There are times every season where teams are reminded of the vast gap to be traversed from the doldrums to the upper echelon of the AFL competition. For St Kilda, they were given this rude awakening in the final quarter of their round five clash with Geelong. For three quarters the young Saints took the match right up to their more fancied rivals, taking a hard earnt 5-point lead into the final stanza. Unfortunately, dreams of an upset victory vanished in the wake of a blistering onslaught from the undefeated Cats.
St Kilda welcomed back Jack Steven, Darren Minchington and Billy Longer to the senior side and each played a big role in the afternoon’s events. Steven was electrifying in the first half, his pace and run caused Geelong no end of trouble. His influence waned in the second half, no doubt in part because of the punctured lung he was returning from, but Saints fans would be excited about what a fit Steven can offer the team in weeks to come. Minchington, starved for opportunities due to the Saints plethora of small forwards, was a livewire up forward kicking three goals. After a season and a half out of the team, Billy Longer worked manfully in the ruck. Picked in the place of the rested Tom Hickey, his performance may provoke some spirited discussion around the selection table this week.
Since Alan Richardson’s appointment as coach the Saints have prided themselves on their defensive pressure. Even in his first season in charge, when St Kilda finished in the bottom four, their tackling and harassing skills were in the competition’s elite. It is an approach that is generally at its most effective against teams with a high handballing percentage like Geelong. It is for this reason that many down at Seaford would have given themselves a much better chance than the rest of the football world.
Like they did the week before against Collingwood, the Saints punished their opponent on the rebound. With big-bodied recruits Nathan Brown and Jake Carlisle doing their work on the key Geelong talls, the likes of Dylan Roberton and Jimmy Webster had the necessary freedom to set up damaging attacks. Roberton especially, has thrived with the responsibility as the architect of his team’s long range forays.
Simplistically, the game was lost for the Saints in the herculean efforts of Joel Selwood in the last quarter. The Saints had no answer to the Geelong Captain all day, but in the last term he was simply unstoppable. Saints mentor Alan Richardson expressed his disappointment in his teams’ inability to go with the Cats when the game was there to be won. Without doubt it is a worrying trend, in similar situations against West Coast and Melbourne the team was left wanting too.
As much as the game was taken away in the final 30 minutes of the contest, the fact that it was still in the balance was equally of concern. At the long break the Saints were winning the contested ball, were using the ball more efficiently than the Cats and were successfully breaking down their forward thrusts. Despite this, they had a meagre two-point lead to show for their exertions.
Out of the wreckage there are still positives to be gleaned. Seb Ross was again superb in the middle, going blow for blow with Brownlow Medallist Patrick Dangerfield, before the Cat was moved forward late in the game. Many disagree, but I liked Jack Billings’ involvement in the game. Like he did against Collingwood the week before, he got his hands on the ball a lot more in the middle of the ground. That said, for a player with who has shown glimpses of the silkiness of his disposal, he made a number of errors that hurt his team.
Nick Riewoldt was superb again, his performance seeing Paul Roos pronounce his belief that the former captain could play a further 4-5 years. Blake Acres was strong again, I really like the big steps he is taking towards realising his potential. Jack Steele again showed he is tough as nails while Jack Newnes and Mav Weller toiled all day despite not quite having the impact that they would otherwise have wanted on the match.
All in all, it was a sobering realisation that despite the improvements over the last few seasons, there is still a big gap between them and the true Premiership contenders. With a relatively small injury list, that gap needs to be bridged by this group. Having received this harsh lesson, they get the opportunity against a resurgent Hawks to show that they are fast learners.