AFL Friday Footy Fix: Bravado and bluster can’t hide another Saints season pissed down the drain

At this point, St Kilda fans must be accustomed to disappointment. You couldn’t barrack for a team with one premiership in 125 seasons without developing a pretty thick skin.

But even by Saints standards, this 2022 campaign must be a neverending source of frustration for anyone who bleeds red, white and black. Coming hot off the heels of another lost year in 2021, after a breakthrough finals run in 2020, another mid-table finish on the edge of finals surely can’t be seen as a pass mark.

The Saints, despite their 15-point loss to Brisbane, still remain *mathematically* in the finals hunt. But the odds are long enough to safely be able to say this: St Kilda, not for the first time in recent memory, have pissed their season down the drain.

Friday night’s defeat was 2022 in a nutshell: the Saints were breathtaking at times, most obviously during a five goals to one third quarter that ripped the Lions limb from limb and exposed every weakness in their opponents’ flaky defence.

More ferocious at the ball in close, dazzling in transition and getting plenty of ball to their swathe of options of all sizes, the Saints went from barely hanging in against a superior opposition to having just about broken the game open in the space of a few minutes.

Mason Wood had one of ‘those’ games up forward that explains how a 28-year old with 93 games after a decade in the big leagues can still be so frequently persisted with by a second club. Marcus Windhager continued his rise into stardom in his debut year by comprehensively shutting Lachie Neale out of the game.

There were winners all over the ground for the Saints – which just serves to make the result all the more disappointing.

Aside from that whirlwind third-quarter purple patch, this was the Saints we have come to expect – and loathe – as the season has worn on. Timid with ball in hand, bullied in the centre and unable to slow an opposition’s surge, one the ferocious pressure of the opening 20 minutes abated, the Lions pulled away and remained largely in control from therein.

In the end, that burst was enough to mean the Saints probably should have won it – if Max King could hit the side of a barn door, if Tim Membrey and Windhager had nailed gettable chances in the final term, if Brett Ratten had been able to find any sort of match-up for Cam Rayner, things might have been different.

But bad kicking at this point might as well be the Saints’ brand – when it happens this often, across multiple seasons and to the same players, you can’t really point to the expected score stat and claim a moral victory.

To be so good at your best, but so completely outclassed week after week when not at full tilt, it’s impossible to not look at a likely ninth or tenth-placed finish for the Saints in 10 days time, and feel they’ve significantly underachieved.

Some of it, but not all, rests with Brett Ratten. The Saints’ effort this season has been found wanting at times, but you couldn’t fault it on Friday night, certainly not in the early stages.

Arriving with an intent to tackle, pressure, harass and by and large be colossal pricks at every opportunity, the Saints rarely missed an opportunity to bury a Lion to the turf, and then let them know about it.

It took Tim Membrey and Rowan Marshall less than half a quarter to have Dayne Zorko’s head ready to explode; the results were that despite a Lions territory domination, leading inside 50s 16-11 at quarter time, the league’s most menacing forward line could only muster three goals – one after the quarter-time siren.

Under seige, the Lions began to panic: Oscar McInerney is hardly the man you want dishing the ball away after a grround-ball get, with Jack Higgins taking full toll from a handpass that missed Brandon Starcevich by the length of his considerable wingspan.

Full kudos must also go to Ratten for finding a way to expose Windhager to the midfield minutes he will surely grow into in time, while also finding him a role at which he is currently excelling.

Three weeks after reducing Tim Kelly to a disposal per quarter in Perth, the first-year Academy selection was similarly effective in putting the clamps on Lachie Neale. In a similar vein to Jye Caldwell’s efforts in a famous Essendon win a month and a half ago, Windhager reduced a Brownlow Medal-winning superstar to three handballs by quarter time.

With the ball, though, the first hint of problems began to emerge: their desire to get the ball in the hands of Jack Sinclair in defence has almost become a fault, as they frequently chip the ball around in defensive 50 with no plan or desire to get things moving forward.

Making matters worse was the move to start Bradley Hill, who this year has been shunted into more positions than a Karma Sutra advocate, at half-forward, where a combination of lack of supply and Brandon Starcevich rendered him a non-factor in the first term.

