Thursday, May 14, 2009

From pretenders to contenders

It is currently a race in two. As so many expected it to be after seven rounds of AFL season 2009. Two sides have nominated themselves as genuine contenders and stand clearly out from the crowd.

Geelong is one. No surprises here. They are the benchmark of the competition. Their depth is incredible. They have covered the losses of Brad Ottens and Gary Ablett Jr in recent weeks seamlessly. Such has been their dominance Sydney coach Paul Roos proclaimed he had never seen a team so far ahead of the rest, after his side’s 50-point defeat to the Cats last Saturday. They have won 49 out of their last 52, which included the 2007 Grand Final but not the 2008 decider.

The other contender is not the 2008 Premier. This is a shock to the system. Hawthorn’s premiership hangover is lingering far longer than anyone expected. Just three wins in seven weeks is hardly the record of an elite side. Those in the know suggest this is not a cause for concern. But a 44-point loss to Essendon last Friday would suggest otherwise. They were beaten at their own game. They were suffocated by the pressure and intensity of the Bombers and got burnt going the other way. The number of injuries on the Hawks list is also of grave concern. Trent Croad, a pillar at centre-half back last year, has yet to play a game in 2009. Grant Birchall, who played all 25 last year, has missed three this year. Norm Smith medalist Luke Hodge looks set to spend up to a month on the sideline after a groin twinge. The reigning Premiers will be fortunate to be in touch at the half-way mark of the season.

Instead, the other contender is the perennial pretender St Kilda. No one expected their exceptional start to 2009. Seven wins from seven starts with a percentage of 208 is phenomenal in anyone’s language. Until a fortnight ago they still had their doubters. The Saints first month of football had been sublime. But the pretenders tag is hard to shake. We’ve seen this before from the Saints. They’ve played on Preliminary final weekend in three of the past five seasons. Never once have they come closer than five goals to their preliminary final conquerors.

Hence the skeptics have been keen to reserve judgment so far this year. Even two successful trips to Adelaide in the first five weeks could not convince some doubters. The quality of the five interstate teams they beat is still up for debate.

But their performances in the last two weeks have convinced all and sundry that they are genuine contenders. Their 28-point victory against the Western Bulldogs was not as convincing as it could have been had they kicked straight. And the Bulldogs were somewhat flattered by a fight back in the last term.

But St Kilda made the competition sit up and take notice on Monday night against Collingwood. Yes the Magpies have been as inconsistent as any side this year, and yes they were missing Leon Davis and Paul Medhurst, arguably early leaders in Collingwood’s Copeland trophy race, but the mauling was no less frightening.

Collingwood prepare for the best sides better than any other side in the competition. They took the attack to the Saints in the opening term. The Saints have played expansive play-on and attack football in the first seven rounds. The blueprint has been supplied by Geelong and Hawthorn. But their skills, depth, and running capacity has allowed the Saints to control the corridor and move the ball swiftly to their two tall targets in Nick Riewoldt and Justin Koschitzke upfront, with the classy and elusive pair Adam Schneider and Stephen Milne buzzing at their feet.

The key to the Saints ball movement has been two on ones. They draw defenders and move the chain along via handball, eventually releasing their best ball users in Leigh Montagna, Nick Dal Santo, Brendon Goddard, Jason Gram and Farran Ray to send the football forward untroubled.

The Magpies in the opening term did not allow it. They sweated off the ball carrier, not committing to him and therefore leaving a player free to receive as the next link in the chain. It saw 18 men defending 17 targets and forced the Saints wide throughout the opening term. If you didn’t look at the scoreboard during that period in the match you would have sworn the Magpies were in-front. But alas St Kilda still managed to lead at quarter time. Like any good side they found a way. And after quarter time they upped the ante and blew the Magpies away.

The feature of St Kilda’s play is their ferocity at the football. No team works as hard without the football. Ross Lyon has taken the man on man defensive pressure that led Sydney to the 2005 Premiership, where he was an assistant coach, and applied it to the current context. The result is a full ground defense akin to basketball’s full court press. Teams are suffocated from playing on quickly through the middle and tried and trusted defensive switches to the open side are rarely allowed. It is an upgraded version of Hawthorn’s rolling zone and a credit to Ross Lyon and his group.

They have even contributors across the board. Their midfield is a brilliant mixture of tough-inside ball winners, and smooth outside movers. The ruck division is vastly experienced and finally fit, aside from Steven King’s recent hamstring. Their forward line is versatile and full of stars, and their back six is as dependable as any.

They are still weeks away from confronting either Hawthorn or the benchmark in Geelong. But barring major injury St Kilda will most definitely be there on Preliminary final weekend. And on present form they should be there on the final Saturday in September for the first time in a decade, hoping to deliver their first flag in more than four.

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