ESSENDON has outlasted a brave St Kilda to record a thrilling two-point win at Etihad Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
In one of the most entertaining encounters of the season in which the lead changed 11 times, the Saints were in front until the 19-minute minute mark of the final quarter.
But a running goal to Travis Colyer as the term neared red time put the Bombers one point up and they weren't headed, with Adam Schneider missing a second opportunity to nail a six-pointer with just over three minutes left.
The Bombers won 11.16 (82) to 11.14 (80), with Jobe Watson leading from the front with 30 disposals and Brendon Goddard ignoring jeers from Saints fans to collect 28.
Relieved Essendon coach James Hird conceded the result could have gone either way.
"I don’t know whether we were lucky. We missed a lot of shots on goal, they did too, so I think whenever it's within two points either side could of won the game," Hird said.
"Lucky or fortunate? I think both sides could have won that game.
"It was a game we didn't ever have control of and full credit to St Kilda. I thought their pressure was excellent, they got through our defence too easily."
It was a frenetic game played at breakneck pace, and nearly every player on the field was visibly exhausted as the final minutes ticked down.
While the Saints responded to coach Alan Richardson's call to play less conservative football and take the game on even when challenged, it was the Bombers' ball movement from full back that cost them dearly.
Twice in the final term after the Saints kicked a point, the Bombers swiftly moved it all the way up the field and benefited from goals – first by David Zaharakis six minutes in, and then to Colyer.
But the Saints weren't disgraced. David Armitage played an enormous game, while Sean Dempster was cool and attacking in defence and Josh Bruce kicked five goals.
"I said to the boys afterwards, ‘as a group we've had performances that have been really disappointing but when you get the opportunity to win the game and you run into an open goal and you miss, that's tough’,” Richardson said.
"Because they'd worked so hard, you're just pleased and proud of the guys giving themselves the opportunity through effort for sustained periods of time.
"You just want them to have that ultimate reward … but it doesn't take away from the fact they had a crack for a long time."
The composure of the Saints' young guns also stood out, with Jack Billings and Jack Lonie kicking two goals each.
The Saints started well. First-year revelation Lonie was prolific in the opening quarter, gathering seven possessions and trying to give his team a spark in attack.
His two goals came in the third when the lead changed six times, and his second went through after the three-quarter time siren to ensure the Saints entered the final stanza in front.
Watson's nine touches, after it looked as through he was going to be tightly shadowed by Maverick Weller, were the highlight of the first quarter for the Bombers as they held onto a two-point lead at the first change.
For the Saints, Armitage exploded out of the blocks and set the tone early.
His 12 touches and four clearances in the first quarter alone gave the Saints midfield drive when it looked as though Watson was going to be the game-breaker.
By half-time, Armitage was clearly best on ground. He ended with a whopping 11 clearances and laid nine tackles.
The two debutants – Kyle Langford for the Bombers and Daniel McKenzie for the Saints – had moments of shakiness in the first half.
Langford shanked two set shots and the opportunity to kick a goal with his first kick, while McKenzie was run down at centre wing and caught with the ball.
Still, both showed promise.
Tom Hickey came in for the Saints with Paddy McCartin omitted after two games. He started forward and gave the Saints a big body to aim at, and helped Billings find the goals – and the lead - early in the second quarter when he acted as a human shield and allowed the small forward to mark.
Dustin Fletcher gathered plenty of the ball after starting on Hickey, and finished with 19 touches despite spending part of the third term off the ground under the concussion sub rule
Fletcher was hit low in the face by Michael Hurley's head in the opening minutes of the quarter.
Goddard's seven touches and Brent Stanton's eight in the final quarter were telling as the Bombers had just a little more class when the going got really tough.
Brendon Goddard gets a handball away during his big game against St Kilda. Picture: AFL Media
ST KILDA 2.6 6.7 10.10 11.14 (80)
ESSENDON 3.2 6.6 9.11 11.16 (82)
St Kilda: Bruce 5, Billings 2, Lonie 2, Dunstan, Steven
Essendon: Carlisle 4, Ambrose 2, Zaharakis, Gleeson, Goddard, Zaharakis, Colyer
St Kilda: Armitage, Steven, Bruce, Lonie, Dempster, Hickey
Essendon: Watson, Goddard, Carlisle, Stanton, Ambrose, Hurley
St Kilda: Nil
St Kilda: Blake Acres replaced Shane Savage in final term.
Essendon: Will Hams replaced Joe Daniher at three-quarter time.
Umpires: Donlon, Bannister, Chamberlain
Official crowd: 29,869 at Etihad Stadium