AFL 2020: Monday’s Experts – Pre Elimination Final

With the Saints one of eight teams left in contention for the 2020 Premiership, they received considerable air time on the Monday night talking heads shows. Footy Classified and On The Couch provided early preview of Saturday evening’s final against the Bulldogs. Both programs, and AFL 360, also spoke about a couple of issues of interest to Saints fans this week – the pre-finals bye and the All-Australian team.

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Pre-Finals Bye – An Unnecessary Irritant?

With it only introduced in 2016, this season was the first time Saints fans experienced the odd sensation that is waiting a fortnight after the home and away season to see their team take part in the finals. This particular Saints fan has always hated it and this season only exacerbated those feelings. Something we share in common with Jonathan Brown.

“Get rid of the weekend off before the finals,” he said on On the Couch. “Now we talk about wanting our best players out there for finals but if you want a weekend off, have it before the Grand Final. Give the Grand Final teams the opportunity.”

Gerard Healy supported him. “It robs the integrity of the teams that finish higher up the ladder. They don’t want to have the second bye in the finals. Two weeks off in three,” he said.

It was the subject of some consternation on Footy Classified but Caroline Wilson seemed to speak for most of the panelists when she decried it. “The pre-finals bye is one that supporters, and I understand that this year you couldn’t have gone to Perth without the bye and I understand that there were compressed games, that has been given the biggest thumbs down from footy supporters as a great momentum killer. Your [Craig Hutchison] radio station [1116 SEN] today editorialised against it in the most emphatic fashion,” Wilson said.

The man responsible for that SEN editorial, Gerard Whateley, had another go on AFL 360. “It’s just pure and utter nonsense. An unnecessary irritant,” he told Mark Robinson. “So the finals prior to 2016, were all diminished and undermined by the fact that we played through? Is that what I’m being told? “

“While 2016 was a very fine finals series, and delivered one of the great premierships of our time, 2017’s final series was abysmal. It was great for Richmond but there was one close game in the series and the rest were terribly lop-sided. So that’s just the first two with the bye. The bye was brought in because of the fears around the integrity in Round 23, not to make the finals better. So now we have subtly shifted and gone ‘it makes the finals better’. Nonsense. It is totally made up. It has outlived its usefulness,” Whateley said forcefully.

The Gabba Grand Prix

“Both sides love some speed on the game,” Gerard Healy enthused as he began On The Couch’s preview of the Saints Elimination Final against the Bulldogs. “This one, out of all of them, looks like it could be a quick high scoring game. Potentially 10 goals apiece, that’d be record-breaking. The Gabba Grand Prix, which way is it going?”

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“Both test you defensively don’t they,” Nick Riewoldt rhetorically asked? “When they are on with their ball use but at times they have both struggled defensively. So it shapes as a game that will be pretty good to watch. For the Bulldogs it’s shades of 2016 for the Dogs, the way they have entered the final series in form.”

On The Couch broke down the contrasting styles of the Saints and the Bulldogs ahead of their Elimination Final.

“What about this great contrast here? You’ve got a kicking team and a handballing team,” Gary Lyon suggested. “They both want to get the game moving, we’ve watched a lot of the Dogs in the last six weeks. When the ball’s moving and in motion they are so dangerous, when they can be stopped they aren’t. What’s going to happen here? One wants to kick it and one wants to handball it.”

“It’s interesting isn’t it,” Jonathan Brown agreed. “Surely we should get a good game with those numbers, we should get a highly attacking game absolutely but the contrast. What stands up under pressure? High handball or high kicking? It’s going to be interesting and conditions could play a part in that as well.”

The Battle in the Middle

“Look at these midfields, right now Jack Steele has elevated himself to All Australian level, Ross could get a job,” Healy suggested. “Jones and Hannebery, well Hannebery’s reputation is monstrous but hasn’t been around enough this year. Billings and Hill, Ryder and Marshall, but they’ve got some superstar quality in that other group.”

On The Couch broke down the relative strengths of each team’s midfield ahead of Saturday’s Elimination Final.

“The only problem [sic] is that the group on the right has done it on the biggest stage, The one on the left, Hill and Hannebery are the only two,” Brown observed seemingly of the view that Zak Jones’ 21 disposals in the 2016 Grand Final don’t count. “So there’s a stark contrast there but obviously the boys on the right haven’t had the opportunity.”

Riewoldt talked though his strategy for Bontempelli when asked if the Bulldogs skipper should receive a hard tag. “That was the method earlier in the season when the Saints beat the Bulldogs,” he explained. “It was Geary to Johannisen as a half back so Geary a defensive forward role and then they went after Bontempelli.”

“So I think absolutely if you can control their talent, not to say that they don’t have other players. But I’d be sending Geary to Daniel as a defensive forward, and I’d be sending Seb Ross – with some trepidation after he failed to get it done against Tim Kelly – to Bontempelli and allow Jack Steele to go and win the footy because you want to match it with the Bulldogs inside,” he said.

The Rucks

Gary Lyon believed that the Saints two ruckman approach could cause some headaches for the Bulldogs who are likely to persist with Tim English on his own. He did believe there were some areas of concern for Ryder and Marshall though. “The two on one becomes a bit of a concern [for the Bulldogs],” he suggested. “I think Ryder v English is a worry at the contest but the spread is then in favour of English.”

