MATCH REPORT: St Kilda v Essendon | Round 3, AFL 2023

Matt Tiffen
April 2, 2023
The sky above The MCG was on fire. Rich golden clouds illuminated the city’s skyline from the Punt Road end; a sunset more befitting of the occasion could not have been more perfectly crafted for our 150th birthday.  It was the best 150th birthday us Saints fans have ever been to. With all the pressure of the occasion on the shoulders of our young and inexperienced players, we could have been forgiven for thinking it might become too much to handle – St Kilda and marquee games do have a chequered history, but this isn’t the St Kilda of the past. Whilst we all came together to celebrate our history; this is the future. This team is a different breed. They were challenged, and they responded, whereas in the past they might not have. Lid is off, Sainters. Our streak of kicking goals in the opening minute came to an end, but not by much. Ninety seconds in, our Lord and saviour Mason Wood put the first on the board courtesy of the other, not as good Mason, giving away a 50m penalty. Shortly after that, Mr Redman was back at it again and gifted Hammer with a gimme on the goal line. Mitchito made it three goals from the exact same spot after Cordy hit him up in the goalsquare and it was clear the boy’s meant business. Before Essendon could even breathe, we were 34 points up and putting on a clinic. From the third quarter of round two, to deep into the first quarter of round three, we had scored thirteen consecutive goals and our opponents had kicked zilch. We are becoming first quarter specialists, only conceding 21 points across all three games – the least in the competition. That level of intensity and proficiency we began with is difficult to maintain for an entire game, but when you get out of the blocks as quickly as we did, that six goal buffer is a life saver. Essendon made it more of a contest in the second quarter, outscoring us by two goals.
It wasn’t until the fifteen minute mark that Higgo slotted home his second of the night and got us back on track. Jack Higgins has had an indifferent start to the season, only having one goal next to his name across the first two weeks. At his best, he is a powerhouse small forward who can flip the game on its head; this week he found that spark again. Strong hands overhead and deadly accurate all night, Higgo finished with four snags and was immense. Essendon was scoring more frequently from Draper’s ruck-work than we were from Ro’s, but around the ground Marshall was dominate, as usual, clunking intercept marks and being a brick wall in general on the wing. Essendon started the third in much the same way they did the second, putting the first two goals on the board. It was a gritty contest and scores were hard to come by, with the first maximum going the way of Archie Perkins thirteen minutes in. The Bombers were throwing everything at us and were clawing their way back effectively. When Nick Martin put through his first, Essendon had kicked six of the last eight goals of the game and we were in trouble. Enter Dan Butler. The boy from Ballarat went bang bang. Two goals in three minutes to our 2020 jet shifted momentum our way and gave Dan that confidence boost he desperately needed. He and Higgo had one goal between them after the first two rounds, but by the end of this game they had both finished with four majors.
Once again, we let the Bombers run rampant to open the quarter. Brad Scott probably put the fear of God into them in the huddle and they came out swinging; kicking the first three goals and drawing level on the scoreboard. Since quarter time, the scores were 61 to 27 in Essendon’s favour. We hadn’t faced this type of challenge from Freo or the Dogs so it was foreign territory and Saints palms across the country were getting sweaty. Last year we would have rolled over and copped the beating. In 2016 Alan Richardson would have released his members message post-game and told us there were ‘pleasing signs’ but that we ‘ran out of legs and will hit the track hard next week’ – but this is 2023. This is authentic Saints footy. This is a new era. With our backs against the wall, and a spoilt birthday celebration in sight, the boys flicked the switch. We kicked the next five goals in a row and sealed the game. Watching in the stands it felt surreal. We supporters are so accustomed to losing big games, losing to Essendon, running out of steam… but when the boys bounced back, it felt expected. There is faith in this team, there is trust in Ross, the system is working and although Essendon were dominate for long periods, it never felt like we were going to lose. What was great to see, was that we had different match winners this week than we did the previous weeks. Butler and Higgins stood up and lead the forward line, while Pou, Hammer and Owens played their roles but didn’t have the scoreboard impact they’ve had previously. Mason Wood is the most rejuvenated player in the entire competition. He is ripping opposition teams apart and has found a new lease on life. Mason has been my favourite player for a long time now and it’s fantastic to see him finally get the plaudits and recognition he deserves. Unfortunately, a shoulder injury is likely to sideline him for weeks. Truly disappointing for him personally and for us as a club. There’s every chance Mason is leading our Best & Fairest count at the moment. The injury list just won’t stop rising. Jimmy Webster is also injured and will miss weeks; a consequence of his own courage because this man cops an injury nearly every time he plays. We are running extremely thin on reserves players, so who comes in and fills the void of Wood and Webster? Bytel? Highmore? And Surely Sharman comes in for Zaineo after he was subbed out with one disposal next to his name.Let’s finish off on a positive note: our captain, Callum Wilkie. It’s time we stopped calling him ‘underrated’ because he is no longer underrated. The AFL media are singing his praises week after week, he is now one of the competition’s premium defenders. He never loses. His hands are soaked in honey. He had so many intercept marks last night, finishing with thirteen marks overall. From his nineteen disposals, he went at 90% efficiency and had seven spoils. This man is elite.
Go Saints.
Tiff’s votes:
3 – Mason Wood 2 – Callum Wilkie 1 – Jack Higgins