St Kilda, arguably the most spectacularly unsuccessful club in the history of the VFL/AFL, are on the march again.
Their fan-base became accustomed to September action through the 2000s, playing finals in seven of eight years from 2004, with three grand finals including the draw against Collingwood. After five years on the outside looking in, the supporters feel they’ve done their penance.
Emboldened by some electric play that delivered eight wins in their last 11 games in 2016, including big scalps like Geelong and the Western Bulldogs, Saints fans enter 2017 bold, brash and boisterous.
Despite the perception of a young side on the rise, the average age of the top four in their best and fairest was 30. Sean Dempster (32) and David Armitage (28) also finished in the top ten. The changing of the guard is on the way, but it certainly hasn’t happened yet.
|B||Dylan Roberton||Nathan Brown||Sean Dempster|
|HB||Leigh Montagna||Jake Carlisle||Shane Savage|
|C||Nick Riewoldt||Jack Steven||Jack Newnes|
|HF||Jade Gresham||Josh Bruce||Blake Acres|
|F||Maverick Weller||Paddy McCartin||Tim Membrey|
|Foll||Tom Hickey||David Armitage||Seb Ross|
|Int||Jack Billings||Koby Stevens||Jack Steele||Jarryn Geary|
Emergencies: Billy Longer, Jack Lonie, Luke Dunstan
The St Kilda of old would rely on stars to get the job done and scrounge together the rest of the side around them. Think Tony Lockett, Robert Harvey, Nathan Burke, Stewart Loewe and Nicky Winmar through the 90s.
Alan Richardson does not want this over-reliance on the top end. The Saints would love some stars, and they think they’ve got plenty coming through, but for now everyone very much plays their role.
Clearly Jack Steven and Nick Riewoldt are the elite talents that hold it all together, but the appointment of Jarryn Geary as captain sends a strong message about team-first requirements. It also sends the message that foot skills and leadership are not mutually exclusive.
As mentioned above, the older brigade still carries their share of the load, but the balance in fostering through the youth seems right.
St Kilda lost no-one of significance over the off-season, but will add Jake Carlisle in a key defensive post and have cherry-picked Jack Steele, Koby Stevens and Nathan Brown from other clubs through trade and free agency.
In fact, the standout feature of the Saints’ best 22 above is the number of players they have in there from other clubs – 11. This list has been carefully crafted together, syphoning off existing talent throughout the league on a needs and depth basis, while still having eight top 25 picks in the four drafts since Alan Richardson arrived.
The addition of Steele and Stevens, who will both be expected to play, makes for tight competition for spots among the younger brigade of midfielders, as evidenced by the likes of ably performed Lonie and Dunstan listed as emergencies in the team above. St Kilda now have a deeper list than they have for some years.
We know what we’re going to get from Jack Steven and David Armitage, but the excitement lies in the wings and flanks through Seb Ross, Jade Gresham, Blake Acres, Jack Newnes and a hopefully rejuvenated Jack Billings. They can all win their own ball when required too.
Gresham, in particularly, appears to possess special elements. His lack of size may have counted against him on draft night, but he took enormous steps from Round 1 to Round 23 last year, visibly improving and gaining more confidence with each outing.
Saints fans would like to think there’s a nucleus for a flag tilt in this group, particularly with premier midfielder Steven only 27. They have built their games on pressure, pace, confident and quick ball movement, and trust in teammates, giving the first option every time.
In the ruck division, Tom Hickey was in the shadows of Billy Longer in 2015, but left him eating dust in 2016 as he cemented his spot and started to fully realise his talent that we had only seen sporadically. He’s one of the better contested mark ruckmen in the game too, which is always a handy asset to have.
Both the forward and back lines have a complementary mix to them.
Nick Riewoldt will be roaming the wings again, running his opponents ragged before pushing forward to kick goals. Paddy McCartin is the goal-square monster, Josh Bruce the athletic full-forward, while Tim Membrey is a great in-betweener. Mav Weller came into his own last year as the pressure forward.
Membrey is the fascinating one. He kicked 44 goals last year, including four bags of five. But closer inspection reveals that he averaged 3.6 goals per game against non-finalists, but only 1.1 against top eight sides.
Is he just a flat-track bully, or does he have the game to manoeuvre his way through the better defences? This is the year we find out.
Down back, Nathan Brown is the negater and Jake Carlisle, Dylan Roberton and Sean Dempster are all intercept specialists. Roberton is able to provide run as well, to support Leigh Montagna and the missile launcher that is Shane Savage’s right boot.
Already, we can see coverage for the elder statesmen Riewoldt and Dempster, through a well-executed succession plan. Hence why Riewoldt is now free to run the ground at will.
The best sides are always the best at picking off opposition inside 50 entries, due to skilled intercept markers and midfield defensive pressure, and have multiple targets going forward. The Saints looked well stocked in all areas.
If there is a little hole in the list, it might be in regards to where Daniel McKenzie, Jimmy Webster, Nathan Wright, Jack Sinclair, Darren Minchington and Jack Lonie are at in their careers. All are aged between 21-24, and might find themselves treading water at St Kilda this season.
Will they seek opportunities at clubs like North, Carlton, Essendon, Brisbane and Fremantle in 2018? And if so, will this hurt St Kilda’s depth when they are genuinely ready to contend?
If the young midfield brigade is perfectly planted and beautifully ripening fruit, then Sam Gilbert is the half-eaten apple that’s gone rotten at the bottom of a school bag over Christmas holidays. A faithful servant and once-damaging player, he needs to be spending most of the year at VFL level for this team to truly be progressing.
The Saints also need to mature. It’s one thing to relish your home deck at Etihad, where their style is clearly suited, but they produced abominable results interstate last season. In fact, they’ve been extremely poor under Richardson whenever they set foot on a plane.
There’s no reason to expect the St Kilda veterans can’t maintain their level this year, and there’s every reason to expect a good portion of the younger brigade will improve. Thus, the Saints should be knocking on the door of finals again, but it’s not the end of the world if they don’t march in. There might only be a couple of games separating half a dozen sides in that part of the ladder.
The path is clear. The track is good. Patience and time are the next two ingredients.
Predicted ladder spread: 7th-12th
Predicted finish: Eighth
Best and fairest: Jack Steven
Leading goalkicker: Tim Membrey
All-Australian potential: Tim Membrey, Jack Steven, Nick Riewoldt
Rising Star candidates: Slim pickings