Juggernauts v misers: Attacking Pies, defensive Saints ready for grand stage

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The decision to have what has become the game of the round between St Kilda and Collingwood tucked away on Sunday evening as the final fixture of the inaugural Gather Round in South Australia will split supporters.

It’s not on free-to-air television, with pay television’s Fox Footy having exclusive coverage, and is held at the point of the weekend when some fans are ready to wind down. For others, however, it may be the perfect accompaniment to the Sunday roast, for this clash pits arguably the competition’s most free-flowing offensive unit against the league’s stingiest defence. And there’s no need to guess which side a Ross Lyon-coached team falls on.

Here I am: Just what Ross Lyon has in store for Nick Daicos, who had 16 disposals alone in the third term against Brisbane, will be an intriguing sub-plot on Sunday.Credit: Getty Images

Lyon’s DNA is clear to see in the way the Saints defend the field.

The days of being opened up on the counter-attack appear over. They are the hardest team to move the ball against. They boast the league’s stingiest defence, conceding only 56.8 points per game on average, including only 7.8 goals. A deeper dive shows they are top four for allowing the least inside 50s. Key defender Callum Wilkie – a better player than Lyon said he initially thought – has been one of the standouts of the season, while halfback Jack Sinclair is one of the top 10 players of the season to date, according to Nathan Buckley.

“We are starting to build a lot of belief in our defensive system. Week by week we are gaining more confidence,” ruckman Rowan Marshall, subbed off against Gold Coast to preserve him for the Magpies’ clash, said.

And when the ball does enter their defensive 50, the Saints concede the third least marks, and are the toughest to score against.

Now comes arguably their greatest challenge to date, slowing the Magpies’ offensive juggernaut, led by second-year gem Nick Daicos. The Magpies had an off night against fellow premiership fancy Brisbane on Easter Thursday, but still managed 11 goals. And they showed in the wet against Geelong they can grind out a win despite managing only eight goals.

Overall, they average a whopping 101.5 points per game, second in the league, and almost 45 more points than the Saints have been conceding. They average 14.8 goals per game – seven more than the Saints have been conceding on average. Therein lies the heart of the battle on Sunday in the neutral confines of Adelaide Oval. The Magpies may be too potent for the Saints to restrict to eight goals, but can they find a happy middle ground?

The numbers are so strong that Magpies coach Craig McRae admitted being concerned when running through them.

“They are in great shape,” McRae said during the week. “We went through opposition [analysis] … and there’s a lot of No.1s in everything really … it’s a really big challenge for us.

“They’re hard to move the ball against. They’re the No.1 team in terms of scores against so we’re going to have to try and score through that. Their [defensive] numbers back, the way they transition the ball really well from defensive 50 to forward 50 and their outnumber at the contest is really strong too.

“So there’s lots to be worried about.”

Making his mark: Mitch Owens has been instrumental in the Saints’ early-season surge.Credit: Darrian Traynor, Getty Images

The Saints’ pressure, and ability to hang tough, has been relentless. There was a 15-minute period against Essendon in round three when the Bombers failed to kick a goal, despite the Bombers recording 11 inside 50s. Last Saturday night against Gold Coast, after a week of intense scouting, they held Suns ball winner Matt Rowell to only 12 touches. Next comes Nick Daicos, the freewheeling half-back averaging 33 disposals per game (he had 27 alone after half-time against the Brisbane Lions) who can push into the midfield and torment opponents with his slick ball use.

“In the past, [we] have played against teams where they have a guy who uses the ball really well. You try and play his through his man as much as possible because, potentially, he is not going to be defending as hard,” Saints wingman Mason Wood said.

“I haven’t watched a lot of him. I know he [Daicos] accumulates a lot, I don’t know what he is like defensively. Every team, when they are up and running, looks a million bucks. We have got to try and bring them down to a level we can compete at, and then we’ll see what they are going to be like.”

It shouldn’t be forgotten the Saints have balanced their defence by scoring a healthy 91 points per game (ranked seventh), including an average of 13.8 goals (ranked fifth). They have patched together a makeshift forward line of Next Generation Academy product Mitchito Owens, the 191-centimetre mid-sized forward having tormented the Suns and won a Rising Star nomination through his ability to play tall but also dominate at ground level, and Anthony Caminiti, who wasn’t even a Saints player until Jack Silvagni recommended him to father Steve, now the Saints recruiting boss, after watching him train with the VFL Blues over summer.

Add the experienced and speedy Jade Gresham, top-10 draftee Mattaes Phillipou, a midfielder-forward, the recycled Zaine Cordy and reborn small forwards Jack Higgins (nine goals in the past two rounds) and Dan Butler, and the Saints have been able to cover for injured marking talls Max King and Tim Membrey.

As former Saint Leigh Montagna remarked on Fox Footy, the current forward line may not have a combined payroll of more than $1.5 million. Only the Swans have been better at shifting the ball from defensive 50 to offensive 50.

“We want to play quicker, we want to play fast, we want to challenge through the corridor. We have got a little bit of a makeshift forward line and some young players up there, so that connection is going to take a little bit of time,” Saints assistant coach Lenny Hayes said.

The Magpies, meanwhile, have a similar forward make-up to the Saints in that they don’t have a true marking tall, relying on mid-sized forwards, including Brody Mihocek, and small forwards, namely Jamie Elliott and Bobby Hill, to get the job done. They also need a spread of goals to win, having had 10 goal kickers in the win over Geelong in round one, 14 against the Power and seven against the Tigers.

Defensively, the Magpies have work to do, for they can be vulnerable if their defenders push high up the ground and are exposed behind the ball, as the Lions did well. They concede an average of 83 points per game (ranked eighth) and 12.5 goals per game (equal 12th).

“We have got a really big test, Collingwood on the rebound, but we are looking forward to that challenge. It’s the last game of Gather Round,” Lyon said.

“I am sure plenty will migrate over, I would love to see lots of Saints there, and I am sure the other mob will be there. It’s exciting for us.”

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