IT MUST now feel within touching distance for St Kilda.
The end of a finals drought that has spanned nearly a decade is finally on the horizon, with a 14-point victory over Hawthorn on Sunday ensuring the club has one foot planted firmly inside the top eight.
SAINTS v HAWKS Full match coverage and stats
There had been nervous moments throughout the side's battling 11.14 (80) to 9.12 (66) win at Metricon Stadium, with the Saints challenged by a Hawks team desperate to salvage some of the pride lost in last week's defeat to the previously winless Crows.
But in a forward line without its focal points in Max King and Tim Membrey, St Kilda turned the attacking responsibility to Rowan Marshall and the promising youngster guided the Saints home.
Marshall finished with eight marks and two goals in a dominant performance, admirably supported by the club's high-profile off-season recruits Bradley Hill (22 disposals, seven score involvements) and Zak Jones (22 disposals, one goal).
The club would have dreamt of those players leading the team to a first finals berth since 2011 when they were targeted last October, and indeed the side is now so close to making that scenario a reality.
The nine wins St Kilda has notched this season might be enough in itself. One more from its final two games, against either West Coast or Greater Western Sydney, would make finals football a formality.
But with the likes of Collingwood, GWS, Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs undoubtedly cheering Hawthorn on given the context of the finals picture, the Hawks had threatened a season-changing upset.
Tom Mitchell (27 disposals, one goal) was important in a midfield that lost James Worpel to a nasty shoulder injury, as Hawthorn proved a persistent thorn in the side of St Kilda all afternoon.
But despite leading midway through the third quarter, the Hawks conceded three successive goals on either side of three-quarter time and missed a series of late opportunities as the Saints held firm for a defining victory.
Day of frustration ends in injury for young Hawk
It was a lamentable day that ended in the worst possible circumstances for Hawthorn's reigning best and fairest James Worpel. The gun young midfielder ended Sunday's contest with his right shoulder in a sling after a bruising third-quarter collision with Dean Kent. It looked a nasty injury and added to a sour day that also included a half-time argument with teammate Tom Mitchell. The pair were caught in a lengthy discussion with plenty of talking and even more gesticulating. Despite being the younger of the two, Worpel appeared to be doing the majority of the chatting before both eventually made their way to the rooms. However, they did return after half-time sharing a smile and a joke before the bounce.
The future of St Kilda's attack shines
When the Saints targeted ruck depth during last year's Trade Period, ultimately recruiting Paddy Ryder and Ryan Abbott, this was probably what they had in mind. Rowan Marshall has spent larger periods forward this year, but Sunday was a true indication of what he could add as a permanent fixture in a Saints attack that was missing Max King (managed) and Tim Membrey (finger). Marshall worked hard on the lead, was a constant deep presence and demonstrated his athleticism, marking ability and leap when the ball was put in his vicinity. He was arguably the best and most influential player on the field, finishing with 14 disposals, eight marks, six score involvements and two goals.
A big Saint does the little things
In terms of sliding doors moments, this was one worth revisiting. It hadn't been a dream start for St Kilda, who conceded the first three majors of the game. The Saints then nearly faced an even more sizeable deficit at quarter-time when Hunter Clark gave away a free kick to Luke Breust just 25m from goal as the siren sounded for the first change. However, with the opportunity to hand the Hawks a handy nine-point buffer, Breust inexplicably kicked the ball into Paddy Ryder on the mark. The margin stayed within a single kick thanks to Ryder's smother, and with the game turning into a stalemate after an entertaining and attacking first term it proved a significant missed opportunity. Jack Billings rubbed salt into the wound right on three-quarter time, when a snap of his own sailed through where Breust's didn't.
ST KILDA 4.4 5.8 7.13 11.14 (80)
HAWTHORN 5.1 5.5 6.6 9.12 (66)
St Kilda: Marshall 2, Lonie 2, Steele, Butler, Jones, Billings, Battle, Ryder, Abbott
Hawthorn: Breust 2, Lewis, Gunston, Moore, O'Brien, Hardwick, Scully, Mitchell
St Kilda: Ross, Hill, Marshall, Jones, Coffield, Long
Hawthorn: Mitchell, Scully, Day, Wingard, Cousins, Greaves
St Kilda: King (managed) replaced in selected side by Abbott
Hawthorn: Worpel (shoulder)