Bouncing back from disappointment has been a recurring theme in season 2020 for the Saints. So it was again on Sunday when, putting aside their meek performance six days earlier against the Cats, they were too strong for the Bombers at the Gabba. Those with a critical bent will no doubt recognise there remains room for improvement for Brett Ratten’s men but that should not overshadow the fact that there was also a lot to like.
In warm conditions, Max King was red hot early and could well have had four goals in the first quarter. Once again putting forward his case for status as the game’s most exciting young forward, King forced Essendon Coach
John Worsfold Ben Rutten to move All Australian defender Michael Hurley off him at quarter time. It was the kind of performance that can make you forget that he is just 20-years old and in his 12th game at this level. How good is he going to be when he has a few games under his belt and extra kg’s on his teenagers frame? As Saints fans excitedly ponder this question, you can imagine it is also causing a few opposition defenders and coaches to wake in fright at the prospect.
On the back of King’s two early goals, it was all one-way traffic for the Saints in the first quarter. Playing with a much clearer purpose, and with a much fiercer intensity, they would finish the first term with eight scoring shots to one and a 22-point advantage. Where the Saints looked to, and looked likely to, score every time they took possession, the Bombers seemed more intent to use their time with the ball as nothing more than a chance to prevent that scoring.
Nowhere was this more clearly observable than in two moments late in the term. A Sam Draper intercept mark at centre half back in the 20th minute was followed by a kick wide to the left. A long wait as their options down the line dried up. Under pressure from the St Kilda press that was allowed to swarm them as they waited for an option the ball was then moved hurriedly right then out on the full in the back pocket. The resulting free kick saw the ball end up with Nick Hind and a goal.
Barely a minute afterwards, Martin Gleeson intercepted at half forward. After waiting for all possible quick play options to evaporate he kicked long down the line. Jacob Townsend made good position and won the ball and, under pressure, hacked it forward. There was no slow play from Rowan Marshall when he intercepted this kick. Immediately he moved the ball into the corridor as the Saints looked to profit off the error which, when Brad Hill left the ball behind in the centre, looked like it might prove costly. Yet rather than take the shortest path to goal and challenge a St Kilda defence out of position, the Bombers immediately went wide and the ball went out of bounds at centre wing.
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Whatever it was, there was something about kicking to the Vulture Street end that agreed with Zak Jones. Playing in 100th game, collecting 16 of his 26 disposal in the second and fourth quarters, he was most productive when the Saints were kicking that direction. His attack on the ball seeing him finish with 11 contested possessions, four clearances, four score involvements, and a perfect 10 from the coaches in the AFLCA Player of the Year Award.
Any desire the Bombers had to take the game on, was shaken from them when Josh Battle intercepted a quick switch from Josh Begley early in the second quarter. When Tim Membrey and Dan Butler added two more in quick succession, even St Kilda supporters burned by the team’s losses to North Melbourne and Fremantle knew that the game was over. This confidence might have wavered when the Bombers closed to within four goals after the half time break but it was anything but a concerted challenge.
A shallow entry, a piece of Adam Saad brilliance and costly turnover with nobody behind the ball the cause of the Bombers back to back to back goals. Remarkably, up until 3/4 Time they had just three marks inside 50 for the game, the Saints had 14. While their own systems played a part, it was the Saints defensive structures that deserve most of the credit for Essendon’s inability to find a more traditional or reliable path to goal. It is perhaps in the age and experience profile of those patrolling St Kilda’s defence that provides the biggest positive for the afternoon.
Without Jake Carlisle, who was rested, the back six for large parts of this match was made up of Nick Coffield, Callum Wilkie, Ben Long, Hunter Clarke, Dougal Howard and Josh Battle. With an average age of 22 and an average games played of 39, this is an extremely green group. At 24, Howard is the oldest of the sextet and his 57 games make him the most experienced too. While they are far from the finished article, as is evidenced by them sitting ninth for points conceded per game, they are learning and improving fast.
The Saints own sloppiness with the ball after half time was a large factor in the game failing to reach any great heights in the second half and a cause of lament for Brett Ratten post-match. What was pleasing though was that they found a way to hit the scoreboard in the third quarter to extinguish the Bombers surge. Forward half-pressure from Dan Butler and Max King helping to create scoring opportunities for Paddy Ryder and Jack Lonie.
It would be wrong of us not to make mention of Ryder’s efforts in this match, his first for the Saints against his original club. The 32-year-old was said to have been interested in a return to the Bombers in the off-season and toured their facilities which would have made his ruck domination on this day that little bit more unpalatable for them. As promising a prospect as Rowan Marshall is, it has been a long time since the Saints have had a ruckman with the touch at ruck contests that Ryder has. Having been on the receiving end of it over the years, it is so enjoyable to watch our onballers benefit from this artistry.
Fittingly, after lighting the game up in the first term, it would be King who would kick the last goal of the contest. Also appropriate would be that it would come from a deft pass from Jack Billings. While not as eye-catching as some of his teammates against the Bombers, the 24-year-old was unquestionably one of the most important players on the ground. He would finish the game with more effective disposals than any other Saint and with more goal assists than any other player.
Bigger challenges lie ahead but, after beginning the week with the disappointing effort against the Cats, this result was vitally important. While it wont go down as a performance for the ages, there are no style points on the AFL Ladder. This was a game they just had to win and they did. As a result, their destiny in season 2020 remains well and truly in their own hands as this thrill ride of a season enters its home stretch.
ST KILDA: 4.4 7.5 9. 10.8 (68)
ESSENDON: 1.0 2.0 4.1 5.3 (33)
St Kilda: King 3, Membrey 2, Battle, Butler, Hind, Lonie, Ryder
Essendon: Begley, Langford, McDonald-Tipungwuti, Saad, Townsend
St Kilda: Jones, Battle, Billings, Steele, Clark, King
Essendon: Parish, Shiel, Merrett, McGrath, Langford
St Kilda: Paton (concussion)