Many Saints fans, myself included, wondered on the eve of the 2014 season whether the opening two games against Melbourne and GWS would be the highlights of the year – a year in which many experts predicted another wooden spoon. That the Saints are 2 – 0 is not the surprise, rather it is the way they have won.
Both games have showed a renewed spirit, character and doggedness, all of which have been absent or lacking for several years. Commentators talk about players ‘playing for their coach’ and on the evidence of these two games it certainly appears that the Saints believe in Richo’s message. The new breed of Saints – Hickey, Wright, Dunstan, Templeton, Saunders, Curren and co. – are hungry, enthusiastic and fierce, with their tackling and goal kicking two of the most impressive aspects. The older generation – Riewoldt, Armitage, Jones, Hayes, Ray, Dempster, Gilbert, Gwilt and Montagna – are playing as well as ever. Armitage has not only bulked up, but stepped up, to his pre season predications of a leadership role within the midfield, while Gilbert, Gwilt and Dempster are holding together a better looking backline, with the assistance off season additions, finally, Nick Riewoldt is like a fine wine, getting better with age and doing what he does best.
There was much to like in the 7 point win against the Giants. While Riewoldt starred with 5 goals it was far from a one man show. Tom Hickey played his best game for the club and dispelling pre game predictions of a Mumford monstering, was able to kick 3 crucial goals and take 8 marks. David Armitage collected a game high 29 possessions (17 contested) and again claimed the match highlight, a mark of the year contender in the first quarter, more importantly ‘Arma’ went back and kicked truly.
The second quarter was the only quarter the Saints lost, with some ‘second game blues’ quelling some of the youngsters and recruits. The funk continued after half time and well into the third quarter the Giants looked to be skipping away, with a 20 point lead. Then, from out of nowhere, Luke ‘Viagra’ Delaney (he was recruited to St Kilda to help stiffen the backline) shrugged an ungainly Giants tackle and handpassed to Sean Dempster whose long goal kick-started a frantic burst from the Saints with Eli Templeton kicking truly shortly after, before Riewoldt kicked two in quick succession and suddenly the Saints in front just before ¾ time.
The final quarter saw the Giants with more than enough chances to win the game, however a combination of errant kicking, strong backline marking from Ray and Dempster and the cool heads of Hayes and Montagna saw the Saints steady. Finally, a textbook pass from Clint Jones hit youngster Eli Templeton on the chest and he kicked what was to be the winning goal.
Next week sees the Saints travel to Perth to take on a much improved West Coast Eagles, fresh from a Melbourne mauling, a display so inept it reminded me of Fitzroy circa 1995. It will be a tough trip for the young Saints – Hickey / Stanley vs. Cox / Natinui is a daunting match up and the Eagles forward line of Darling, Kennedy and Le Cras will test the Saints’ new look backline. While expectations of a victory in the West may be remote, even for the most optimistic of supporters, as long as the improved spirit and effort is there Saints fans can be pleased.