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AFL pre-season notebook: Responding to another dog shot, and admiring Mitch Owens

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3rd March, 2024
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Another pre-season match, another team showing they didn’t work on their goalkicking in the off-season.

So it was for St Kilda as they withstood a North Melbourne second half fightback to head into the proper stuff with a 19-point win, made all the tougher by an 11.18 scoreline.

But the big talking point was, of course, Jimmy Webster poleaxing Kangaroos co-captain Jy Simpkin, which will certainly bring him a lengthy spell on the sidelines – the only question how big his ban will be.

Here’s what we learned out of St Kilda’s win over North Melbourne.

Players might never learn

The most depressing thing about Jimmy Webster’s late, crude, high and totally unacceptable ironing out of Jy Simpkin is the fact it’s getting harder and harder to believe incidents like this can ever be stamped from the game, no matter how hard the AFL tries.

Webster did everything players have been instructed for years or even decades to not do, even before the recent clamping down of head-high contact rules: he left the ground, led with the shoulder and knocked an opponent into next week. Even 20 years ago, that’s probably a six-week ban.

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He’ll be punished, and severely; a Tribunal date is a certainty, and there are practically no mitigating factors. It’s unlikely to cop an Andrew Gaff-style eight weeks, but a six-match suspension is likely, given Sam Powell-Pepper’s four-match ban for last week’s high hit was aesthetically far less grim than Webster’s.

But not even a ten-game ban, as David King called for on X, seems enough to me to get incidents like this, rare as they are, totally out of the game.

If Webster, after years of the AFL clamping down on laws, issuing bans and endless media debate, has still missed the memo to the extent he can do ridiculously idiotic things like this, then is there any hope at all future generations will be less dumb?

(Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Slicker Saints look the goods

Up until trying to stop the Kangaroos’ run in the third quarter by slowing the game to a standstill, the Saints looked, to the eye at least, more daring than they did during their 2023 return to the finals.

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Riley Bonner has slotted seamlessly in, and his drive and kicking skills from half-back are a huge asset for a team which relied on Nasiah Wanganeen-Milera for a lot of that last year. New draftee Arie Schoenmaker was less polished, but has good hands, reads the play well, and is now firming for a Round 1 debut if Dougal Howard’s hamstring injury rules him out – especially with Webster certain to be on the sidelines.

For a team which got stereotyped last year, especially in the second half of the season, as being defence-first and stodgy, the Saints have pace to burn across the field now – Bradley Hill and Liam Henry off the wings are going to be difficult to contain for anyone, while Ryan Byrnes dominated in a similar role and looks ready for a breakout season.

And of all the young guns who have strutted their stuff across the pre-season, Darcy Wilson might be my favourite. He’s no-nonsense, makes great decisions by foot, and always takes the attacking option if at all possible. His 644 metres gained for the match trailed only Zac Fisher and Bonner on the ground.

A lot of people have pencilled the Saints in as a slider in 2024. I doubt that will be the case.

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‘Northball’ can work

Sure, it was only a practice match, and sure, it came after falling 34 points down at half time; but the football North Melbourne played in the third quarter to close the gap to just three was as good as the Kangaroos have looked in a long time.

They were far from perfect, but with a handball-first, run and gun style, the Roos at their best will produce some superb team goals in 2024, and the Saints didn’t really have a way to stop them once they got going.

Harry Sheezel, and now Zac Fisher, offer both speed and quality foot skills across half-back to spark chains, while George Wardlaw attacks the ball like it’s just insulted his mother every time it’s in dispute – his midfield tussle with Jack Steele was a battle within a battle this game.

Up forward, Nick Larkey looks set to be a major beneficiary of some faster, more precise ball movement; he kicked three goals against the Saints, and had as much of an influence around the ground with six marks as I’ve see from him.

The Roos’ defence isn’t strong enough to hold many opponents – only inaccuracy prevented the Saints from leading by comfortably more at half time – so credit to Alastair Clarkson for trying to make a team that will struggle in 2024 damaging going the other way. There will be a lot of high scores in Kangaroos games this season, I don’t doubt.

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Mitch Owens is unreal

Spending plenty of time around the ball as a quasi-second ruckman to chop out Rowan Marshall, Owens finished with not a single hitout in the role – and yet he was arguably best afield.

There is no one in the AFL that plays footy like this third-year Saint: he looks wiry in frame but is deceptively powerful, he moves nimbly and yet has none of the weaknesses usually attributable to that strength, and he can be effective wherever you put him on the ground.

With 19 disposals and two goals, everything Owens does is eye-catching; even when it doesn’t pay off, his X-factor pairs so nicely with a well-drilled Saints outfit where every player seems well suited to their role.

Who knows where he’ll eventually settle on the field – if anywhere – but for now, it’s time to appreciate this kid is a genuine A-grade star in the making; possibly the first one the Saints have had since Nick Riewoldt hung up the boots.

Random Observations

– Callum Coleman-Jones is Jeff Fehring apparently.

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