AFL 2020: Snatching Defeat From the Jaws of Victory – Round 17 v West Coast.

In a season in which the team had already lost four games by less than a kick, including twice giving up 30+ point leads, the Saints still found a new and inventive way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory against the Eagles in Round 17. As a result, despite sitting in second place on the ladder six games ago, they will enter the final round with their place in the finals still unconfirmed. A whole new chapter of ‘what-ifs’ added to a season already full to the brim with them.

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While it might sometimes seem so, no game is ever decided by one event. That said, Brad Hill might need a little convincing of this fact after being at the centre of this contest’s spectacular turning point. After not scoring a goal for half a game, the Saints roared into life by kicking three in seven minutes to start the fourth quarter and in doing so, take the lead and the momentum in the match. In a little over three minutes, Max King would miss two shots before Hill found himself with a gilt-edged opportunity to extend the margin into double figures. Despite Luke Darcy’s excited commentary otherwise, the speedster would miss his running shot from 15 metres out.

In a team score of 6.14 for the night, it is fair to say that this was not the first, or the last, miss by a player wearing red, black, and white but what made this one so pivotal though, was the Eagles response. Less than 10 possessions after nearly falling 13-points down, they had retaken the lead. An otherwise unseen Josh Kennedy scoring effectively from the resulting kick in and Tim Kelly from the next centre bounce.

On a night in which the Saints couldn’t find a way to bring their key forwards into the game, or an answer to the clearance work of Kelly, it was a poetic one-two punch. Despite having more of the ball, more forward entries and more scoring shots, they came up short in the key moments. While the Eagles were missing a number of key players, in the end they still had too much polish for a Saints team that is full of fight and endeavour but has forgotten how to score and forgotten how to win.

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Forgotten might be a rose-colored view of it, others might suggest instead that opposition teams refuse to let them score and to refuse to let them win. There is definitely a lot of merit in this argument as opposition teams have made it increasingly more difficult for the team to access the same avenues to goal as they did so effectively earlier in the season.

The output of the team’s two leading goalscorers a brilliant snapshot of this. Where Dan Butler and Max King each failed to score a goal in just one game up to Round 10, they have both failed to score three times in the six and five games each both played respectively since. Not that this is from a lack of the ball being driven forward mind you, with the Saints forward entry average up to 42 for the last six games from 41 for the first 10.

Is it time for them to put away the high speed, kick long approach that has gotten them to within touching distance of a long overdue finals appearance? While that would seem the easiest solution, and there is no question that some of the entries could have been better thought out against the Eagles, the Saints greatest scoring opportunities came about through this approach. In fact, while they did not create the same quality of chances as they had earlier in the season, they created enough to win this game if not for sub par kicking for goal. Would this have been the case had Jeremy McGovern not injured his hamstring? We don’t know.

Another key factor in a low-scoring match, was scores from centre clearances. While the Saints could manage just one behind from this source, West Coast created almost a third of theirs from centre bounce take-aways. It is a weakness that was exploited by both Collingwood and Geelong, in the two heaviest defeats of the year, and requires urgent attention if the Saints are to challenge in the finals if they qualify.

Having explained how the Saints contributed to their own downfall in this match, we feel a little more comfortable raising some objections to the officiating of the contest. While not prepared to go through decision by decision from siren to siren, the final quarter provided some interesting decisions. In a match umpired under finals type ‘don’t blow the whistle’ instructions, the last quarter saw just five free kicks awarded. Remarkably, in this kind of situation, these included two deliberate out of bounds decisions and two shots for goal from point blank range. None of which were in keeping with the decision making exhibit elsewhere in the quarter.

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“Geez, that’s a bit of look at me time from the umpire there.”

The final free-kick, awarded against Brad Hill in the final 30-seconds of the match prompted a spirited condemnation from Nick Riewoldt on On The Couch on Monday night. “I’m sick of umpires paying free kicks on a whim just because they feel like it. That [Brad Hill’s contact with Tom Cole] happened 100 times that night but this umpire, he felt like it at the time so he paid it. Pay them consistently. Please.” Riewoldt implored and we couldn’t agree more.

While the manner of the defeat, in that it so easily could have been won, meant greater disappointment. It also meant there were a number of positives to take away. None greater than the efforts of Hunter Clark who was thrown into the middle after half-time. He would end the game the fourth-highest possession winner. He would collect 15 of his touches in the second half, along with four clearances and four inside 50s. His work across halfback in 2020 has been top shelf but the prospect of his calm head and clean disposal being utilised closer to the action is an exciting one for Saints fans.

Jack Steele continued on his merry dance to his first Best & Fairest and All-Australian selection. He was the Saints leading possession winner on the night. He may well have been able to accumulate more if not for having to be deployed as a tagger at different stages as a result of his teammates being unable to quell Tim Kelly. While many in the media might quibble about it, there is no doubt in our minds that the 24-year-old as ascended to elite midfielder status. Hard, no fuss, consistent and reliable, Steele has been a key plank in the Saints improvement this season.

Josh Battle and Ben Long were ferocious at the ball and despite not collecting huge numbers of possessions left their mark on a number of Eagles. A pair of Battle’s efforts, one in the second and one in the third, were enough to rattle the bones of those watching 2000km away. One can only imagine the impact it had on him and his opponent. Dougal Howard also continues to throw his body around and left a few Eagles in his wake as he did his best to sure up the Saints defence.

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Paddy Ryder and Jack Sinclair also impressed in the middle of the ground. Once again the pair illustrated that they are key cogs in the Saints machine against the Eagles. The former seeming hell-bent on proving those who doubted the Saints off-season acquisition of him wrong. The latter seeming to be determined to prove Champion Data’s 2018 ‘elite’ assessment of him correct.

A home and away season like no other now has just one chapter to be told. The longest by duration in history, yet the shortest in games played since 1967, has just one game left for each of the teams to play. After wittering away their lifelines by losing four of their last six games, the Saints are now left with one last opportunity to qualify for a long-overdue return to the AFL finals. The most important game the club has played since 2011 offers a simple equation.

Win and they’re in.*

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ST KILDA              3.5     3.5      3.9     6.14 (50)
WEST COAST       2.1     5.6     5.9      9.11 (65)

St Kilda: Ryder, Membrey, Lonie, Ross, Butler, Marshall
West Coast: Darling 2, Allen 2, Ryan, Gaff, Kennedy, Kelly, Cole

St Kilda: 
Clark, Steele, Ryder, Sinclair, Howard.
West Coast: Kelly, Gaff, Naitanui, Ryan, Barrass.

St Kilda: 
West Coast: McGovern (hamstring)

related VIDEOS
AFL 2020: All The Goals – Round 17 v West Coast.
AFL 2020: Magic Moments – Round 17 v West Coast.
AFL 2020: Tough As – Round 17 v West Coast.

* Lose and they still might make it but nobody needs that stress in their life right now or the mental arithmetic that will entail.

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