Rekindling its “A-game” was priority one for St Kilda’s engine room. Against the Hawks on Saturday afternoon, they took the first steps in doing just that.
While it was Zak Jones and Brad Crouch who led the charge with 37 and 32 disposals respectively, it was the extensive spread of contributors which defined the club’s on-ball performance.
From Jack Billings and Seb Ross’ poise on the outside and deft scoreboard touches (a combined 26 score involvements) to the bullish work of Jack Bytel (a game-high eight tackles) and co-captain Jack Steele inside, St Kilda looked – and felt – a completely different outfit to the one seen over the past fortnight.
That’s not to mention the fluidity of Hunter Clark, nor impact of Bradley Hill and Jack Sinclair who floated into the rotation from half-back.
“We really clicked tonight,” Crouch told saints.com.au.
“We’ve been training really hard together and working a little bit on our cohesion and how we’re using each other.
“I thought tonight was a great step forward for our midfield.”
Saturday’s win gets “the monkey off the back” for the under-fire unit, who have felt the heat following a bruising two weeks at the hands of Richmond and Port Adelaide.
The Saints were comprehensively beaten at the centre clearances in both matches (-10 in each) and went down in excess of 50 points, but were successful in turning the tide against Hawthorn.
Buoyed by the inclusion of Paddy Ryder, St Kilda emerged on top of the clearances (+10), hit-outs (+20) and inside-50s (+17) to stride towards a 69-point triumph.
Most impressively, the Saints’ pace and pressure – particularly in the defensive half – bore hallmarks to last season’s form, which ultimately delivered them their first finals appearance in almost a decade.
It was 210 days since these two last played side-by-side ??— St Kilda FC (@stkildafc) May 2, 2021
How good was it to see Paddy Ryder and Rowan Marshall on the field together again? pic.twitter.com/qbyZn8OFz6
“It’s been an up-and-down start to the year for us and it’s a long season, so we’re just trying to get our A-game back,” Crouch said.
Recapturing – and then, solidifying – its team-first mantra was a focal point for St Kilda during the lead-up to Round 7.
And it was undoubtedly on show as the selfless acts across the board started to add up throughout the game.
Whether it be a desperate smother in the back half, a subtle block at stoppage or the passages of sleek handball chains, all were done with the benefit of the side in mind.
“We focussed really hard this week on playing team footy, and it was good to get the result all together,” Jones told saints.com.au.
“I was just trying to play my role for the team and make sure I was in the right spots, and I was fortunate enough to get on the end of the train a few times.”
The Silk-Miller Memorial medallist highlighted the efforts of Bradley Hill in the Saints’ midfield mix, whose 27 disposals, 10 score involvements and six inside-50s coming off half-back were particularly impressive following intensified, external criticism about his on-field influence.
“He went down to half-back and played a role for us,” Jones said.
“I think most people will look at his disposals and the things he does with the ball, but his defensive efforts were unreal tonight and he really set the scene for us.”
St Kilda will look to keep its momentum rolling at Metricon Stadium this coming Saturday against Gold Coast – an opponent who has pushed the past four encounters (all in favour of the Saints) to be determined by less than a straight kick.
“It’s important that we review this (match against Hawthorn) like any other game and make sure that we’re looking to get better,” Jones said.
“We’re striving to get better, so we just want to continue the form, enjoy this and get onto the next game.”