After managing just four wins in 2018, the Saints are 2-0 after two rounds and even Damien Barrett has positive things to say about the men from Moorabbin. Against a team expected to challenge for a finals berth at seasons end, the Saints overcame a wasteful first half and a third quarter surge from the Bombers to record a confidence boosting 11 point victory.
Yes the Bombers were below their best and the Saints have much to work on but, given this is the kind of game they’d find a way to lose in recent seasons, another four points in the bank is most welcome. While it may be a little early to be quoting that 75% of teams that start 2-0 make the finals, especially given what happened the last time we started a season this way, it has been enjoyable to see them find a way both weeks.
The Saints welcomed back Nathan Brown from his suspension incurred against the Bombers last season and he was a welcome addition to a backline lacking in height in Round One. While the back six were the beneficiaries of the pressure exerted around the ground, their ability to keep Essendon to just nine goals from 54 inside 50’s was admirable.
Equally impressive was Rowan Marshall, another returning the team for their first appearance in 2019. Outpointed by Tom Bellchambers in the battle for hitouts, Marshall was a driving force for the Saints around the ground with six clearances, six tackles, and 13 contested possessions. Still just 23, he is a player St Kilda supporters can rightly be excited about.
If we are talking about excitement, Josh Bruce gave fans one such moment in the second quarter. In the days since, we have lost count how many times we have seen the replay of Bruce’s aerial exploits but not our wonder. Make sure you lodge your vote so that it wins mark of the week.
A couple of new Saints impressed too. The club’s recruiting efforts have been the subject of much criticism in recent times, especially the off-season acquisition of a particular former Swan, but they may have struck gold with Matt Parker and Callum Willkie.
Neither player was particularly prolific when it came to possessions on Saturday but both made an impact when required. Parker has very quickly become a favourite of the Saints faithful and with a goal, five tackles and three on-percenters against the Bombers it is easy to see why. While Wilkie has inherited Stephen Milne’s famous number 44 jersey, his best work has come at the other end of the ground.
Dean Kent also showed signs as to why the Saints were so keen to acquire him in the off-season. A dangerous presence up forward, he took two marks inside forward fifty, had four scoring shots and a goal assist The pressure from him and his fellow small forwards played a major role in the outcome of the games, not just in hitting the scoreboard but in shutting down Essendon’s dangerous half back line. In fact all of the club’s small forwards played important roles with their pressure
It wasn’t only the small forwards Josh Bruce, along with his two goals and mark of the week nomination, applied four tackles too. Jack Sinclair was also busy, leading the mosquito fleet with a game high nine tackles. Perhaps the most interesting ‘tackle’ of the game came from Jake Stringer.
In one of the more ridiculous decisions of the game, and there were a few contenders, Stringer was somehow awarded a holding the ball free kick. In a sport where players are often granted the opportunity to perform 360 degree turns while being held, the umpire in this instance managed to miss Newnes receive a slap to the chops, and the fact he wasn’t tackled.
Forgive us this divergence into the negative, but it truly a was decision that defied actual belief. It was in the midst of the Bombers surge in the third quarter which saw the Saints lead whittled down from a game high 33 points to just nine. Stringer was at the centre of the Bombers efforts as the mercurial forward threw himself headlong into the task of single-handedly winning the game for his club.
Rather than wilt under the pressure of their more fancied opponents charge, the Saints stood firm. Nothing epitomising this more than Jarryn Geary outpointing his opposite captain to take an important second half mark. With more class and winners on the ground, the Saints proved too strong in a gripping final quarter arm-wrestle.
Not surprisingly, Jade Gresham was front and centre in the games deciding moments. While Jack Billings and Jimmy Webster had a big impact on the result, the 21-year-old Gresham was head and shoulders the best player on the ground. While the football world has been slow to recognise the potential he possesses, his performance on Saturday was no surprise to Saints fans. Nor was his ability to be exactly where we needed him to kick the sealer.
It is early days, but after two JLT Series wins and back to back wins to start the season is cause for optimism after a summer of doom and gloom. Another opportunity to build momentum lies ahead in Round Three with a difficult but winnable contest against Fremantle in Perth. Bring it on.
AFL ROUND TWO
ESSENDON 0.2 4.5 7.8 9.11 (65)
ST KILDA 2.7 7.9 8.12 10.16 (76)
Essendon: Heppell 2, Baguley, Bellchambers, Myers, Brown, Smith, Stringer, McKernan
St Kilda: Membrey 2, Bruce 2, Gresham 2, Dunstan, Kent, Parker, Sinclair
Essendon: Stringer, McGrath, Hurley, Francis, Heppell
St Kilda: Gresham, Steele, Bruce, Ross, Sinclair, Newnes
St Kilda: Nil
Umpires: Rosebury, Stephens, Hosking
Official crowd: 44,252 at Marvel Stadium