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NATURAL SELECTION 2014 by Whispering Jack

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I was reflecting recently about the impending arrival of the new AFL season and I came to the conclusion that it is fitting that the capital city of the Northern Territory, whose government is a relationship partner of the Melbourne Football Club, was named after English naturalist Charlie Darwin.

Darwin, whose theory of evolution was expounded in On the Origin of Species described the process of natural selection as being a matter of the "survival of the fittest" and, as fate would have it, this is becoming a catch phrase that best sums up the early part of the AFL season still very much in its infancy.

It's a phenomenon that happens often at this time of year when the teams are not all yet at the peak of their fitness.

In the first game of the round last Friday night, Collingwood and Fremantle went hammer and tong in the opening quarter before the Dockers took control in the second and blew the Magpies off Etihad Stadium. The following afternoon and evening saw the two new franchise teams in action with the Giants sending shock waves through the competition disposing of their neighbours and one of the premiership favourites with a withering six goal onslaught in the final 15 minutes of the game. That night the Suns overcame the loss of two players in the first half by overpowering the Tigers and, as if that wasn't enough, Port Adelaide left Carlton literally breathless in its wake on Sunday night.

Melbourne coach Paul Roos summed it up neatly when he said:

"Hard-running teams I think teams are fitter going into this year than they have in the past few years they've now adjusted to three on the bench and theyre adjusting to 120 subs. Theyre probably the main things Ive noticed."

From a technical point of view, it was Freo, coached by Roosy's former Fitzroy teammate in Ross Lyons which employed the forward press and zone to expose Collingwood in a clinical decimation that emphasised the importance of fitness and in particular, midfield grunt.

So whilst many Melbourne supporters are crying over, as yet unspilt milk due to the absence due to injury of its three power forwards and a couple of ruckmen, they are overlooking the fact that when their team runs out on Saturday night to take on an equal injury-depleted St. Kilda at Etihad Stadium, they will do so with a substantial influx of midfielders who are fit and can run.

Moreover, by adopting a conservative approach with his injured players, Roos and Dave Misson who have been reunited after their success at Sydney, are ensuring that the team is best placed to follow the trend of fitness first that has been so evident with all of the round's winning teams to date.

That is not to say that the big men will not be missed up forward but we shouldn't forget that St. Kilda's defence is also very much depleted and it's midfield, without last year's best and fairest Jack Steven, Lenny Hayes, Leigh Montagna and in the wake of recent departures of Nick dal Santo and Ben McEvoy, is not what it used to be four or five years ago when that club came literally within centimetres of winning a premiership flag.

I do think that while the first round is important to the club, Roos' main mission is not dependent on the result of this one game. The Melbourne team of the future will evolve in time and I expect that there will be plenty of highs and lows and lots of frustration over a journey that will take a while before a successful outcome for the club is achieved. I see a style based on defence but the skills and strength of the young team need to be worked on and that will not happen overnight. After all, it took a five year voyage on The Beagle before Charlie Darwin was able to produce his theory on natural selection.

I'm not suggesting that Roos will take that long (after all, he's been given less than half the time) but his track record as a player and a coach suggests that any team with which he is involved will usually have the capacity to compete against and survive among the very fittest.

THE GAME

St. Kilda v Melbourne at Etihad Stadium Saturday 22 March, 2014 at 7.40 pm

HEAD TO HEAD

Overall St. Kilda 86 wins Melbourne 118 wins 1 drawn

At Etihad St. Kilda 4 wins Melbourne 3 wins

Past five years St. Kilda 6 wins Melbourne 0 wins

The Coaches Richardson 0 wins Roos 0 wins

MEDIA

TV - TBA

RADIO - TBA

THE BETTING

St. Kilda to win - $2.35 Melbourne to win - $1.62

THE LAST TIME THEY MET St. Kilda 16.8.104 defeated Melbourne 10.9.69, Round 13, 2013 at Etihad Stadium

The Saints were off to a flier in Neil Craig's first game as stand in coach for the Demons who made a reasonably promising fist of things after the first quarter break. Nathan Jones was Melbourne's best while the better players for the Saints that day - Montagna, Steven and Dal Santo - won't be taking the field on Saturday night.

