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An impressive St Kilda blitz after quarter-time has blown a wasteful Essendon away as Ross Lyon’s side showed promising signs in a practice match that saw both sides cop injury scares.
In a match heavily dictated by a strong breeze at RSEA Park, the Bombers had seven scoring shots to St Kilda’s two in the opening term, but only managed one goal.
The Saints then found their radar in the second term, booting seven unanswered goals then restricting Essendon to just two majors for the rest of the game to run out convincing 35-point winners, 10.7 (67) to 3.14 (32).
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For the Saints, pre-season supplemental selection period signing Anthony Caminiti will also get the chance to push for a round one berth, as will first-round draftee Mattaes Phillipou following an impressive showing in last week’s match simulation.
The match begins at 4:10pm AEDT from RSEA Park and is broadcast live on Fox Footy and Kayo.
QUARTER-BY-QUARTER MATCH REPORT
The Bombers made the fast start with the breeze a their back, with father-son gun Alwyn Davey Junior snapping an opportunistic first goal of the game. And Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti almost made it two goals in two minutes, only for his set-shot to sail right.
Essendon had the first seven inside 50s and three scoring shots of the game.
“I think Ross will be going for the defensive unit at quarter-time. He won’t be happy with this start,” dual premiership Kangaroo David King told Fox Footy.
“It’s alarming, especially the contested possession battle … it’s a little bit easy for them at the moment, the Bombers.”
Collingwood legend Nathan Buckley added St Kilda’s “energy was down” but said it was a tough breeze they were kicking into.
The Saints finally settled and locked the ball inside their forward half for a period. Daniel Butler was awarded a touchy free kick close to goal, but fluffed his set-shot.
St Kilda, though, had an injury scare late in the first quarter, with Marcus Windhager coming to the bench and seen with ice on his hand, with the young Saint ruled out for the rest of the game.
Neither side could capitalise on their opportunities in the first term, with Essendon holding a 10-point lead at the first change.
But St Kilda quickly made the most of the wind advantage at the start of the second term, with top Saints draftee Mattaes Phillipou pouncing on a loose ball to snap his team’s first goal.
And when Jack Higgins pushed hard forward and nailed a long-range set-shot goal, the Saints had the lead.
“It’s a complete dominance at clearance now for St Kilda … The mids have gotten busy,” King said.
Emerging star Mitch Owens then had a moment of brilliance, claiming a strong contested mark close to goal before selflessly handballing to Higgins, who kicked his second goal.
And when Butler snapped a crafty goal from a forward 50 stoppage and Rowan Marshall converted a long-range set-shot, the Saints had kicked five in a row to lead by 20 points.
“This is the difference between what Essendon didn’t do in the first quarter and what St Kilda are doing in the second. They’re taking their chances and hitting the scoreboard when they get their inside 50s,” Buckley said.
The Saints continued to take advantage of the breeze, with Mason Wood adding another major after intercepting a sloppy Bombers kick close to goal to give his side a 25-point lead at the major change.
Owens then gave the Saints the perfect start to the second half, dribbling through a goal for some reward for effort.
Meanwhile, reigning Bombers club champion Peter Wright missed a couple of set-shots as Essendon’s tally ticked over to 1.10.
“The rot has set in,” Buckley said.
The rot, though, was stopped by Sam Durham, who laid a big tackle inside 50 and converted a set-shot to reduce the Saints’ lead to 22 points.
But the Saints responded with a quick transition goal against the breeze, with Higgins kicking his third goal after Anthony Caminiti won a free kick just outside the goalsquare before Owens added his second.
And things for worse for Essendon when midfielder Jye Caldwell was helped from RSEA Park by Bombers trainers. Caldwell could barely put any weight on his leg after suffering a suspected ankle injury.
“The biggest concern now is Jye Caldwell. That is the one disaster, losing players at this stage of the year for lengthy periods,” King said.
But the Bombers confirmed to Fox Footy at three quarter-time — when the Saints leaded by 31 points — they were confident Caldwell hadn’t suffered serious damage and that it was likely a sprained ankle.
Wright then got the first goal of the final quarter for Essendon.
The Saints kicked five behinds in a row before Higgins unselfishly handballed to Owens, who kicked his third goal from point-blank range to seal a dominant St Kilda win.
