AFL 2020: Another Reminder That the Universe is Cruel – Round 14 v Melbourne

Waking up on Saturday, St Kilda fans were greeted with the morning papers reviewing the club’s 2014 decision to draft Paddy McCartin with the number one pick rather than Christian Petracca. Nearly six years on from the decision, it is one that fascinates the football world. An interest no doubt piqued by the fact that, at least for now, McCartin is a former player and Petracca fast becoming one of the Demons best. For Saints fans, who need no reminding that the universe can be cruel when it wants to be, this could mean only one thing. Petracca was set for a big one.

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Before we continue down this path, it is important that we lay a few cards on the table. At the time of the 2014 draft we 100% backed the club’s decision to use the number one pick on a key forward and were tantalised by the glimpses of what he might have been able to do had injuries not curtailed his time at the club. We also know that the only true tragedy in the comparisons and what-ifs of the 2014 draft are the health issues McCartin has had to endure, but it still stung seeing the guy that was picked behind him prove the decisive player in a match that had huge finals implications.

To focus too much attention on a six-year-old decision (that we supported) would be a) hypocritical and b) a disservice to more costly actions taken on the night. (Not that we are done talking about Petracca). In some ways, the first 10 minutes of the match was almost a microcosm of what was to follow for the rest of the night. Despite the Saints enjoying more clearances, possessions and inside 50s, they had only two Tim Membrey misses to show for this when Petracca kicked the first goal of the game. In fact, despite trailing by 15-points, they had still gone inside 50 more often than the Demons when they joined Brett Ratten at the quarter time huddle.

Almost a microcosm but not quite. While the Saints would continue to enjoy ascendancy in clearances and territory for the remainder of the match, the Demons forward half efficiency would not be recreated. After scoring four goals from nine inside 50s in the first quarter, they would be held to just four more goals for the remainder of the match. In a lot of ways this was the kicker in the wash up.

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The Saints would fall 21-points behind in the second quarter but cut that margin to two points by the main break. Yet, what followed felt similar to that slow-motion feeling of dread that accompanies the realisation of an imminent accident. While they would be able to play much of the game on their own terms, their inability to consistently find a target or bring the ball to ground inside 50 always felt like a fatal flaw on the night.

Perhaps it stood out because it was so out of character for a team that has been one of the most efficient in the competition for marks (fourth) and goals (second) per entry in 2020. Or maybe it was because of the seven marks the team took inside 50 on this night, with one being a Jack Steele intercept of a Nathan Jones kick, only six were off St Kilda boots. This just so happened to be the same number Steven May was able to take off Saints kicks entering the attacking arc.

Yet in spite of this wholesale butchery of the ball going forward, the Saints twice hit the lead in the third quarter. Perhaps fitting then that they would surrender it for the last time as a result of a coast to coast goal, the second Melbourne would score on the rebound from a wasteful forward entry. With two further goals coming from turnovers at half forward, they lived up to their status as the competition’s leading team for scores from back half turnovers. It also meant that, in a low scoring match, the Saints received only marginally more reward on the scoreboard from their attacking raids than Melbourne did.

The Saints would enter the final quarter trailing by just three points but despite concerted attacking efforts, would be unable to draw any closer. With a running time of just 23 minutes, the final quarter felt short upon reflection but not as it unfolded. With the closeness of the scores and the stakes on offer, it was enthralling viewing but much closer to excruciating to watch than entertaining. Apt then that its defining act, would be remembered more for what didn’t happen than what did.

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In the 12th minute, despite being outnumbered and tackled, Christian Petracca managed to get away a shot on goal. As the ball bounced towards the behinds, it took a turn to the right and turned towards goal with a desperate Dougal Howard close behind it. He would ultimately catch up with it but did he do so before it crossed the line? Petracca was certain that he didn’t, Howard was certain that he did, the goal umpire thought he hadn’t but wasn’t sure.

What happened next could have been prevented in a number of different ways. Defensively, the most obvious would have been had Howard gone towards goal earlier and made position ahead of time, instead of the contest with Petracca that he was unable to influence or for his teammates to prevent him from getting the kick away. The other would have been for the AFL to install goal line cameras like at other grounds which would have provided the ARC the footage it required to review the Goal Umpires decision as requested by the match officials. Instead with no usable footage to review, we were left with the decision that the Goal Umpire wasn’t sure about, with six minutes to go Melbourne had a ten-point lead, and Christian Petracca had his fourth goal.

As Saints fans contemplated which decision frustrated them more, another cruel realisation dawned on them. Having been reminded once again of their club’s decision to overlook him in the draft six years ago, they had been sunk on this night by four goals from the Demons midfielder. One more goal than the career-best effort of three in a game achieved by the key forward chosen instead.

As fitting as it was that Petracca would kick the game’s decisive score, that the Saints still had the opportunity to win it and couldn’t was more so. This wasn’t a match lost through an inability to create chances but through the spurning of them. A goal to Tim Membrey, after three misses, would bring the Saints back to within a kick before Rowan Marshall had the chance to win it with a long-range late shot.

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There were some positives to be taken from the night, not least being the best performance in St Kilda colours by Brad Hill. This wasn’t quite the Hill we saw in the preseason match against the Hawks but his creativity and dash looked a chance to steal the contest late. Jack Steele continued on his seemingly inevitable ascension to All Australian and Best & Fairest winner status while Callum Wilkie and Nick Coffield also provided good service down back.

For all that, the Saints fell to their fourth loss of the season by six points or less. The fine lines between success and failure evident in the fact that their season now rests on a knifes edge, where victory in each would have seen them on top of the ladder. For a club already well versed in just how greatly fortunes can change on the bounce of the ball, just four weeks on from occupying second place on the ladder, their best season since 2011 may well again be defined by one.

Anything less than two wins from here likely to mean another year watching on from the sidelines come finals time. In that event, the leg-break that Petracca’s fourth goal took may well prove the sliding door moment to end all sliding door moments.

The universe can be cruel like that.

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MELBOURNE     4.0     5.1     7.3     8.4     (52)

ST KILDA           1.3     4.5     6.6     7.7     (49)

Melbourne: Petracca 4, Weideman 2, Brown, Gawn
St Kilda: Battle, King, Marshall, Membrey, Phillips, Ryder, Steele 

Melbourne: May, Petracca, Gawn, Oliver, Langdon, Rivers
St Kilda: Steele, Hill, Jones, Coffield, Wilkie

Melbourne: Hibberd (right ankle)
St Kilda: Nil

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