THE TEAMS

ST. KILDA


B: Sean Dempster, Luke Delaney, James Gwilt
HB: Nathan Wright, Dylan Roberton, Jimmy Webster
C: Jack Newnes, Luke Dunstan, Farren Ray
HF: Clint Jones, Nick Riewoldt, Josh Saunders
F: Rhys Stanley, Beau Maister, Eli Templeton
FOLL: Tom Hickey, David Armitage, Shane Savage
I/C: Jack Billings, Thomas Curren, Jarryn Geary, Sam Gilbert
EMG: Trent Dennis-Lane Tom Lee Sebastian Ross

NEW: Jack Billings (Oakleigh Chargers), Luke Delaney (North Melbourne), Luke Dunstan (Woodville-West Torrens), Shane Savage (Hawthorn), Eli Templeton (Burnie Dockers)

MELBOURNE

B: Dean Terlich, James Frawley, Jack Grimes
HB: Lynden Dunn, Tom McDonald, Bernie Vince
C: Jimmy Toumpas, Jack Watts, Dom Tyson
HF: Rohan Bail, Jack Fitzpatrick, Daniel Cross
F: Shannon Byrnes, Cam Pedersen, Jeremy Howe
FOLL: Jake Spencer, Nathan Jones, Jack Trengove
I/C: Viv Michie, Matt Jones, Jay Kennedy-Harris, Alex Georgiou
EMG: Daniel Nicholson, Sam Blease, Michael Evans

NEW: Daniel Cross (Western Bulldogs), Alex Georgiou (Norwood), Jay Kennedy-Harris (Oakleigh Chargers), Viv Michie (Fremantle), Dom Tyson (Greater Western Sydney), Bernie Vince (Adelaide)

LONG TIME BETWEEN DRINKS

The memory of Melbourne's last victory over St. Kilda hasn't quite dimmed yet. It was an elimination final played at night at the MCG and Brock McLean played a starring role as light misty rain fell intermittently over the ground. He was going to be our next star but it didn't quite work out that way.

Since then the two teams have met nine times in seven and a half seasons and on each occasion Melbourne has fallen. Not only that, but in a similar timespan the club has failed every time it has ventured to the Docklands. Sooner or later, the club has to drive the monkey from its back and this Saturday night presents the Demons with their best opportunity to atone for humiliation of those losses.

If the Saints are looking forward into a distant horizon when they state they're aspiring to be premiers by the end of the decade then tomorrow will be nothing more than a first stepping stone into that brand new future but they are taking that step in the absence of many of their dwindling band of good footballers. Key midfielders Lenny Hayes, Leigh Montagna and Jack Steven, plus Sam Fisher and Adam Schneider are all among the missing while Sam Gilbert would have to be a doubtful starter given his interrupted pre season.

So despite the fact that the Demons also go into the game with an undermanned forward line (with no Chris Dawes, Mitch Clark and Jesse Hogan) and last year's best defender Colin Garland out with an ankle injury, not to mention talls Mark Jamar and Max Gawn who are also unavailable, the bookies still rate them a chance. And so do I.

I don't have the data available but it would not surprise me at all if the number of new players in a red and blue jumper (actually you can add a slab of white to that combination to ensure that there's a clash of colours with the host team) for the season opener against St Kilda at Etihad Stadium on Saturday night is higher than for any first round game in half a century - all the way back to the mid 1960s when the club was in rebuild mode at the end of the Norm Smith era.

Paul Roos and the recruiting team have attacked the weakness in the club's midfielder by importing Daniel Cross, Bernie Vince, Dom Tyson and Viv Michie from other AFL clubs and have also added mature age defender Alex Georgiou and small forward Jay Kennedy-Harris to play their first AFL matches.

That's a nice combination of a wealth of experience and some enthusiastic youth added to spice up the team against the ailing Saints but the most important additional element is the coach himself - an astute man with great knowledge, people skills and a mission to succeed which should turn football history on its head.

Melbourne by 13 points.

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