After two seasons of rising significantly up the ladder, last year St Kilda were unable to keep climbing for the first time under Alan Richardson. At best, they plateaued. At worst, they regressed.
Richmond flew past them to go all the way to a famous premiership. Melbourne put them in the rear-view mirror. Port and Essendon went from behind the Saints to jump into the finals.
Can the Saints expect to reel in any of these teams in 2017, let alone catch the likes of Adelaide, Geelong, Greater Western Sydney and Sydney, all well and truly entrenched in the top eight?
B: Jarryn Geary Nathan Brown Jimmy Webster
HB: Shane Savage Jake Carlisle Dylan Roberton
C: Jack Sinclair Sebastian Ross Jack Newnes
HF: Blake Acres Tim Membrey Jack Billings
F: Jade Gresham Paddy McCartin Josh Bruce
Foll: Billy Longer Jack Steele Jack Steven
Int: Luke Dunstan Maverick Weller Koby Stevens David Armitage
Em: Tom Hickey Hunter Clark Nicholas Coffield
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The first thing that strikes you about the St Kilda line-up is that it’s quite vanilla. Jack Billings and Jade Gresham have a bit of spark about them, but there’s a fair amount of meat and potatoes on display here.
How the forward line works together will be one of the key questions that needs answering, especially now that Nick Riewoldt is no longer part of the furniture.
Tim Membrey is a lock as the third tall, albeit with question marks about whether he is a downhill skiier, but can Josh Bruce and Paddy McCartin play in the same side? These three only played together three times last year, so will surely have done a lot of work as a combination over the off-season.
Bruce competes, but goes missing in games. His contested marking dropped right away in 2017, but he doesn’t read the play well enough to play as a linkman running up and down the ground. McCartin has played 22 matches in three seasons, but is yet to have a breakout game. He still could be anything – a gun, a dud, or something in between. In the meantime, Christian Petracca is about to launch himself into the AFL stratosphere.
Between Membrey, Bruce and McCartin, they don’t win much football, and nor do they really lay a glove on the opposition from a defensive point of view. With Riewoldt’s departure, these three get to dictate how they want to complement each other, and what that looks like in delivering team success. Let’s see how they go.
Billings may not be St Kilda’s best player, yet, but he is their most damaging, and hasn’t found his ceiling. He has the capacity to be a 30 touches-a-game, 30 goals-a-season player, as well as a league leader in goal assists (he finished top five last year). He’s a weapon with ball in hand, but must fix that errant goal-kicking of his.
Gresham has the talent, but perhaps not the work rate or concentration to go with it. A five-goal haul against the Tigers in Round 23 last year will have given him great confidence – no individual player kicked more than that in a game against the premiers.
Billy Longer is the preferred ruckman, feeding a midfield that is long on grunt but short on class. It might be hard for Jack Steele, David Armitage, Luke Dunstan and Koby Stevens to all play in the same side. Steele and Dunstan are the future, so it should be the older hands that feel selection pressure.
Is a centre-line of Jack Sinclair, Seb Ross and Jack Newnes going to carry this side to finals glory? Unlikely, if we’re being brutally honest. They’re all nice footballers, but not match-winners.
Jack Steven is far too inconsistent in his output for a dual best and fairest winner that has been in the game a decade. We don’t know what we’re going to get from him week to week or season to season.
Blake Acres is entering his fifth season, and must be ready to produce. He’s the perfect size for a modern day midfielder, and has a touch of quality about him. He shouldn’t still be getting dropped for form at this stage of his career.
Can Hunter Clark establish himself in his first year, to put pressure on more of the experienced hands? He looks slick in his TAC Cup highlights. Nicholas Coffield, a fellow top-ten pick, should be able to find a place given his renowned versatility at junior level.
Down back, Geary and Brown are the defensive planks, on smalls and talls respectively, while Jake Carlisle and Dylan Roberton control the air. Jimmy Webster is a jobber. Between them all, they are just like every else down at St Kilda – middle of the road.
Shane Savage is arguably the best kick at the club, but still ends up getting dropped each season. He needs to push himself to cover more territory and should be leading his team for handball receives.
Identifying backline organisation as a weakness, the St Kilda hierarchy have brought in assistant coach Henry Playfair from Sydney. In the last two seasons, the Saints have lost 11 games by 40 points or more, which is too many for a team with finals aspirations. The Swans have long been regarded as the benchmark in defensive set-up, and Playfair is sure to impart some valuable lessons.
It’s hard to see finals beckoning for this group of players, this year or next, and nor has Alan Richardson yet revolutionised the game as a master tactician or established a firm, identifiable brand for his team.
That said, they are fourth youngest list in the league, and as a group have played the second least games. It’s been seven years since St Kilda played finals, but there is no need for impatience yet. This is a group with time to grow.
However, media will be sure to pour some heat on Richardson if St Kilda lose touch with finals too early in the season. He is safe for now, but the results must come eventually. Stemming the blowouts would be a start.
The Saints need to make hay early with two easy games against Brisbane and North kicking off their season. Their next ‘gimme’ doesn’t come until Round 13, when they will be only the second side to play Gold Coast at Metricon this season.
It’s been just over 50 years since St Kilda’s last premiership. It will be closer to a 60-year drought before they threaten again.
Prediction – 12th