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The stats files: Why it's tougher than ever to stop Nick Riewoldt

Travis King  June 28, 2016 4:04 PM

HOW DO you stop Nick Riewoldt?

It's been a nearly impossible task for 16 seasons.

At the top of his game as a forward, it took a rare key defender to combat the freakishly athletic St Kilda champion in the air and on the ground.

But Saint Nick 'Mark II' – the roaming wingman-cum-forward – is causing rival coaches a whole new range of headaches.

Take two passages of play from Saturday night's epic win over Geelong.

From a boundary throw-in on the wing, Riewoldt leapt third-man up and double-fisted the ball forward 30m for the Saints' mids to swoop and set up the opening goal for his heir apparent, Paddy McCartin.

Then, with the match in the balance in the third quarter at nearly an identical spot on the ground, Riewoldt became the rover.

Crumbing a hit-out, he spun out of Zac Smith's attempted tackle and won the clearance, leading to Mav Weller's steadying goal that put St Kilda's noses back in front.

They're not the typical highlights we associate with one of St Kilda's all-time great forwards.

And while Riewoldt went goalless himself for the third game this year, his fingerprints were all over the Saints' credibility-boosting triumph.

The 33-year-old did as he pleased, finishing with 26 disposals – the equal fifth-most in his storied 310-game career – 10 marks, six inside 50s and four tackles.

They're incredible numbers, especially considering Riewoldt is still wearing his midfield L-plates.

"It's great. It's really refreshing to play a different role, learn a new position and try to become great at that," he told Fox Footy.

"I'm really still learning now about midfield play and what I need to do at stoppage because I've never really been a stoppage player."

With Mark Blicavs in their arsenal, the Cats were better equipped than most to stop Riewoldt.

The former steeplechaser would have had the edge in height (197cm to 193cm) and running capacity, if not yet quite the same footy smarts.

However, the pair spent only five minutes as direct opponents on Saturday night, according to Champion Data's tracking, and Riewoldt had a major say in one of the upsets of the season.

Worryingly for coaches other than Chris Scott, it's difficult to think of many other clubs with such a clear match-up for the rejuvenated Saints skipper.

With very winnable games against Gold Coast and Essendon to come, suddenly St Kilda's door to finals has been cracked ajar and fellow top-eight aspirants Melbourne, the Bulldogs and Kangaroos will need to find solutions to the Riewoldt problem.

More than ever he's lining up on a wing (38 per cent of centre bounces, up from nine last year) and working deep into defence (47 per cent of disposals won in back half, +7 per cent).

But once then Saints win clear possession he's off to the races – sprinting forward and linking up chains from defence to attack.

It's little wonder he leads the competition for marks (10.3), with almost all (8.5) of them uncontested.

How often have we seen Riewoldt helping out down back, getting on the end of a one-two as he cruises through midfield before crashing a pack in the forward 50 this season?

He's still kicked 21 goals in 12 games, all while averaging career-high disposals (20.8) and uncontested possessions (15.5).

If the All Australian team was picked today, Riewoldt would be right in the mix for his sixth selection, with his numbers stacking up against a quintessential modern wingman such as Hawthorn speedster Isaac Smith.

But by sacrificing his own game to make way for Josh Bruce, Tim Membrey and McCartin, Riewoldt is also fast-tracking St Kilda's generation next.

And, who knows, it might just lead to one last shot at the team success that the St Kilda legend so desperately craves.

STATS QUIRK OF THE WEEK: Hawthorn's win over Gold Coast propelled the three-time reigning premier to the top of the ladder for just the sixth time since the start of 2014 (60 rounds). It's the first time since round 20, 2014 the Hawks have been perched on top.

• Read more from the Stats Files