, Lobb, Tucker
St Kilda: Steele, Membrey, Billings, Jones, Battle
Fremantle: Young (ankle), Darcy (concussion), Cox (hip) replaced in selected side by Duman.
St Kilda: Nil