Before Saturday night’s disappointing start to the 2017 season, the last time St Kilda tasted defeat against Melbourne was over a decade ago when the teams met in the 2006 elimination final. A night memorable to many as it proved to be Grant Thomas’ last in charge of the team, but for me I remember it because champion jockey Damien Oliver, in making his way past me to his seat, knocked over 3 beers I had under my seat and didn’t even apologise, let alone feign to replace them. Needless to say my brush with a Melbourne Cup winning jockey left me less than impressed, a very similar feeling to the one I left Etihad Stadium with after Round 1.
From the moment the 2017 fixture was released late last year, the clash between two young teams on the rise had appealed as the most appetising of match ups. With the roof closed, conditions were oppressive within the venue. As both sides looked to gain the early advantage, the attack on the contest meant that the game was hot, both literally and figuratively. The arm wrestle seemed to have been turned on its head though when the Saints took a 23-point lead into the first break on the back of five unanswered goals. Unfortunately, it was a false dawn.
When St Kilda met Melbourne last year Tom Hickey, in comprehensively outpointing opposite ruckman Max Gawn, stamped himself as one of the elite ruckman in the competition. If the St Kilda big man thought he might repeat the dose this time around, he was sadly mistaken. Gawn was simply unstoppable this day, setting up Melbourne’s centre square dominance upon which the game turned after quarter time. Where the Saints led the centre clearance count 7-2 at quarter time, Gawn’s clinic saw Melbourne end up 17-7 winners in this category.
It was a withering assault that the Saints simply had no answer to, in the third quarter Melbourne won all eight centre clearances and had 20 Inside 50’s to St Kilda’s 5. In their first games for the club, Nathan Brown and Jake Carlisle were made to work hard for their pay cheques as the ball entered the Demons attacking zone with relentless monotony. Both will be better for the run and a few big intercept marks from Carlisle gave Saints fans a glimpse of what he may offer the team in the weeks and months ahead.
There wasn’t a lot for Saints fans to cheer for after the standing ovation they afforded the team as they jogged to the quarter time huddle. Jack Billings in the first half, before fading out of the contest, and Jack Steele, the Saints leading possession winner in his first outing for the club, showed promise and Jade Gresham was impressive, his creativity and elusiveness had the crowd on the edge of their seat each time he was near the ball.
Jack Steven and David Armitage couldn’t get in the contest despite both battling manfully for the four quarters. Tim Membrey looked dangerous early but the complete lack of supply after quarter time made it difficult for him to have an impact. Jack Lonie always looked dangerous without ever really having hurting Melbourne, and Maverick Weller was his usual relentless self, but would rue a couple of misses he would normally exact full toll for.
Nick Riewoldt in his 17th season of AFL football was again a stand out for his team. Despite relinquishing the captaincy in the off-season, his on-field leadership remained undiminished. Despite his team-mates difficulties, Reiwoldt continued to make a mark on the contest. With four goals to his name he was the single biggest bright spot for Saints fans until a moment late in the match. Having hyper-extended his knee after a marking contest, a silence descended upon the arena when it became apparent that a stretcher would be required to assist him from the ground. Fans from both teams stood to applaud the great man from the field as fears for the worst for the St Kilda great filled 36,249 peoples head. On Sunday morning these fears have been in part waylaid as scans confirmed no major structural damage was done, but an extended stint on the sideline still appears likely for the 6 x Trevor Barker Medallist.
At the conclusion of the match the usual over-reactions to a Round One result were apparent, Melbourne fans celebrated as if they had won a final and St Kilda supporters left the ground in abject gloom. While the Demon faithful have more to be cheerful out of this meeting, there is still light at the end of the tunnel for the Saints. While Allan Richardson would no doubt have a few sleepless nights in the week ahead over the abject failure of his team in the middle, the fact that they were able to keep it to a five-goal margin will be some comfort. That said, they won’t be so lucky if they concede similar midfield dominance to the Eagles in Perth next week.
More importantly, if you see Damien Oliver, can you let him know that he owes me 3 beers.