THE 3-2-1 …
3. ‘AGGRESSIVE’ SIGNS WE’VE ‘NEVER SEEN FROM A ROSS-COACHED SIDE BEFORE’
Of all the 16 clubs that took part in match simulation, St Kilda’s performance was arguably the most alarming in a big loss to Melbourne.
But Saints fans on Friday got a glimpse of Ross Lyon’s blueprint and determination to play with speed in a much-improved display against Essendon.
After holding the Bombers to just one goal in the first term, the Saints piled on six unanswered goals in the second quarter to set up their win.
A big feature of the Saints’ blitz was their willingness to move the footy quickly and directly.
“One thing that’s been impressive with St Kilda is their quick hands from inside to outside,” Collingwood legend Nathan Buckley told Fox Footy.
“You get the ball in the hands of (Nasiah) Wanganeen-Milera or a (Jack) Sinclair or even a (Jade) Gresham, who can then use the ball – that part of their game looks pretty sharp.”
Dual premiership Kangaroo David King added: “And they’re aggressive. Their eyes are straight to the corridor – and we haven’t really seen that from a Ross Lyon-coached team before.”
King pointed out the Saints’ assistant coaches, such as Corey Enright, Lenny Hayes and Robert Harvey, had been having a “heavy impact” on the team’s on-field strategy.
“Through the pre-season period, Ross has taken a step back and let the assistant coaches set the strategy,” King said. “Clearly he’ll tinker with that as the season unfolds.
“It’s a year of assessing the list – a complete reset really – so maybe the absolute science behind how they play is not as important for Ross in this first month or so, but they’ll make changes along the way.
“But Ross had made a lot of the running power at the Saints. It’s evident when you see a little bit of structure thrown in there. They are covering the ground on both defence and offence … it’s exciting to see. You’re going to get the most out of this group with their application under Ross Lyon.”
Buckley said he expected Lyon to return to the coaching caper – for a third time – to be a different but better leader.
“I reckon with anyone in anything in life, when we’re doing it for the second, third or fourth time, we’re doing it a bit better than we did the first,” the ex-Magpies coach said.
“Ross has got a wealth of experience, he loves the boys that played under him in Harvey, Hayes and (Brendon) Goddard and he’s a big wrap for Corey Enright and what he brings to the table as well. It’s a really solid senior coaching group and you assume the development guys will support that underneath.
“Some things never change though. While he’s talked about needing to go faster and aggressive in his offence, I have to believe that deep down he wants to get their defensive structures right and teach them to defend efficiently so they can go and be even more damaging in attack. That takes time.”
2. SAINTS ‘BEAST’ CONTINUES PRE-SEASON BOLT
When Saints players over the summer have been asked to nominate the best pre-season trainers at the club, most – if not all – have said Mitch Owens.
And on Friday night, the footy world discovered why.
Drafted with Pick 33 in the 2021 draft, Owens arrived at the Saints with the reputation of being a fierce big-bodied midfielder and played seven games in his first AFL season.
But under Ross Lyon, Owens has been asked to play as a hybrid forward with a focus on competing in the air. And Owens did exactly that against the Bombers, especially in the second quarter when he took a towering contested mark before gifting Jack Higgins his second goal with an selfless handball.
The 19-year-old then applied tremendous defensive pressure inside forward 50, winning the ball back only to shank his snap at goal. But he got some reward for effort in the third term, booting two classy goals before he was gifted his third deep in the last quarter.
Owens finished with three goals from 16 disposals and four inside 50s.
“He’s had a great pre-season. He’s a contested marking beast and a bit of a scrapper on the ground – I love those sorts of players,” King told Fox Footy.
“If he sees a marking opportunity, he just releases and goes after the ball. It’s a trait you love to see in younger players.”
Buckley added: “He’s clearly been asked by the coach to play an aerial role in front of the ball and just compete.
“He’s playing out-of-role or out of what we expect him to play. We expect him to be a wingman or a midfielder of some sport, but he’s playing in the front half, putting pressure on and if he can create or finish two to four times, that’s exactly what the coach would be asking from him.”
