Sundays, like the one that greeted St Kilda and the Brisbane Lions, is the exact reason Etihad Stadium was built with a roof. While Carlton and Essendon and their fans had to contend with conditions more akin to water sports, the Saints and Lions had a warm and dry track for their contest on the western edge of the same city.
Both teams having surrendered final quarter leads the week before, entered the match with solid, if not winning, form. Welcoming back returning champion Nick Riewoldt, much like they had the previous two weeks, the Saints hit the opening quarter hard and full of running. Their intensity at the ball and their intercept marking saw the ball camped at the Lockett end of the Stadium to which St Kilda was kicking in the opening term.
Despite this dominance of the arm wrestle, it took nearly 12 minutes for St Kilda to register the first goal of the contest. Jade Gresham roving smartly, kicking truly and showing the kind of class that belies both his size and experience. His poise and class for the remainder of the match kept Saints fans on the edge of their seats without quite delivering the highlight reel moment he threatened throughout. If there was a behind of the year contest, he may well have won it with an electrifying display of evasion, balance and control in the third quarter.
Dayne Beams and Daniel Rich were in everything for the Lions as they did their best to weather the early onslaught from the desperate home team. A Beams goal saw the margin back to two points and the pair continued to cause the Saints no end of trouble for the remainder of the quarter, and the match. St Kilda finally got the reward for endeavour late in the quarter on the back of two spectacular efforts from another exciting youngster, Blake Acres.
With the ball in traffic on the city side wing and the quarter heading into time on, Acres effected a turnover with a tackle on Brisbane’s Tom Cutler. Running onto a handpass from Jack Newnes who had collected the spilled ball, Acres took off on a 30-metre run towards attacking fifty and goal. Rather than pin his ears back and head for home, the 21-year-old, spotting Riewoldt and Mav Weller in a 2 on one in the goal square, kicked to his teammates’ advantage and Weller took advantage of Acres’ vision. Less than a minute later, perhaps resting up forward as a result of his earlier exertions, Acres took a juggling mark between two Lions before kicking the Saints away from the Lions with their third major for the afternoon.
Despite missing midfield stars Jack Steven and David Armitage, the second quarter began much like the first had ended, with the Saints doing pretty much all the attacking. Even when they had more players contesting the ball in the air, St Kilda always seemed able to have the numerical advantage at the fall of the ball too. With Jack Steele, Leigh Montagna and Seb Ross winning the midfield battle, Nick Riewoldt doing as he pleased around the ground, and Tim Membrey providing a menacing target up forward, it appeared just a matter of time before the dam walls burst and the Lions succumbed to the Saints intent and effort.
An engrossing battle within the battle was the head to head clash between ruckmen Tom Hickey and Stefan Martin. The Lions big man was one of his team’s better performers for the day, but Hickey battled manfully and only marginally lowered his colours to the former Demon. When the pair weren’t fighting for hit-outs and picking up possessions around the ground, they were responsible for a few of the afternoon’s more humorous moments.
Having taken a mark on the centre wing, Hickey displayed the reason why a team-mate should always be on offer for a handpass whenever a ruckman has the ball in space. The Saints’ big man first attempts to feign a handpass, before feigning a kick and attempting a step back inside the much more nimble man on the mark. When the whole endeavour saw the big man on all fours on the ground it appeared a certain holding the ball decision, with Hickey only being saved from this indignity because he had been tripped in the whole messy endeavour.
At a boundary throw in, Martin ‘used his head’ and as a result received one of the more impressive ‘falcons’ seen in the AFL. The other was less laugh out loud funny than it was farcical when the pair got caught up in the mess that is the new ruck rules. When Hickey and Martin rushed to a ball up in the second quarter, they reached the umpire only to be confronted with the news that Tom Rockliff had nominated himself as the Lions ruckman. What may have seemed a mismatch with Hickey contesting the ball up against Rockliff did not pan out that way. Brisbane’s pair successfully swapped roles with Rockliff, the Lions’ Clearance King, turning provider and getting the tap to Martin who was able to clear the ball for his team.
Then, just as St Kilda looked set to build on their hard-won advantage, they began to fluff their lines. Two big contested marks in quick succession, one by Billings that he passed off to Luke Dunstan, the other by the ever reliable Tim Membrey, saw two morale deflating misses from extremely gettable range. The yips that had plagued them in front of the big sticks in Perth had returned with a vengeance. In the shadows of half-time, the Saints held a 35-point advantage. As substantial as the lead was, having created 16 scoring shots to 5 it was perhaps not reflective of their dominance to that point of the match. Brisbane, fresh off reeling in a 42-point deficit against the Bombers the week before, needed no further prompting and set about punishing the Saints wastefulness.
With Beams and Rich redoubling their efforts and Dayne Zorko and Rockliff running wild at the clearances, Brisbane stormed back into the contest. Where it had once seemed like the Saints had more players in the air and at the fall, it was a sea of red as the Lions began to outrun their seemingly tiring opponents. With the small contingent of Lions’ supporters making their voices heard amongst the 23,097 in attendance, St Kilda looked in danger of having their second half efforts undo impressive earlier toil.
Having conceded the last 3 goals of the first half, the break came at a good time for St Kilda. Despite this, even Allan Richardson’s cajoling couldn’t break the team out of their funk. A subtle change to Brisbane’s attack helped change the course of the match too. In the first half, like dear in headlights, the Lions in the face of St Kilda’s pressure handballed like their lives depended on it, with disastrous results. By choosing to confront the same danger with kicking instead in the second, the previously endangered prey became the biggest of big game hunters. In almost no time at all, the match that was once almost safely in St Kilda’s keeping was a see-sawing lead changing nail-biting battle.
Having surrendered the lead for the second time the Saints were brought back to life but their difficulties in front of the big sticks continued to plague them. Until Dunstan managed to pounce upon a play-on opportunity from a free kick to Weller, St Kilda had managed a paltry 1.5 from their forward thrusts as the Lions punished them at the other end.
What would have pleased Richardson would have been how his charges responded when the game was on the line. Although wasteful until the final siren, his team seemed the team most likely after they were headed in the third. In the final term the Saints went inside their attacking zone 19 times to the Lions 10. It was territorial dominance that finally paid dividends kicking 4 of the last 5 goals of the match to scratch out a much needed 31-point victory. He would no doubt have been pleased too by the fact that the territorial advantage, so often wasted by his forwards, was won by a midfield group for the majority of the game who were 24 or under.
We were all made very clear by the replays of his displeasure at a moment from Leigh Montagna in the last quarter. The veteran’s attempt to ‘run down’ the clock as an open goal beckoned sent social media into meltdown. I can’t say that I was overly pleased by the display, but the resulting backlash was probably a little disproportionate. The inability of his players to exact full toll for their dominance would no doubt keep the coach up late at night again this week. After kicking 13.19 last week against West Coast, the wasteful Saints scored a somewhat unbelievable 14.23 this week.
For everybody else, apart from a few disappointed Lions fans maybe, the highlight of the day was the return of 321 game, former captain Nick Riewoldt. While without question in the latter stages of a glittering career, Riewoldt was the shining light on this day only two weeks after a knee injury had football fans fearing the worst. Playing with a license to inject himself in the match wherever he feels appropriate, his impact is so great that if he can stay on the paddock until seasons end he could well claim a 7th Trevor Barker Medal as St Kilda’s Best and Fairest.