RECRUITED with pick No.3 in the 2013 NAB AFL Draft, Jack Billings has made a solid start to his career with St Kilda, but he was always going to face comparisons with young Western Bulldogs star Marcus Bontempelli.
Bontempelli was taken by the Dogs one pick later at No.4 and his performances early this season have made him the most exciting youngster in the game outside of Fremantle's Nat Fyfe.
So how would Billings go when his Vic Metro teammate from 2013 was on the same field again? Well, he was the match-winner on a contrasting day for the prized youngsters.
When the siren sounded Billings ran to Bontempelli, who slumped after a quiet day, and shook his hand. The broadcasters also made their way to the pair, but this time it was Billings they wanted.
Become a member. Click HERE or call 1300 GO SAINTS.
With his first three quarters netting twelve possessions and one goal – a classy set shot from just inside 50 on the boundary – Billings wasn't getting reward for effort.
His luck changed entirely in the last term, however, and his tireless running was rewarded with opportunities in big moments.
For his second goal, he stayed down at a contest deep in attack and operated on instinct when the ball fell his way. With enough space to gather and quickly turn onto his deadly left foot, he converted without even looking up at the goals.
His third goal, from outside 50, left the Saints trailing by 11 points and he was the player to seal the result with three minutes left.
After adding size to his frame and enjoying his first full pre-season, it is common now to see Billings mixing in contested situations and he got his hands dirty against the Bulldogs.
His class shone most, however, when the ball came to him in dangerous positions inside 50.
Bontempelli had his quietest game for the season and battled heavy attention from tagger Mav Weller in the midfield and Dylan Roberton when he was forward.
Weller was freed of his run-with duties in the second half, leaving Bontempelli with more freedom himself.
He wasn't able to capitalise, but found ways to have an impact with his tackling and by going third man up at stoppages.
With three minutes left, Billings faced the ultimate test. Nick Riewoldt bombed the ball long and, when Easton Wood slipped, he found himself streaming inside 50 with the ball. Fletcher Roberts and Josh Bruce broke away alongside him in their own battle, leaving Billings with a decision to make. He got to 40m and decided to take the responsibility on, slotting the goal that sealed a famous win for the Saints. It was a big decision for the 19-year-old to make, and the right decision.
This belongs to Bontempelli, who made the wrong call at a crucial stage. As the ball was delivered deep into St Kilda's forward line by Billings, Bontempelli had position on the goal line, with a pack forming in front of him. He decided to fly but didn't kill the ball, leaving it to spill where he had been positioned moments earlier. Jack Sinclair gratefully swooped and kicked a goal that cut the margin to five points.
What they said in the rooms
""I thought I was working pretty hard all game, but it's one of those things sometimes where it may or may not work for you. I was lucky enough in that last quarter where I was able to have a few shots on goal. I'm enjoying my footy at the moment and sort of playing as that high half-forward. I love being around the footy and up in the midfield so it was really good." – Jack Billings
"It was a stoppage in the third quarter where you saw what Jack's going to do for us long term. I actually thought it was David Armitage, that was the intensity that he smacked through and won the ball and I think it was Schneider who ended up with a shot on goal. That was so pleasing for us." – St Kilda coach Alan Richardson
"He'll get attention every week, 'Bonny' (Marcus Bontempelli). He's been enormous for us already at the start of this year. Week-to-week he'll need to combat that. He had his moments again this afternoon. I don't think that's going to change for him." – Western Bulldogs coach Luke Beveridge
How will they fare next week?
Billings suggested Saturday's performance individually would be important for his confidence and the Saints' development as a team. It wouldn't surprise to see him take a big step in his career now. He has never played against the Crows, but he can expect much more attention. With Fremantle not playing a specialist tagger this season, Bontempelli might be given more freedom in a showdown with the Dockers' big-bodied midfielders.