MELBOURNE has gone through the NAB Challenge undefeated after notching a confidence-boosting 24-point victory over St Kilda in a feisty round one tune-up at Etihad Stadium on Sunday.
Following tight triumphs over Port Adelaide and the Western Bulldogs, the Dees kept the good times rolling under senior coach-in-waiting Simon Goodwin, fighting to a 1.14.14 (107) to 0.12.11 (83) win.
After their second defeat either side of a washout in Mackay, the Saints breathed a sigh of relief with skipper Nick Riewoldt escaping injury in his first game of the pre-season.
"The plan was for him to play 90 minutes … he just got a little bit tight late in the game, just general tightness, so he'll be fine," Richardson said post-match.
Riewoldt roamed mostly on a wing and got through his first hit-out by gathering 10 touches before leaving the field.
The Saints, fresh from the washout against the Brisbane Lions, burst out of the blocks, but it was the Dees who ran over the top and prevailed in an encouraging sign for their long-suffering fans.
Both sets of supporters could take some positives, though, with Josh Bruce, Jack Billings and Jack Lonie forming a threatening forward combination for the Saints despite only limited assistance from Riewoldt.
High-flyer Bruce (two goals) showed his breakout year was no fluke while Billings assured everyone his rise to stardom hasn't been slowed by shin stress fractures that ended his 2015 season early.
Billings nailed his three majors in the opening term and looks ready to explode in his third season at AFL level.
Nick Riewoldt leaves the field with an apparent calf injury
At the other end, Demons livewire Jeff Garlett (three goals) and a creative Jack Watts helped fill the breach after out-of-sorts spearhead Jesse Hogan struggled to make an impact, apart from a booming goal in the final term.
Watts booted two goals in the first quarter, his second threading the needle after the siren to slash the margin to just four points, while Tom McDonald was a rock in defence helping the Dees stand firm under an opening barrage.
Fielding their full complement of midfielders, the Saints' engine room ran rampant early and Jack Steven, Seb Ross, Leigh Montagna and Luke Dunstan found some good touch.
Having weathered St Kilda's storm, the Demons ramped up their pressure, suffocating the Saints' ball movement and getting on top through the tireless work of Nathan Jones, Bernie Vince and Dom Tyson.
The Dees hit the front by 10 points at the long break before extending their advantage in the next two quarters, with assistant coach Goodwin praising his side's improving all-round game.
"I think there is still plenty to work on but we're really pleased with the style we are starting to develop, and we feel confident in our preparation and where we are at," he said.
"But there is still lots we can improve on, which I think is exciting for our footy club.
"We're trying to move the ball in a different way, there is no doubt, and with that there will come some mistakes.
"It's certainly not going to be perfect but the signs are there."
Another positive was the continued good form of Melbourne young gun Clayton Oliver, who firmed for a round one spot thanks to another mature performance in his third consecutive game.
The No.4 draft pick crashed packs and looks a readymade senior onballer after racking up 18 touches and booting two goals.
Souring the win was a concussion suffered by Matt Jones, who played no part after quarter-time, and Cam Pedersen's high bump on Nathan Wright in the final term which will surely attract Match Review Panel scrutiny.
Neville Jetta was fortunate to escape injury after rolling his ankle in an incident near the boundary line in the fourth quarter.
WHAT WE LEARNED
Melbourne: Melbourne fans will have to live with mistakes as the club tries to perfect a more attacking game style. The success of switch kicks deep in defence was variable but when they came off, Melbourne moved the ball efficiently. The Demons have good young bookends in Jesse Hogan (although he made some uncharacteristic errors) and Tom McDonald, Max Gawn and Jack Watts are improving and their youngsters have promise. Jeff Garlett is also the most underrated small forward in the AFL and they should provide Greater Western Sydney with some headaches.
St Kilda: The experienced core will be better for the run with Nick Riewoldt, Leigh Montagna, Jarryn Geary and David Armitage improving as the game went on. Jack Billings looks set to take another step this season. He is clean, makes good decisions and can find the goals and Jack Lonie looks a similar type. Tom Hickey needs to improve his ruck work although the Saints are fond of using a third man up around the ground. If Dylan Roberton can clean up his kicking to support the experienced defenders around him the Saints should become harder to score against.
Melbourne: Tom Bugg is an antagonist with the ability to distract opposition players. He was at his annoying best on Sunday but he also has courage and wins the ball. He took a spectacular mark and kicked a goal and looks a certain starter in round one, as does Clayton Oliver after an excellent NAB Challenge series. Ben Kennedy's pre-season has put him in the frame for round one and he contributed in the midfield in the last quarter but he still has plenty of room for improvement. Rookie Josh Wagner struggled deep in defence against St Kilda but the pre-season experience will help his development. Oscar McDonald played two senior games last year and looks set for another development year.
St Kilda: Jade Gresham dropped a chest mark in the goalsquare, denying himself a certain goal but he knows how to find space and will only improve. He has a mature enough body to play early. Blake Acres gave away an undisciplined 50m penalty and looks a little shaky on his non-preferred foot but he has courage, is a good size and is balanced so with perseverance he will be handy. Jack Billings looks set for a breakout season while Luke Dunstan is similarly poised. Jason Holmes has a good leap but needs to do more around the ground while Tim Membrey did not have much of an influence.
Melbourne faces a tough test against Greater Western Sydney at the MCG on Easter Saturday but the game should give a good indication of Melbourne's improvement. St Kilda goes to Adelaide Oval to take on Port Adelaide on Easter Sunday. It's a big assignment for the Saints, given they missed one NAB Challenge game.
MELBOURNE 0.4.1 0.8.5 0.11.12 1.14.14 (107)
ST KILDA 0.4.5 0.6.7 9.10.0 0.12.11 (83)
St Kilda: Nil
Melbourne: Garlett 3, Watts 2, Oliver 2, Kent 2, Hogan 2, Kennedy, Pedersen, Bugg
St Kilda: Billings 3, Bruce 2, Armitage, Montagna, Hickey, Steven, Newnes, Weller, Dunstan
Melbourne: Bugg, Jones, Gawn, Tom McDonald, Garlett, Tyson, Salem
St Kilda: Steven, Billings, Armitage, Montagna, Newnes, Fisher, Geary
Melbourne: Jetta (leg), Matt Jones (concussion)
St Kilda: Riewoldt (calf)
Umpires: Margetts, Pannell, Fisher
Official crowd: 8621 at Etihad Stadium