People criticised, or muttered disparagingly behind their hands, when Richardson brought the chief executive Matt Finnis in to talk to the players for the first JLT match to stress how important the victory was.
Finnis was correct in measuring its significance. A loss then, like a loss instead of that one-point victory in round one against the Suns, would have seen the walls closing in. Even small victories – a JLT match, an underwhelming win against last year’s second-bottom team (who lost both of their captains in the off-season), were still victories. They were enough to not only keep critics silent, but to foster belief.
St Kilda are playing with a bond and connection at the moment that they didn’t last year
It is true and utterly unfair that a second narrative of St Kilda’s surprising resurrection this season – amusingly sealed by vanquishing Demons and arriving atop the ladder on Easter Sunday – is that the story to emerge out of each victory is not about them, but how bad the opposition must have been.
Reluctantly, because St Kilda deserve the credit, that is partly true again this week. The difference here is that Melbourne are not criticised for being beaten by what we had assumed to be a poor team, but for playing like the poor team when we assumed them to be better.
It feels that with the stars out of the team and critics (yes, me included) assuming their season gone before it began, Richardson was able to foster a sense of “us v. the world”. Thus, they are able to play with nothing to lose. It also helped foster a mentality of “if not you then who?”
The midfield has understood that pressure can be as effective as style and that hunting in packs works.
Routinely St Kilda had more players in both their own forward line and Melbourne’s. The only way that happens is by players being prepared to run harder end-to-end than the opposition. Melbourne simply didn’t, or couldn’t, work hard enough.
The Demons were thoroughly outworked by St Kilda. That can be a consequence of a slow start and below-par fitness, but not that much.
St Kilda were able to match the midfield for strength around the ball and then looked the better for spread and outside run, which is something that has not been a Saints trait.
The quality of Jack Steele’s game was probably overshadowed by Jack Stevens’ effort and by the impact of others like Tim Membrey and former Demon Dean Kent up forward, but Steele was very good. He is a better player than he has been given credit for, he is a good size and strong over the ball. He has been queried for being one-paced and an only adequate ball user, but he has looked good doing a job and he can hunt his own ball.
Up against Max Gawn and Brayden Preuss, Rohan Marshall was one of the Saints’ best. Gawn could not have enough influence for the Demons midfield to get on top.
Jack Billings has looked good, working harder as a midfielder rather than a finishing forward pocket or flanker. He is a good user and makes good decisions and is now at the age where he should be putting in these performances. Ditto Seb Ross, who had a down year in 2018 but had been good before.
Jack Lonie is a good, hunting small forward who has had a good start to the year, and could have finished with a bag.
Ben Long and Matt Parker only had moments on Saturday, but there is a spark and X-factor about both that gives you the sense they could become damaging players that add something the Saints have lacked.
The Saints might stumble, they will probably have a lapse, but the way they are working as a unit it would be a surprise if it lapsed or if they fell back to the form of last year.
Demons’ Hogan question
Tom McDonald is emblematic of the current Demon malaise. McDonald is plainly a better player than this, but he is presently horribly out of form. He can’t find the ball, his teammates have stopped looking for him and no one else presents as an alternative.
The inevitable question that flows from McDonald’s form, and thus the absence of a forward target, is this: was it an error to trade Jesse Hogan? While it is tempting to conclude it was a mistake, it’s too early to do so after five rounds, especially while Steven May is out of the team. May is a star and will prove a good player for Melbourne.
The problem with the Hogan trade has always been that that historically, power forwards are harder to find than key backs. Melbourne traded one for the other in the belief they were covered up forward, but now McDonald’s form is making them second guess that part of the equation.
AFL’s Easter present
This was the round the AFL had been hoping for.
Firstly, decent sized crowds and – most importantly – a full Gabba, which has not been seen in nearly a decade.
Secondly, unpredictable results: Port Adelaide, Fremantle, Carlton and St Kilda were all outsiders to win, but did so comfortably.
Third, and most importantly, it was the manner of the wins. The teams that all played fast attractive football – Richmond, Collingwood and Essendon – the type the AFL wants to see more of, were all regarded for their style. Slow footy looked old and tired.
Then there was the fact that Fremantle scored more than 100 points for the second time this season – and Carlton for the first time since 2016.
Harry shrugs off the blues
This is what Carlton thought they were recruiting. Harry McKay on Sunday was superb playing the game Carlton has patiently waited for.
McKay marked everything early on and could have had five goals to half-time. Whether his improved form was a consequence of Charlie Curnow being out or just a coincidence, the step in growth in the player was undeniable.
Pre-season and in previous games, McKay has run under the ball more than at it. He has been tentative and uncertain, but on Sunday he looked a different – a vastly better player. He was marking with such confidence his teammates were not only confident kicking it to him, they were eager to give it to him.
Michael Gleeson is an award-winning senior sports writer specialising in AFL and athletics.