ST KILDA has survived an almighty scare against an inspired Essendon, holding on to win a thriller by 11 points at Etihad Stadium on Sunday evening.
With the sniff of their second win for the year in the air, the brave Bombers pushed the Saints right to the end and would have gained many admirers, kicking their highest score for the season but losing 17.7 (109) to 14.14 (98).
John Worsfold's men led by seven points halfway through the final term and looked like winners, but late errors against the opportunistic Saints saw a rare win slip from their fingers.
The Saints' win – their seventh for the season – sees them pass last season's six wins and one draw and record their best season since 2012.
But there are unlikely to be many backslaps on Sunday night after what was a scratchy win, saved only by some desperate late efforts by defender Jarryn Geary, forward Mav Weller and midfielder Jack Steven.
Steven finished with 41 possessions (22 contested), 12 clearances and 12 tackles in a magnificent midfield performance smacked of leadership.
In an enormous final quarter with the result on the line, he racked up 13 possessions and kicked a goal with two minutes remaining that put the result beyond doubt.
Ruckman Tom Hickey was equally influential in the ruck with 46 hit-outs and eight tackles, while key forward Tim Membrey booted a game-high five goals.
Weller kicked back-to-back goals deep in the final quarter, with the second made possible after a desperate smother at the other end of the ground by Geary.
St Kilda coach Alan Richardson was blunt in his post-match assessment and said his team had butchered the ball.
"We didn't play well," the coach said.
"I got asked earlier in the week: 'What does the team want to get out of the remainder of the year?'.
"It's to play really strong footy, irrespective of who we play.
"In the end, it's (a feeling) of relief. I was pleased when the Bombers were able to hit the front late in the game, for our guys to respond."
The Saints were in an unenviable position as heavy favourites on Sunday. A win was expected but a loss would be a disaster after some recent losses raised doubts about their progress, despite a now 4-2 run.
They couldn't shake Essendon in a high-pace first half, making simple skill errors that let the Bombers back in whenever a margin between the teams looked like forming.
Worsfold's team played with confidence and aggression that defied its one-win season, and the intensity only ramped up in the second half after Orazio Fantasia sparked the team with a classy running goal.
When inclusion Jayden Laverde caught Shane Savage holding the ball and converted his set shot, the Bombers were ahead and the Saints were on notice.
Richardson's team had started to look far too casual and the coach blasted his players at the final change, with the message seemingly getting through in what morphed into a thrilling finish.
The Bombers were led by midfielder Zach Merrett, who finished with 36 possessions and seven clearances and kicked a magnificent left-foot snap in the fourth term.
Fantasia (13 possessions and 3.3) was a livewire, as was Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti, who moved from half-back and into the forward line where he harassed opponents and hit the scoreboard with 2.2 and five score assists.
Key forward Joe Daniher finished with 2.3, missing a crucial set shot in the fourth quarter.
Worsfold said he was proud of his players but the group was "hugely disappointed" to have come so close and let an opportunity slip.
"We're here to win, we want to win and we're striving unbelievably hard to win," the coach said.
"So it's disappointing to be in the game for so long and just not grab a couple of opportunities late.
"On the other hand, the players delivered on absolutely everything we asked them to do – slowing the Saints down, making it a real contest and competing for four quarters – so really proud of the way they went about that."
St Kilda: The Saints were unconcerned with a knock near the eye Nick Riewoldt sustained in the first quarter, with the skipper playing out the game without incident. Half-back Shane Savage was also likely to play next week despite finishing the match on the bench after being crunched by Joe Daniher. "He's fine," Richardson said of the defender. "The docs just wanted to keep him out of the game. He was a bit dazed after that knock but my understanding is they would expect him to play next week."
Essendon: The Bombers escaped unscathed.
The Bombers face Richmond at the MCG on Saturday afternoon and will expect to be competitive against a Tigers' outfit blooding kids. The Saints host Melbourne at Etihad Stadium on Sunday and will look to continue a 13-game winning streak against the Demons.
Jack Newnes celebrates a goal against the Bombers. Picture: AFL Media
ESSENDON 2.3 6.7 10.10 14.14 (98)
ST KILDA 4.3 8.5 12.7 17.7 (109)
Essendon: Fantasia 3, Laverde 2, McDonald-Tipungwuti 2, Daniher 2, Parish, Dempsey, Hams, Brown, Merrett
St Kilda: Membrey 5, Weller 2, Steven, Ross, Dunstan, Riewoldt, Newnes, Roberton, Armitage, Gresham, Bruce, Minchington
Essendon: Merrett, Fantasia, McDonald-Tipungwuti, Hartley, Goddard, Kelly
St Kilda: Steven, Geary, Membrey, Hickey, Ross, Newnes, Armitage
St Kilda: Nil
Reports: Seb Ross (St Kilda) for rough conduct on Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti in the second quarter
Umpires: Brown, Findlay, Fleer
Official crowd: 25,204 at Etihad Stadium