A 27-tackle effort summed up the Saints’ manic intensity, and their desire to keep their season alive by hook or by crook. But as impressive as it was, it felt unsustainable – and heading to the break trailing by a point after Eric Hipwood’s post-siren conversion, one wondered whether the Saints had just thrown their best punch.

A four goal to one third quarter soon proved it to be the case – and with it, saw the Saints at their worst. Forget missing set shots, forget being torn apart in transition – St Kilda’s efforts with the ball since the byes have been ludicrous. And that rests on the shoulders of the coach.

The Saints, after conceding an early goal, went back into their shells, playing similarly bland, insipid footy to that which had cost them so dearly against the Western Bulldogs four weeks ago, in what now looks like an eight-point game.

Summing it up was a passage of play midway through the term that, while not as immediately eye-watering as a shanked set shot, was just as frustrating to watch. Zak Jones marks at half-back, with Nasiah Wanganen-Milera running past for a handball receive, to drive the Saints down the wing.

Instead, Jones looks inboard, and goes 20 metres across and 10 back to Sinclair. Getting it in the hands of your best user is usually pretty sound: not the way the Saints have been going these days. Sinclair, rather than looking to hit a dangerous, corridor-opening pass down the middle – watch the replay and notice how much space Seb Ross had in the perfect spot – goes even further backward, to Callum Wilkie on the edge of the goalsquare.

Wilkie marks, and quickly passes short to Dougal Howard in the back pocket. But it’s way too late for speed – 24 seconds have passed since Jones’ mark, and the Lions have had all the time in the world to shift across and cover the most telegraphed switch you could see.

Instead of having a sprinting Wanganeen-Milera down the wing and attacking all guns blazing, which would at least have resulted in a sizeable territory gain, and hopefully a boundary throw-in or mark to a leading forward, the play ends with Howard, hemmed in in the pocket, 20 metres further back from where Jones had started it all, and no options to hit up.

Even the Saints’ aggression was going too far – Brad Crouch’s desire to make Darcy Gardiner earn a kick saw him arrive late, recklessly, and collect the Lion high.

That Gardiner wasn’t concussed was a minor miracle, and surely not even the AFL’s Swiss cheese of a tribunal system could see Crouch get any less than a week. For sheer stupidity – at best, it was going to be a downfield free kick – it deserves two.

Without the ball, the Saints’ plans to curb Neale didn’t extend to Hugh McCluggage. With the former still able to have an impact with five second-quarter clearances despite his low possession count, his handballs to the Lions’ resident Rolls Royce steaming out of traffic led to repeated attacking forays.

Having attended the funeral of his grandmother on match day, McCluggage’s 15-disposal first half was the performance of a man inspired to mark the occasion. He’d wane from there, but was still one of the best afield by the close.

Of course with play like that, the Lions would dominate. 22 points up at half time, with 32 inside 50s to just 17, their inaccuracy in front of the big sticks, seeing seven shots fail to score, was the only thing keeping the margins that close.

That the Saints spurned their chances later is only half of the story – the match really should have been well and truly over by then.

Suddenly, though, the Saints came alive in the third term – and looked good. So good, in fact, that the mind wandered back to their early-season wins over Geelong, and Fremantle, and Carlton of late, and realised why.

It wasn’t Sinclair or Hill from half-back, as it has been at times this year, driving it. Instead, it was midfield dominance – the very same midfield that had been soundly beaten 24-19 in clearances – 8-3 out of the centre – in the first half.

Neale, who had begun to influence the game again in the second term, was again clamped down. Just two touches for the quarter brought with it frustration – when the usually unflappable number 9 unnecessarily shoved Hill after conceding a high free kick for a crude tackle, giving away a 50m penalty, it seemed like the Lions were cracking.

Zak Jones of the Saints and Lachie Neale of the Lions argue.

Zak Jones of the Saints and Lachie Neale of the Lions argue. (Photo by Daniel Pockett/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)

Joe Daniher gave away another free off the ball, King milked some contact from Harris Andrews for all it was worth, and the Lions’ tackles began to trend high in that suspicious way a side with blood boiling tends to do.

