Wangaratta sun shines on AFL clash

The last time St Kilda played an AFL pre-season game in Wangaratta, the ground was waterlogged.

The contrast could not have been more stark four years later, when they lost to North Melbourne by 44 points on a perfect summer Saturday.

“It was a bit different to the last time we were here – it was under about a foot of water,” Saints stand-in coach Danny Sexton said.

Their 2012 match descended into farce when Essendon tried to fly their players to the ground, rather than take a bus, and the bad weather meant the light planes could not land.

St Kilda had an intra-club game instead, and the AFL gave them the match points under the old NAB Cup format.

The disaster was also a warning sign of the experimental support regime operating that year at Essendon.

The repercussions from 2012 continue to plague the Bombers, who have lost 12 players to doping suspensions.

Wangaratta’s aborted game was also a year before the Saints recruited Jack Billings, the No.3 pick in the 2013 draft.

On Saturday, Billings’ first-half cameo showcased why the Saints are so excited about his potential.

As St Kilda briefly led, Billings was outstanding through the midfield and kicked the only nine-point supergoal of the game.

He and Jack Steven were rested at halftime, and it was probably no coincidence North took control in the third term.

A shin injury restricted Billings to only eight games in 2015, but Sexton said he’s had a strong pre-season.

“Our fans would have noticed that his body has caught up,” he said.

“He’s not a seasoned pro now, but you can tell he’s three years in and he had some really, really nice touches.

“His level of professionalism has really stepped up in the last couple of years and he’s learned a lot of lessons.

“We think he’s going to be a really good player for us.”

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