Round 6 – Melbourne v St Kilda: Fast-break footy

Etihad Stadium, Saturday 30th April, 1:45pm

I don’t know if Alan Richardson has even heard of Paul Westhead. But the guru of run-and-gun basketball would love what the Saints coach is doing on a footy ground.

Westhead was the architect of “The System,” a basketball scheme that employs full-court pressure on defense and then a grab-the-rebound, outlet-pass, hit-the-first-open-shooter mentality on offense, trying to get a shot off in as little as seven seconds before the defense can get set. Loyola Marymount, a small Catholic university in Los Angeles, was his most successful stop, making three NCAA Tournament appearances and reaching the quarterfinals in 1990.

Cue the Saints, who thoroughly flummoxed an in-form Melbourne team with relentless tackling and harassing pressure on defense and then aggressive, attacking offense that often caught the Demons flat-footed trying to retreat.

Actually St Kilda have tried to play this way all this season and most of last. Credit Richo for not abandoning his principles, even through some ugly defeats last season. But after losing last year 112-49 to Port, this season the Saints led in the third quarter before losing 133-100. Last year’s 132-69 blowout by Hawthorn became an 87-84 nailbiter defeat. A 140-66 loss to Collingwood was flipped into a 119-90 victory.

Now the Saints have multiple mobile forwards and Tom Hickey asserting himself in the ruck. He matched Melbourne’s Max Gawn hit-out for hit-out on Saturday, jump-starting the offense on occasion. But the Saints also were able to charge downfield from turnovers and stoppages.

So what against GWS last week seemed an uncomfortable pace that couldn’t be sustained became a free-flowing, intricate ballet of runs and quick passes and perfectly placed kicks around, through and behind defenders. When clicking, the Saints’ offense and defense generate all kinds of chances – enough to offset the occasional easy opposition goals when a play goes awry. When inaccurate, the Saints can get trampled, which is what happened against the Giants.

It seems so ironic that a team that rose to prominence by playing a deliberate, defensive style under Ross Lyon is trying to regain standing by doing a 180 into high-velocity footy. But wow, it’s fun to watch. These go-go Saints also brought back memories from 20-plus years ago, when our local high school basketball team, Jeffersonville, rode a modified Westhead system to a state championship. Watching teenagers run and gun, fans (and obviously most opposing teams) never knew when a play started where the ball might wind up, except that more often than not it was in the basket.

And so goeth the Saints. Oftentimes it seems they’re pushing the ball faster than the play can develop, except that it often works. Ask the Pies and Hawks and Demons.

It takes a young side to make this work, and so many of the Saints’ kids starred Saturday — Blake Acres and three of four Jacks (Billings, Newnes, Sinclair), Seb Ross, Josh Bruce, Tim Membrey. Not one older than 23. And then relative graybeards like Hickey (24), Jack Steven (25), Mav Weller (24) and Shane Savage (25).

And then Nick Riewoldt, all of 33, played like 23 with three goals, 24 disposals and 14 marks. He might be playing his best footy in years, apparently finally healthy. The Saints rested Paddy McCartin, but few of their goals came from kicking to a contest near the goal. Instead they moved the ball downfield and their forwards found open space in the attacking zone, most notably Membrey, who celebrated his first game this season with five goals.

Though Melbourne built a 17-point lead in the first quarter by dominating clearances early, slowly the Saints began to assert themselves and flipped the momentum with a 33-point run that started with a Membrey goal late in the first quarter and then a stunning flurry of three goals in three minutes (Luke Dunstan, Riewoldt, Sinclair). The second flurry (Weller, Sinclair, Membrey twice) came midway through the third quarter, four goals in 5½ minutes. That made it 94-58, and yet another cluster (Membrey’s fifth, Newnes, Bruce’s first of three) upped the margin to 113-65 with still three minutes left in the quarter. Game over. Jesse Hogan had a spectacular game for Melbourne, kicking seven goals. But he’d have needed seven more for the Demons to win.

The Saints finished with 44 more disposals, more inside 50s, more contested possessions, more tackles. Hit-outs were even, a testament to Hickey’s inspired play.

So where to from here? The next two games are against the Kangaroos and Eagles. Tough tasks for the best sides in the comp, let alone a developing one still getting established. Then the Bombers and Dockers. At 2-4, the Saints are capable of stretches both exhilarating and frustrating, and I’m sure we’ll see plenty of both. Probably a shocking, happy surprise or two, and a couple of shoulda-woulda-coulda defeats. I’d like to think we’ll eventually remember this week’s victory and the one over Collingwood as turning points, when Richo’s system started to take hold and the Saints began their rise back to prominence. If nothing else, it’ll be fun to find out.


MELBOURNE     5.3    8.3    11.5     15.6   (96)
ST KILDA            3.4    9.9    17.11   20.15 (135)

 Hogan 7, Watts 2, Frost 2, Bugg, Tyson, Jones, Kent
St Kilda: Membrey 5, Riewoldt 3, Bruce 3, Acres 2, Sinclair 2, Dunstan, Newnes, Gresham, Weller, Armitage 

 Hogan, Viney, Jones, Vince
St Kilda: Riewoldt, Acres, Steven, Membrey, Sinclair, Hickey

Malarkey votes: Riewoldt (StK) 3, Hogan (M) 2, Acres (StK) 1

Umpires: Brown, Meredith, Findlay.  Attendance: 27,260

About Glenn Brownstein

I'm a red, white and blue supporter of the red, white and black who became a footy fan through ESPN telecasts in the 1980s and a buddy who founded the American version of the game. Yup, I chose the Saints, but I'd like to think they chose me, too.


  1. Yvette Wroby says

    Another perfect summation Glenn. Am still glowing in the fun of it all three days later. I love the going over the top, just pushing forward and then the speeding towards the ball that the young brigade can do. And Riewoldt just thinks he’s one of the young ones, I read something in the last few days how he thinks and feels very young around this mob. More blessings to him, and may they give it a fair crack come the next two weeks and beyond.

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