Tackle coming: Melbourne's Rohan Bail gets set to pounce on St Kilda's Sam Fisher last night. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
ST KILDA 5.4 8.5 10.9 12.12 (84) MELBOURNE 4.1 8.3 10.6 10.6 (66)
GOALS St Kilda: Wilkes 3, Steven 2, Riewoldt 2, Milne 2, Hayes, Montagna, Stanley. Melbourne: Jones 2, Bail 2, Davey, Moloney, Bartram, Watts, Dunn, Bate.
BEST St Kilda: Dal Santo, Hayes, Armitage, Steven, Fisher. Melbourne: Jones, Macdonald, McKenzie, Grimes, Moloney.
UMPIRES: T Pannell, J Mollison, A Mitchell.
CROWD: 24,798 at MCG.
TWICE this season, Melbourne has been close at half-time, only to be blown to pieces in the third quarter by the Brisbane Lions and Richmond - teams that the Demons would have considered to be in the same weight division before the season.
At the mid-point of this match, it was natural to wonder whether the Demons, who to that point had played with sustained spirit and intensity, would succumb again. In the previous capitulations, it's been the inability to run and pressure, or run and spread, that had seen them lose touch.
So last night, when the Saints edged out to a lead of 16 points early in the third quarter, after an astonishing long goal from the boundary by unlikely key forward Beau Wilkes, there would have been Demon fans dreading the next 10 minutes.
This time, however, the Demons didn't falter. At precisely the moment when they had weakened in previous matches, they unexpectedly surged. A match that had been considered a non-event became a serious contest.
The slippery ball probably played in Melbourne's favour, since it reduced the running and uncontested spheres, turning it into more of a scrap suitable for scrappers, such as Nathan Jones and James Magner.
Clint Bartram, who will never be mistaken for Lance Franklin, slotted a Buddy-esque goal from the boundary on the outside of his boot just before three-quarter time to cut the deficit to less than a kick. The bulk of the modest 24,798 crowd were on their feet, in the knowledge that their Demons weren't simply competing, they were a huge chance of upsetting the Saints and winning their first game of a hitherto horror season.
Where had this turnaround come from? Nothing too complicated. The Demons were winning the contested ball - a statistic they led at three-quarter time - and had an edge in the clearances and the ruck, where Mark Jamar held sway and Jones, Brent Moloney and Magner were effective. Jordie McKenzie had restricted Brendon Goddard to an average game. Jones booted two wonderful crumbing goals in the opening term and remained productive throughout.
In the absence of key defender James Frawley, Melbourne coach Mark Neeld handed the task of manning Nick Riewoldt not to Colin Garland or even Jared Rivers - the obvious and experienced candidates - but to youngster Tom McDonald, who smothered the Saints skipper for most of the night; only in the latter stage of the last quarter, when the Saints had the ball locked in their half, did Riewoldt find space and have an impact, converting a game-sealer - his second goal - created by the sharp mind of Nick Dal Santo.
Ultimately, it was the class and poise of Dal Santo and Lenny Hayes that proved the difference, while Goddard and Riewoldt were down. Hayes slotted the classiest and most important goal of the match at the 16-minute mark of the final term. Hayes, who finished with 10 clearances and the most contested balls afield, wrong-footed a pair of Demons with a double baulk and converted from 30 metres. This pushed the margin out to 11 points.
The Dees had lasted only a half in other winnable games. Last night, they managed 3½ quarters. Gradually, in the last stanza, their energy ebbed and the Saints began to win more contests, to use their legs and find space.
The entire term was more or less played in St Kilda's half of the ground, as the inside-50 disparity - 19 to 8 - confirms.
For the Saints, the most encouraging facets of an otherwise so-so performance were the surprising success of Wilkes as a key forward and the continued excellence of the plucky Jack Steven. Wilkes compensated for Riewoldt's eclipse, booting three goals, and took a hanger shortly before he was subbed off in the third quarter.
Stephen Milne was his usual busy, bothersome self. In the second term the veteran scored his 500th career goal, putting him in a special place in the small-forward pantheon, behind only Leigh Matthews - who wasn't exactly small - Kevin Bartlett and Peter Daicos. Certainly, Milne has been the leading exponent of his craft over the past decade.
Melbourne's effort was commendable given that it was deprived not only of Frawley, a late withdrawal, but entered the match without Mitch Clark and didn't seem to have a feasible tall target.
The Demons compensated with ferocity at the ball and opposition and gave the Saints hell, if not a hell of a fright.
BACK TO THE TAPE
The goal-umpire review highlights package continues to grow, with a howler of a mistake avoided when Nick Dal Santo pulled a first-quarter shot right from 25 metres on the run, and the field umpire stepped in and sent it upstairs as the goal umpire was about to signal a six-pointer. At the other end in the second quarter, Stephen Milne had to tell the goal umpire a soccered shot that would have registered his 500th goal had missed after the official had already signalled it a goal. That one was overruled by the field and boundary umpires without even going to the tape.
THE MILESTONE I
Milne didn't wait long to make good his miss and complete an achievement of great merit, his 500th goal coming with a clinical finish from just inside 50 after being hit on the chest by Terry Milera four minutes before half-time. He immediately headed to the bench, and for far more than the 500th time, was booed off by opposition fans.
THE MILESTONE II
Collingwood's Dick Lee was the first man to 500 goals in the game's history, and Milne is the 50th - but just the fifth small forward to reach the mark, after Richmond's rover of the 1930s and '40s Dick Harris, fellow Tiger Kevin Bartlett, Hawk Leigh Matthews and Magpie Peter Daicos. - PETER HANLON