Twelve years and 10 months ago, St Kilda defeated Geelong under the roof at Docklands in one of the greatest matches every played.
Their encounter this time around was by no means as good as that utter classic; but in terms of what it means for the building Saints, it might well be their best home-and-away win since Michael Gardiner etched himself into history.
All at sea early against the clinical Cats, with sloppy disposal and a lack of pressure contributing to a 22-point deficit early in the second quarter, what followed was some of the best attacking football we’ve seen by any side this year.
Rampant out of the middle, with Paddy Ryder and Rowan Marshall’s tap work influential and Jade Gresham enjoying the best quarter of his already excellent year, the Saints banged on six goals in a row to take the match by the scruff of the throat. It was ruthless, it was relentless, and it was an absolute joy to watch.
Where in the first half, the Cats had been able to chip around for uncontested marks with ease, as is their want, and slice through the corridor whenever the mood struck them, now whenever they gained possession, they ran into a swarm of red, black and white. Repeatedly, short kicks came unstuck through a desperate spoil, or a wayward pass caused by perceived pressure. And once the Saints won it back, they were off to the races.
Most of the headlines generated about the game will centre on that term, and deservedly so. But just as impressive was their stoicism in the final quarter to absorb everything the Cats threw at them.
A lesser team would have buckled when Tom Hawkins kicked two goals in the first six minutes to reduce the margin to three points. The Saints of 2021 certainly would have – and probably even the 2020 team, and while we’re at it we’ll go for every Saints team in the decade prior as well. But not these Saints.
Surging the ball forward, Paddy Ryder found space to mark inside 50 twice in a matter of minutes, kicking truly on both occasions to steady the ship. It was fitting reward for the man who, more than anyone else bar maybe Gresham, surged the Saints back into the match in the second half.
St Kilda’s reliance on the Ryder-Marshall combination in the ruck has been used as a point of criticism in the past, with the Saints seemingly unable to win without both of them fit and firing. They’ve proved that untrue already this year, and it now clearly is a point of strength: with both of them, the sky is the limit. Just look at this tap!
A 40-34 advantage in clearances, and just 12-11 from the centre, doesn’t do it justice; when the Saints won it, it was theirs for the keeping.
Four goals from the pair (three from Ryder), as well as two apiece from tall targets Max King and Tim Membrey, was ample reward on the scoreboard for the work further afield. If the Saints can put together four quarters like their second half against the Cats, then maybe it can be them who can challenge Melbourne’s hold on the premiership cup.
On the other side of town, at the MCG, Richmond had fewer concerns in holding a resilient Hawthorn at bay after an early scare.
While the brilliance of Shai Bolton, Dustin Martin’s return to something closely approximating his best and seven goals between Jack Riewoldt and Tom Lynch stole the show, equally fascinating was the Tigers’ continued use of an old-school tactic, which they wielded to great effect – twin ruckmen.
The Tigers, the same team which famously used Shaun Grigg as its backup ruck in their 2017 premiership run, has regularly used both Toby Nankervis and Ivan Soldo to share the load this year. It hasn’t always worked, but today at least, and especially in the final quarter, it became clear why the strategy was sound.
Going up against the inexperienced Max Lynch and a forward in Jacob Koschitzke, the Tiger pair naturally bossed the hitouts 60-22, but it took until the final term for it to translate to clearance dominance. Then, it came in a flood, with the Tigers winning six of the first seven clearances in the final term to put the match beyond doubt. Lynch and Koschitzke tired, with the bigger bodies of the Tiger team proving critical in winning the day.
Both Nankervis and Soldo had an impact forward of the ball, kicking one and two goals respectively and providing another big body for the Hawks to worry about alongside Lynch and Riewoldt. But it also helped the Tigers, whose midfield has been their weak link at times this year, to shade the Hawks, admittedly not the toughest of tests in 2022.
If the Tigers are going to challenge in a deep finals run, then their midfield is the key. Their backline remains solid, if not quite at 2017-2020 levels and vulnerable to a surge, as the Hawks showed when they piled on goals in the final minutes to threaten a comeback. Their forward line, too, is going to provide better teams than Hawthorn headaches for the remainder of this year.
If the mids can get their fair share of the ball – and they gained 41 more disposals than the Hawks on Saturday afternoon – the Tigers still have weapons elsewhere to trouble just about anyone.