Act I: The debutant
Sitting in the backseat of Brad Crouch’s car, Leo Connolly is nervous beyond belief.
Earlier that morning, the young Saint from Gippsland received a phone call from Brett Ratten telling him he’d be a “50-50” chance to make his AFL debut as the medical sub.
It was only five weeks ago against the Western Bulldogs that he’d actually been in the rooms on game-day for the first time.
Now, there's an unexpected, potential call-up to the Friday night stage against the reigning Premiers... at the 'G.
His nerves have only been exacerbated by Crouch just about arriving at Marvel Stadium before fellow passenger Tom Highmore – in Crouch’s words – “got the minerals” to tell him that St Kilda’s game against Richmond was actually at the MCG.
As Crouch and Highmore continue to chat en-route to correct arena, Connolly hasn’t said a word. Only a sharp inhale and exhale every few minutes breaks his silence.
Eventually they arrive at the ‘G. Crouch has missed his media commitments with Triple M pre-game, Highmore has sets his sights on the task ahead while Connolly has no clue whether or not he’ll be pulling on the guernsey later that night.
Fifteen or so minutes out from the opening bounce, it appears that he won’t. A slight twist in Jack Billings’ already uncertain knee during the warm-up soon changes that.
The magnets are reshuffled, Nick Coffield – the original medical sub – comes in and Connolly takes his place as the 23rd man. There’s not even time for a hasty guernsey presentation and before he knows it, he’s running up the race and out onto the MCG for his debut.
Act II: The ink already dried
It had been a fortnight of injury woes, media drama and intense criticism, coupled with its most recent on-field performance which featured an inexcusable capitulation against last season’s wooden spooners.
Then there was the fixture - the run home post-bye barely instilling hope into the dejected contingent.
Richmond at the ‘G, West Coast in Perth, Brisbane at the Gabba, Geelong at GMHBA Stadium… not the most inspiring sequence of games.
Instead of wondering if St Kilda could rally and put up a fight against the Tigers, the external conversation was centred around how much the final margin would be in favour of the three-time Premiers. St Kilda’s earlier match this season against the Tigers – which ended in an 86-point drubbing – only gave further credence to the predictions.
The script was already laid out by Richmond and St Kilda fan alike; the ink long dried as the red, white and black prepare to square off against their formidable opposition and hold on for as long as they could.
The media, critics and fans had written St Kilda off, but Ratten and his men where ready to turn the story on its head.
In the opening minutes however, it appeared that the pre-planned script was playing out line-for-line.
Richmond’s Jayden Short – in characteristic fashion – was granted two unopposed pings at the big sticks from outside 50. Both shots narrowly missed as the Saints dodged an early killing blow to their confidence in the opening minutes.
The Tigers had all the run early, owning the territory battled in the forward half as Ratten’s side eventually registered its first inside-50 almost 10 minutes into the term.
There were signs the Saints were starting to switch on though. An impressive series of follow-up tackles from Seb Ross, Jack Steele and Luke Dunstan featured in the shift in play, as did Rowan Marshall spoiling a misguided forward-50 entry and Dan Butler breaking a string of three Richmond tackles up forward.
But those moments were just ad-lib additions to the original script. Surely, it wouldn’t be long until Richmond drew first blood and swiftly continued its assault.
Enter some curveballs and a much-needed rewrite.
Act III: A few alterations to the script
It was an unlikely hero who bobbed up at the right time to put the Saints on the board first up.
It's not Membrey or King or Steele, but Daniel McKenzie, who soccered the Sherrin over the line in his return game from a niggling calf injury to get his side underway. And it wouldn't be the last time McKenzie would have his say on the contest either.
Then comes Jack Higgins kicking true against his old side, followed by Max King who threads the needle after a well-documented few weeks in front of goal.
The Saints' effort is noticeable, the intensity right up. Every contest, scrap and disputed ball is attacked with a determination that had been invisible for the better part of a month.
Ryan Byrnes lines up in centre bounces (including the first of the game) against the triple-Premiership midfield of Dustin Martin, Trent Cotchin and Dion Prestia, Ben Long’s attack conveys far more than his nine disposals and five score involvements read on the stats sheet, while eventual Ian Stewart medallist Luke Dunstan needs no elaboration as the unmatched grunt of the engine room.
It’s not glamorous football by any means, but it's reminiscent of 2020: there's unquestionable endeavour and intensity from all 22 players.
Jimmy Webster puts his body on the line in a courageous spoil to win the admiration of his teammates, and when Dunstan cops a jab to the guts in a scrimmage, Paddy Ryder and a string of other Saints come to back up their teammate.
As King and Mason Wood extend the lead to five unanswered majors nearing half-time, the frustration seeps out for the Tigers. Higgins is dragged along the deck by his former teammates as a fresh scuffle breaks out; the smile on his face only emphasising how the Saints are the ones in control.
Incredibly, Richmond is kept to just one goal for the half as Martin converts in the shadows of half-time. They’d only add another as for the remainder of the match, with McKenzie matching the Tigers’ goalkicking tally for the night during the third quarter.
St Kilda had banded together to completely smother the reigning Premiers without offering any inkling of a reprieve. Keep in mind, this was the same side who had been belted by over 50 points in four matches this season and went down to Adelaide in its previous encounter.
It was a full team performance across the board that had been conspicuously absent for some time.
The 40-point margin in their favour spoke volumes of that.
Even the previously nervy debutant in Connolly was impressive with 11 disposals and seven marks in just over a quarter after coming on for the injured Coffield.
Ratten said the triumph was a “big step forward” post-match, but there’s still a long way to go: a lot of hard work, a mountain of lessons that need to be learned and a significant amount of change required to take the Saints to where they want to be.
Friday’s result proved this side has the capabilities to turn things around.
But most importantly, the script for St Kilda’s future is still being written.