Gary Lyon identified an area of concern for Paddy Ryder ahead of his contest with Tim English on Saturday.

A late convert to the Saints two ruck approach, Riewoldt felt it was Ryder and Marshall’s ability to contribute when not in the ruck that made it so successful. “The two ruckmen have worked for St Kilda. I was anti it at the start of the year but the facts have changed so therefore so does my opinion because really importantly for them one of them has been able to go forward and hit the scoreboard. Which, when you are going to play two, you’ve got to have that ability,” he said.

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Jonathan Brown forecasted a rough afternoon for the Bulldogs ruckman. “English is a younger ruckman and has been monstered in a couple of situations. Their [Ryder and Marshall] number one has to be be physical with him, wear him down, wrestle him. At the round the ground ball ups and throw ins, you’ve just got to wear him down so that he doesn’t have the energy to stream away from the pack.

Keeping the Defenders Honest

Just as intriguing as the two teams differing styles of ball movement is how their competing strengths will fare inside the Saints attacking 50. The mindset of the Bulldogs defenders is a positive but it can be exploited,” Healy warned on On The Couch. “They like to create, they like to get forward, they like to kick goals but the smalls for St Kilda need minding.”

“We’ve seen this. They are a creative backline and a hard running backline and they’ll go deep hard, they kicked the first two goals against Geelong. Their halfbacks were the first two goal kickers against Geelong,” Gary Lyon agreed before cautioning. “Which is all good and well, and I love how hard they run aggressively because it makes it so hard for the opposition. If you are the opposition half-forward when all of a sudden the defender gets aggressive on you, you wonder ‘should I go with him or don’t I’. But they are coming up against a side with genuine bonafide dangerous smalls.”

“And really disciplined small forwards,” Riewoldt added. “So we know Crozier is dangerous in the air so it’s absolutely imperative for St Kilda’s keys [to] bring that ball to ground and put those Dogs defenders, who we know are so good going the other way, under some real pressure. Dan Butler has been doing this all season. Getting to the predictable spot, really testing the defenders. Jack Lonie played a really solid game against the Giants and this is all they do. They get to the front, they test you with their speed and if they don’t win it they apply great pressure.”

“So if Crozier wants to drop off and take the big mark and doesn’t take it, you are going to pay a price somewhere along the way,” Lyon emphasised.

All Australian (minus the forward) Team

Butler’s importance to the Saints was lost on the All Australian selectors who decided upon a midfield heavy forward line when they named the team last week. The team, picked based more on reputation than form or position, was widely panned by the various panels.

“I don’t recall such a controversial All-Australian team,” Caroline Wilson told Footy Classified.

“I don’t want to sit here and say they got it wrong because it is only opinion,” Mark Robinson said to Gerard Whateley on AFL 360 right before explaining why he thought they got it wrong.

Nick Riewoldt addressed his concern directly to the selectors on On The Couch. “I know we have a great tradition in picking a team but when we are picking a forward line for the All Australian team can we please pick forwards? In the All Australian team we have gone for Dusty, who played 46% of time as a forward. Danger who played 30% of time as a forward and Bontempelli who played 14% of time forward. Get out of the 50 boys and selectors pick some forwards in the forward line.”

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“Or, even it up, if you have an overabundance in forwards next year chuck em in the middle,” Gary Lyon jokingly agreed.

The AFL 360 team felt Butler was just one of two St Kilda players unfairly treated by the selectors. “I hope the Jack Steele question is in here,” Robinson said as he and Whateley discussed the team.

“He should have been on the ground,” Whateley said while shaking his head. “That was actually inexcusable. Great that he was in the team but it was inexcusable that he wasn’t in the 18.”

“He deserved it,” Robinson agreed.

Some of the reasons behind the underwhelming team were exposed on Footy Classified when they played a 3AW interview with selector Warren Tredrea. “I must say, and this is certainly not an excuse, I think i’ve been doing this four or five years now from a South Australian view and this year was the most different out there with covid. Not once did we meet together. We were relying on technology, people coming in and out of reception to pick a team and it was quite difficult at times. I think Butler was dead set stiff. I know I was particularly fond of Papley and Butler at the half way mark of the year. Their form did drop off [but] I though Butler was still worthy of being selected but he didn’t fall in.

“That didn’t give me a huge deal of confidence in the selection process,” Wilson expressed afterwards.

“He’s criticised the selectors and he’s one of the selectors,” Craig Hutchison joked.

“It’s like when you are dropped and the coach comes up to you and says ‘mate, your in my team but I couldn’t get the assistant coaches over the line,” Kane Cornes opined.

“I didn’t mind the Dan Butler stuff but…,” Wilson said before being interrupted by Hutchison.

“Were the All Australian Selectors criticised by a selector of the All Australian team,” he asked?

“He said it was difficult. They didn’t get to meet. There were people coming in and out of reception,” Wilson continued unable to hide her bewilderment.

“And I don’t know how Butler missed out, what were those blokes thinking,” Hutchison joked given Tredrea’s firm endorsement.

And on that point, we had to agree with the Footy Classified host and Warren Tredrea. How did Butler miss out? Here’s hoping he and Steele can show them just how wrong they got it with starring role on Saturday in the Saints first taste of finals in nine years. At the end of the day both payers will value victory on Saturday a lot more highly than an All Australian blazer.

And so will all of us.

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