Suddenly, as if a switch had been flicked, the Saints began to attack, attack, attack. No more sideways ball movement – this was handball chains cutting through the Lions’ press, wingmen running hard lines to overlap, and precision passing to leading forwards inside 50.

In the first half, the Saints had targeted Max King as frequently as the entries had come haphazardly – no worse than in Jack Higgins’ case, who ignored three teammates in the corridor to sit the ball on King’s head surrounded by Harris Andrews, Jack Payne and with a veritable pride of Lions closing in.

But they seemingly learned that the Lions backs were gravitating towards King as a rule, because the moment Wood and Membrey began to be targeted instead, the match transformed.

The Lions’ defence, pound for pound, is fine – Andrews isn’t at his best but is still wonderful, and Starcevich and Darcy Gardiner are among the most underrated backs in the game – but their midfield seldom puts in the hard yards to get back and fill holes in defensive 50. The result is space aplenty for a smart forward – or, in this case, whatever Wood is – to excel.

Two goals apiece from that pair had the Saints, remarkably, in front at three quarter time.

Had King not missed two simple set shots from within 30 metres – that he missed once on either side would surely be just as worrying for a prospective goalkicking coach as the behinds themselves – the task may have proved too great.

But the die had been cast: when King has the yips, and he’s had them a lot in the last 18 months, the disease spreads like wildfire. Windhager and Membrey added to the malaise with misses that would have again drawn the margin under a goal, having watched King earlier kick his fifth behind for the match.

Watching on, Ratten would have been forgiven for wanting to kick a sixth in the rooms at full time – unlike their first half strategies, he can’t help it if his forwards, paid to kick goals, can’t hit the side of a barn door from six paces.

You just can’t give good teams chances like that – Brisbane most of all. From King’s behind, the contrast in the Lions’ transition to the Saints in the first half was like chalk and cheese.

Daniel Rich kicks in, and hits Zorko in a pocket of space still inside defensive 50. Taking the time to get back off the mark, but always looking in a hurry, the captain heads a further 40 metres forward, aiming for Lincoln McCarthy, goal side of his opponent.

McCarthy can’t mark, but the Lions press in from all sides, and the ball spills out to Neale. He surges clear, and sees Daniher ahead of him, streaming towards goal. All he needs to do is kick it out in front of him.

He obliges, Daniher runs onto the ball, and with Howard in pursuit, dribbles through a goal to extend the lead to 12. End to end in 22 seconds, and it wasn’t even close to perfect.

But the intent was there, and that’s just as important for the Lions. Whether it was Cam Rayner surging forward from a centre bounce in the third term and flushing a long-range ball-burster through, the first of his match-winning four second half goals, or that end-to-end play, they just don’t go back into their shells lightly.

Rayner’s last quarter, with three goals at the most crucial time of all, was all about taking every chance that the Saints had spurned.

A loose ball inside defensive 50 with a Saint on either side? She’s all sweet, mate – a shimmy of the hips saw him wrong-foot Sinclair and Hunter Clark, with a quick snap in 10 metres of self-manufactured space seeing the Lions hit a lead they’d never relinquish.

A difficult shot from the pocket late? No worries – off one step, a brilliant curling snap that never looked like missing.

The comparisons with Rayner have always, unfairly, been with Dustin Martin. He may never have the bullish strength of prime Dusty, nor the tank to become a full-time midfielder; but he’s beginning to show a very Martin-esque ability to turn a game by pure force of will. In a tight game, there was no Saint that could go with him when the match was there to be won.

For St Kilda, a season of frustration continues, this loss as mind-meddling as any in the past 18 months.

This is a team good enough to go toe to toe, and largely outplay, a top-four calibre opponent. But it’s also a team bad enough to spurn chances, refuse to dare, and seldom if ever give their multiple attacking assets a chance to flourish beyond the odd spurt of brilliance.

This, even more than 2021, is a season pissed down the drain. Ratten may not survive a third straight season going the same way.

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