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Shaw's Preview: Saints v Dons

Robert Shaw  July 14, 2017 10:26 AM

The clash between the Dons and the Saints sees seventh square off against tenth in a crucial game in the run to the finals.

The clash between the Dons and the Saints sees seventh square off against tenth in a crucial game in the run to the finals.

Passionate supporter groups meet to watch in form teams. Close the roof, shut the gates and strap in. 52,000 and not a pie left by half time! Trains on the Sandringham and Broadmeadows line run ragged.

Friday night football sees the Saints take on the Dons. After being smashed in Adelaide by a very good Crows team, the Saints have put a month of wins together. Apart from the ladder position of Richmond, their wins have come against Fremantle, Gold Coast and North.

In comparison the Dons have had narrow losses against GWS, Sydney and Brisbane as well as outstanding performances against Port and Collingwood. People that follow this article will know that I am far from one eyed, but the Dons have been up against some genuine quality throughout the last six weeks. If they present as ‘the hunter’ and go after the Saints, they can win.

I will give you one unconditional stat Essendon must have in its favour in the first quarter against the Saints. Win the contested ball. The Tigers were ‘witches hats’, but the Saints were scintillating in their execution. The Bombers must bring their A-grade contested game as last week the Saints had 44 first half inside 50’s to 14. They will meet genuine opposition in Essendon.

Be in your seat early

Get the chips organised for the kids and get the old man a beer. I would also catch the earlier trains. Do not miss the start.

Essendon is the best first quarter team in the AFL. They have won the first quarter 12 out of 15 this season. Last week against the fourth placed Richmond, the Saints led 14.8.92 to 1.4.10 at half time. The pace of the game should be alarming. If one team is off their ‘contested ball or physical game’, then you can book the Uber for an early departure.

If I was part of either sides coaching panel I would be more than satisfied with the scores being close at quarter time and from there build into the game. ‘We are happy with a nil-all draw at the first break’. Both teams have the capacity, ball movement and pace to blow each other out of the water.

The message on the whiteboard

1. Don’t spectate

2. Bring your physical game

3. ‘Shop early’

Essendon’s ladder position should reflect its approach, attitude and effort; while the Saints are percentage away from clear fourth spot. There will be a lot of planning on structure, role and system. Yep it’s old school, but narrow your focus to contested ball (particularly in the first 10-15 min) or you may find yourself five goals down. Structure will only flow from effort and physicality in the loose and contested ball.

Nail them early: Both sides have great 'starters' 

Watson 7, Heppell 10, Zaharakis 9, Merrett 9 and Kelly 9 flew out of the blocks in the first quarter last week. Ross 9, Newnes 11, Monatgna 8, Geary 9, Steven 8 and Stevens 7 did likewise for the Saints.

Both teams combined kicked 10.3.63 to 3.3.21 in the first quarter. In addition, they kicked an incredible 23 goals combined to the oppositions five by half time. Both teams preach the importance of ‘team defence’ but organisation and accountability will be paramount in the early hectic stages.

The Saints do something slightly different to the Dons. Last week Koby Stevens held Dustin Martin to six touches in the first half. Seb Ross and Jack Steven are the Saints initiators around the footy. The case for the tagger continues.

Essendon and St Kilda boast an impressive array of dangerous small forwards.

The smalls

The old chestnut about size. McDonald-Tipunwuti, Fantasia, Colyer, McGrath, Green, Zaharakis against Steven, Lonie, Billings, Montagna and Gresham – all small and quick. The ground level contests and the ability of each team to release this band of creative quicks are going to be a major key to the game. The Saints are ranked third for uncontested possessions, with 256.7 per game. They are just ahead of Essendon, which is fourth at 256.3 per game. Both sides will be keen to utilise space, run/carry and ball movement.

The talls

Jake Carlisle can take his pick - Joe Daniher or Cale Hooker. While at the other end, Nick Riewoldt destroyed ‘the greatest full back of all time’ in Alex Rance last week. Bruce is smart and dangerous, but the big loss is Membrey, a key piece of that trifecta. The Dons have the advantage here due to that.

With no Membrey, the Saints will have to keep Riewoldt closer to goal. Hurley or Hartley win or break even in that contest and the Dons get home. He is a champion this bloke.

