It wasn’t pretty, and it was far from comfortable, but there was still a lot to like about the Saints 23-point victory over the Crows at the Adelaide Oval on Monday night. In a case of 11th time lucky, a little more polish saw them bring to an end 10 game losing streaks at the venue and against the opponent. For a team that has consistently struggled outside of Victoria, the breakthrough nature of the victory is as important to remember as the quality of the opposition.
When we say that the Saints have struggled outside of Victoria, we could rightly be accused of gilding the lily a little. With just 52 wins from 171 attempts, the correct description probably rhymes with fit mouse. While there have been our share of hidings in the losses column, a large reason for the 70% losing percentage lies in the number of times the club has surrendered winning positions. A rather painful trait that looked set to continue when after dominating this contest, the lead was cut to nine points in the final term.
Despite this, the return of the noise of affirmation, and a hostile crowd, the Saints were able to settle in the face of the surge and kick away again in the final term. It is perhaps, for this reason, we are prepared to look a little more positively on the result than others. In our mind, this was more than a case of the Saints making hard work of a game they were expected to win.
That’s not just because the events of a week earlier have shaken our confidence in what constitutes an expected win but because of what it represents. This was a young team, bucking the weight of their club’s history to win a brave victory on the road. While the road to contention is built on consistently banking these wins, the first victory is often the hardest. With each one, the next one becomes easier again. With our next trip against Port Adelaide, we mean this metaphorically but the confidence that comes from road trips does become infectious.
As impressive as their holding on in the face of Adelaide’s charge was, the way in which the team started the game was equally so. After losing the unlosable to the equally lowly Dockers a week earlier, the blow torch had been applied to the Saints from outside and within. Whether it was in response to this, or because they are one of the best first-quarter teams in the comp, they got out of the blocks early against the Crows.
Setting the tone for a match where the first and last minutes of quarters would be unusually dense with scoring, Dan Butler had taken two shots for goal within a minute of the opening bounce. After missing his first, he made no mistake with his second to give the Saints the perfect start. Perhaps the lowest profile of all the club’s offseason trading, he is delivering the biggest return to this stage of the season. No better example of this were the two goals he added to his tally before full time. The first, after smart work from Jack Lonie and Jarryn Geary, to answer a contentious score leveling Taylor Walker goal in the shadow of quarter-time. His next in the third quarter, was perhaps the most important of the match.
Despite Butler’s second goal coming with just 42-seconds left in the term, it would not be the only last-minute goal of the quarter. The Saints dominance in centre clearances at play as Brad Hill and Zak Jones combined to deliver the ball forward. Reacting quickly to the chance, Max King beat his opponent to the ball and marked strongly. Unfazed by the quarter-time siren, the 20-year-old kicked truly and, within the blink of an eye, the Saints had tripled their score and retaken control of the match.
Just like the first, a goal was kicked in the opening minute of the second quarter. While this would become a common trend, with Taylor Walker kicking it in open play and not from a free-kick, the manner in which it was scored was not. Until the 26th minute of the final term, this would be the only goal that Adelaide scored that did not come as the result of a free kick or 50 metre penalty.
The Saints answer would come immediately, with Jade Gresham breaking away from the resulting centre bounce and finding King with a long bomb forward. His shot, taken from outside 50, never looked like missing and the quarter time margin was restored two minutes into the second quarter. It wouldn’t stay that way long, with the AFL’s bewildering application of the holding the ball rule about to have its first impact on the scoreboard.
Like Rowan Marshall and Nick Coffield against Fremantle, Callum Wilkie had reason to be aggrieved when he was found to be holding the ball by the umpires in this match. In the fourth minute of the second term, Adelaide’s Shane McAdam spilled the Sherrin after being tackled upon taking possession, Wilkie collected the loose ball and was similarly set upon immediately. Despite both instances happening within seconds of each other, the umpire adjudicated them completely differently. Rory Laird accepted the gift and closed the gap to six points.
This lucky dip approach to holding the ball, combined with the Crows only source of goal scoring opportunities coming from free-kicks, had St Kilda fans screaming at their TV screens in frustration. They were to discover they weren’t on their own when Dougal Howard expressed similar levels of dissent towards the umpires in the fourth quarter. It was the kind of ‘hairdryer treatment’ that would have made Sir Alex Ferguson proud. The cathartic effect it had for both Howard and Saints fans making it more than worth the 50-metre penalty it incurred.
