WHEN Lenny Hayes had a knee reconstruction about this time last year, St Kilda people may not have said it, but the thought bubble that formed instantly was almost universal: That's our season.
Given that Hayes is 32, isn't quick and has played the game in a manner that invites bruising, it was not unreasonable to wonder if he would suit up for the Saints again.
But Hayes has never let the limitations of his body restrict what he can do on the football field. Last night, the veteran played like a 26-year-old, while Bulldog Brownlow medallist Adam Cooney, who is a relative pup at 26, moved like a banged up player of Lenny's vintage. Cooney's struggles brought to mind Paul Keating's description of old-fashioned Tony Abbott, a "young fogey".
The term "spiritual leader" is overused in football, but it's entirely justified when describing the effect that Hayes has on the Saints. Last night, the decibels reached heavy metal levels — loudest of the night — when Hayes nailed Easton Wood in a forceful tackle that forced an unexpected turnover, allowing Jack Steven to snap an impressive goal.
If you want a snapshot of why the Saints smashed the Dogs into tiny pieces last night, consider this change in off-season personnel for the respective clubs. St Kilda: In Hayes. Bulldogs: Out Barry Hall.
The Dogs had the ball in their front half often enough to be competitive in the first half — they had just one fewer inside 50-metre entries. But they don't have anyone who can a) mark it, especially in a contest; and b) kick goals with some regularity. So at half-time, they had only one goal on the board and were down by 31 points. They scored their third goal 20 minutes into the final quarter, their fourth and fifth deep in the dregs of time-on. They were offensively impotent.
Once the Bulldogs' resistance ebbed in the third term, the Saints turned a Ross Lyon-style strangulation into a flogging of a Bulldogs team that appears to be in serious strife — which is also where Brian Lake has landed, courtesy of a report for a stupid whack at Tom Simpkin that is likely to bring suspension.
The other salient point about this match is the overall contribution of St Kilda's elite core, a band that can still make the team sing. Hayes' counterpart at the Dogs, Matthew Boyd, toiled just as hard as Lenny, but he was more or less solo. Cooney was quiet, Ryan Griffen was shut down by Clint Jones, Daniel Cross was ineffectual. Will Minson won the ball well, but couldn't hurt the Saints, who have not allowed their defensive abilities to walk out the door with Lyon.
St Kilda, widely tipped to decline this year on the basis of its trajectory last year, was propelled by the usual suspects of Hayes, Brendon Goddard, Leigh Montagna, Sam Fisher, Nick Dal Santo and Nick Riewoldt, with some more than useful cameos from kids such as Steven and Simpkin and an improved performance from blue-collar worker David Armitage in the trenches.
Goddard was typically clinical, floating across half-back and cleaning up messy Bulldog attacks, then floating forward to slot a couple of goals. Montagna was prolific and industrious, Fisher enjoyed easy pickings in defence. Riewoldt was energetic and better than his statistical output suggests, though 11 marks, 2.2 and three scoring assists isn't shabby.
The Bulldogs have tipped over the edge, from contention in 2010 to total rebuild in 2012. Their older players, as a collective, aren't anywhere near the level of that St Kilda core, which refuses to go gentle into that good night.
Lenny and the lads aren't done with yet.