What I like about the Dons that will worry St Kilda

Pretty simple in theory. Ok so it was not Etihad and the Saints were on the road but the Crows three talls (Lynch, Walker and Jenkins) had 25 marks between them and kicked nine goals between them in a 10-goal drubbing of the Saints. In addition, dashers in Laird, Brodie Smith and Atkins off half back had a combined 87 possessions streaming out of defence. They are bad numbers for the Saints as the Dons have nearly identical ammunition to throw at them.

I also like Essendon’s recent competitors and build up to this game. Essendon represent a significant challenge for the Saints in areas I believe the Bombers will exploit.

What I like about the Saints that will worry the Dons

It always intrigues me how the ‘get out/easy’ clause for many commentators is, ‘the game will be won in the midfield’. In my opinion, this is not that case. This is because of the focus on big names in Dangerfield, Martin, etc. Now, particularly at Etihad this game will be won or lost from the respective half back lines, or more specifically that area 30-70 m out from goal.

The Saints will throw Robertson, Montagna, Gilbert, Geary and Newnes to rebound and set up. Montagna had his career discussed but he was destructive drifting down to kick two goals last week. With Nathan Brown and Carlisle providing the height this group not only has to combat Essendon’s dangerous smalls (Geary to Fantasia), but also can provide excellent transition running. Essendon counter with McGrath, McKenna, Kelly, Baguley and Gleeson.

As we have seen, both teams can be scintillating at Etihad in this area of the ground. Midfield battle is all good, but if one team dominates transition, they win.

Injuries and Selection

Membrey is a big loss through suspension. Kicked five against the Tigers and forms a great partnership with Riewoldt and Bruce. Tactically the Saints have made the adjustment by bringing in Josh Battle. He’s learnt from Matthew Lloyd over the last few years so the school student will come into the game well prepared. St Kilda also loses Billy Longer to injury and recalls the mobile Tom Hickey in his place.

Technically the Bombers are almost at full strength with good pressure coming through the VFL. The 32 year old Jobe Watson has been rested with Craig Bird coming in to the side. It’s the premiership player’s first senior game of the season. He’s been tagged in the VFL in recent weeks but continues to get plenty of the ball. His big body around the stoppages will be important.

Statistical analysis

Average Possessions: ESS 6th STK 5th

Average Clearances: ESS 17TH STK 15TH

Average Inside 50s: ESS 14TH STK 11TH

Disposal Efficiency: ESS 5th STK 3RD

Average Contested Possessions: ESS 15TH STK 13TH

Uncontested Possession: ESS 4th STK 3RD

Average Tackles: ESS 15th STK 8TH

Average Scores: ESS 6TH STK 10TH

Rebound 50s: ESS 2st STK 16TH

Marks Inside 50s: ESS 9th STK 3rd

The template

So I will continue on with this little exercise and see how the Bombers are tracking in finding ‘the ideal’ balance. If Essendon can get reasonably close to this ‘ideal’ template set in the Port Adelaide game, they will win. While this is in simplistic terms, the game against the Power represented that ‘perfect game’ from Essendon. It is taking eight key indicators from that game and then tracking them for the remainder of the season to see if there is a pattern.

The Dons ticked many boxes against the Pies and came away with a comfortable six-goal win. So my ‘theory’ is tracking ok…sort of.



v. SYD







+67 (tick)





+8 (tick)





27 (tick)





13 (tick)





+13 (tick





59 (-11) ok





54 (-13)





53 (tick)



Essendon will not allow the rubbish that was served up by Richmond last week. I’m not one to be disrespectful but the Saints got zero contact thrown at them. At times individuals will shine, as there is a lot of in form talent on the park. Both teams should be on desperate missions. 

The Saints have a bit of ‘elbow room’; the Dons have little if any. It has to be reflected in the application of mind and body before structure. I have assessed the area of the ground that I believe holds the key to the game. It is the ‘Etihad Half Back Theory’ that holds the key as I believe both midfields will do well. How does the potential Koby Stevens (Martin) role affect the game if he holds Merrett, and how will the Dons adjust position wise if this happens. The pace of Jack Steven is an issue. His surging runs are influential, but the form of Heppell, Zaharakis and Goddard stands up. They will have to as Steele and Stevens are strong competitors.

The loss of Membrey unbalances the Saints, but it is hard to imagine any team playing Etihad better than the Saints. Off the top of my head I can’t think of one…

Wait a minute … I can … Essendon.