Back in Adelaide for the first time since joining the Saints from the Power, it would not be the only highlight Howard delivered in another impressive performance. While his opponent Taylor Walker kicked three goals he had the better of the match up with his ability to intercept or spoil Adelaide’s forward thrusts an important part of the Saints victory. So too his running goal in the second quarter that included a shimmy that belied his status as a key defender. It would be the first of a run of goals that would see Jade Gresham and Jack Steele extend the margin to 26-points in time on.
Gresham and Steele were enormous for the Saints. While Gresham’s goal came after a dreadful miss only minutes earlier, he was one of the best on the night. His seven clearances ranked him second across both teams behind only Steele while his eight score involvements was a game-high. For Steele his goal was a just reward for a superhuman performance. Racking up 26 disposals, with 20 contested, he also won a career-high 13 clearances to well and truly earn a perfect 10 in the AFLCA Player of the Year Award voting.
Yet just as the Saints looked set to run away with the game they instead, staggered into the half-time break. A Tom Lynch goal would put a spring in the Crows step, and when Shane McAdam lined up for another after the siren the large crowd in attendance had roared back into life. Not even the young Crows miss could dampen the enthusiasm. The Saints wobbles a week earlier giving many the belief that the comeback was still well and truly on.
In that spirit and mood, the third quarter was one-way traffic as the Crows continually pressed forward. Fortunately, as much as they pressed they could not buy a goal even with 10 of the first 11 inside 50s. When the Saints created the 12th, Dan Butler was on hand, after a deft touch from Seb Ross, to deliver a hammer blow to the home team. His 13th goal of the season not only moving him into third in the Coleman but extending the Saints lead to 22 points. It meant that, despite all Adelaide’s best efforts and domination of the term, the margin was larger than it had been when the quarter began.
However, before the Saints could count any chickens before they hatched, two of the games recurring themes combined to close the gap once more. Just like the first two quarters, this one would end with a player kicking for goal after the siren. Appropriately, given its disproportionate effect on the game, this shot came as a result of another confusing holding the ball decision. Unlike 30 minutes earlier, McAdam would take his chance and inch his team within 16-points with a quarter to play.
To the great confusion of Eddie McGuire in commentary, Dean Kent would bob up in the opening minute of the final term to answer McAdam’s third-quarter gift. It would not be the last gift in need of answering though, with the umpires in a more generous mood than St Nick on December 24th. After the 50-metre penalty we spoke of earlier against Howard, his disposition was not helped when Taylor Walker was awarded a free kick for falling over. With the margin now nine points, the game was fast slipping from the Saints grasp. Enter then man McGuire mistook Kent for, Tim Membrey, whose mark and goal helped calm the nerves among his team mates.
Almost as if to mock McGuire in the commentary box, it would be Kent who would ice the game for the Saints minutes later. Membrey’s dopelganger earning an in the back free kick and calmly slotting a goal from 40-metres out. With the game officially in junk time, Jack Lonie added one for his highlight reel and extended the margin to a game-high 29-points. As has been the story of the Saints wins in 2020, the final margin was ultimately less than it should have been. One last goal for the Crows, just the second from open play, closing the gap before the final siren.
At the end of the day, this shouldn’t detract from a strong response from the team after a week of intense scrutiny. While it came with a number of areas still requiring attention, sometimes the most valuable wins are the ones eked out when not playing your best. For a young team trying to build its reputation, this ability to win ugly is almost as important as finding a way to win on the road. There is still some way for this group to develop but it isn’t hard to see the direction in which Brett Ratten is trying to lead them. Given that these journeys always come with a bump or two in the road somewhere, it is wise to celebrate big steps forward along the way. This was one of those big steps.
ADELAIDE 1.2 4.2 5.6 8.7 (55)
ST KILDA 3.2 7.4 8.4 12.6 (78)
Adelaide: Walker 3,McAdam 2, Keays, Laird, Lynch
St Kilda: Butler 3, Kent 2, King 2, Gresham, Howard, Lonie, Membrey, Steele
Adelaide: Walker, Doedee, M.Crouch, Keays, Lynch
St Kilda: Steele, Butler, Jones, Coffield, Gresham, Clark
St Kilda: Battle (head)