But Owens’ fellow 2021 Saints draftee Marcus Windhager, who played 18 games in his debut AFL season, picked up an injury in another pre-season blow for the Saints.
Windhager came from the ground midway through the first term and was seen with ice in his right hand. The Saints quickly ruled him out for the rest of the game.
The Saints have been one of the hardest clubs hit by injury this off-season. Jack Billings (leg) last week joined Max King (shoulder), Jack Hayes (foot), Isaac Keeler (knee), Olli Hotton (back) and Matt Allison (foot) as non-starters for Round 1, while Zak Jones (Achilles) is also unlikely to be fit.
However the Saints remain hopeful Tim Membrey (knee) will be fit to take on Fremantle after recovering well from a minor clean-out on his knee.
King said the importance of Windhager and Owens “can’t be understated”, considering the Saints have only had four top-30 picks in the past four drafts: Mattaes Phillipou, Nasiah Wanganeen-Milera, Allison and King.
“These two are going to play a large part in the rebuild process,” King said.
1. FATHER-SON GUN FIRMS FOR R1 ON DISAPPOINTING DONS DAY
On a day where positives were tough to find for Essendon fans, Alwyn Davey Jnr’s performance would’ve given them something to smile about as the father-son gun firmed for a Round 1 AFL debut.
The 2022 draftee was lively inside 50, snapping the first goal of the game to give Essendon a fast start. But it was his ability to cover the ground and push up the field that impressed Fox Footy commentators just as much.
There was a lovely moment at half-time when triple All-Australian and Fox Footy commentator Eddie Betts – who had a close relationship with Davey during his draft year – provided some guidance and coaching before the two teams went into the rooms.
“Going against the breeze, I just told him to communicate with the tall forwards to be able to kick away (and I said to him) ‘you’re too far away to impact the game’,” Betts said of his chat with Davey.
“This quarter going with the breeze, I said to get down there and get to the front of the big guys and kick goals because it’s going to come your way this quarter.”
Davey, who finished with one goal from 13 disposals, was part of a Bombers forward line that was missing Jake Stringer (hamstring), but did feature key-position trio Peter Wright, Harrison Jones and Sam Weideman.
But there seemed to be an accuracy curse placed on the Bombers on Friday night, with the club struggling to find the middle of the big sticks throughout the whole day on their way to 3.14 (32).
The Bombers were smashed around the ball, losing the disposal (-49) and contested possession (-30) counts convincingly, despite Essendon having its first-choice on-field brigade available.
King said he was optimistic the Bombers could have a good season under new coach Brad Scott, but added he was surprised by St Kilda’s dominance at the coalface on Friday night.
“I’m not as doom and gloom on the Bombers. I think they’ve got a reasonable list. They’ve got a few on the sidelines that are important,” King said.
“But the fascination for me today is probably the midfield of the Saints have comprehensively beaten the midfield of the Bombers. Coming here you would’ve thought Merrett, Parish, Shiel were probably a fraction strong – and that hasn’t been the case.
“That (contested possession differential) is a smashing.”
B: D.Howard, J.Webster, C.Wilkie
HB: N.Wanganeen-Milera, J.Sinclair, J.Battle
C: B.Paton, M.Windhager, R.Byrnes
HF: M.Owens, M.Phillipou, J.Higgins
F: Z.Cordy, A.Caminiti, J.Gresham
FOL: R.Marshall, J.Steele, B.Crouch
I/C: M.Wood, L.Stocker, H.Clark, C.Sharman, T.Highmore, D.Butler, B.Hill, J.Bytel
EMG: N.Coffield, L.Connolly, O.Adams, T.Campbell
B: M.Redman, J.Laverde, J.Ridley
HB: J.Kelly, B.Zerk-Thatcher, A.McGrath
C: S.Durham, Z.Merrett, W.Setterfield
HF: N.Martin, S.Weideman, A.Perkins
F: A.McDonald-Tipungwuti, P.Wright, H.Jones
FOL: S.Draper, D.Parish, D.Shiel
I/C: J.Caldwell, W.Snelling, N.Hind, K.Baldwin, A.Davey Jnr, A.Phillips, M.D’Ambrosio, J.Menzie
EMG: L.Hayes, R.Montgomerie, P.Voss, T.Wanganeen
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