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Stairway to heaven, or highway to hell? Let's talk about the Saints

St Kilda's putrid start to the year has many questioning the quality of the club's rebuild (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
Expert
17th April, 2018
19
1204 Reads

After being regularly talked about as a side on the verge of returning to finals in the last few years, the St Kilda Saints are 1-3 and playing uncompetitive football.

Today I’ve invited Josh Elliott to have a chat with me about the Saints, so that we can get both a netural and fan perspective on some of the key issues facing the club.

Josh Elliott: Thanks Maddy. I tipped the Saints to play finals last year and although I was less optimistic about them for 2018, I was still surprised by how poorly they’ve done so far.

Let’s start with the big question – Alan Richardson. He’s been in charge for a number of years now but the results are yet to come. What do you think of his contract situation?

Maddy Friend: As a quick primer, Richo’s contract was recently renewed for another two years. I think it’s generally a good thing – he’s seen the list through a transition period, and should be given a chance to work with it as it settles down and start to really embed the game plan.

I’m of the view that sacking coaches should only be done as an absolute last resort, and I don’t think the Saints are at that point yet – the players clearly respect Richo, and he’s apparently a good teacher and good at understanding the needs of different players – the lack of good player/coach relationship is probably one of the only times I’d condone changing coaches.

However, I have queries about the development of players under the current coaching staff. I can probably only name a handful of players who have improved under Richo – Seb Ross, Jarryn Geary, and perhaps Blake Acres – which is pretty terrible, while many others have gone backwards – Luke Dunstan, Shane Savage, Jack Lonie, Mav Weller, to name a few.

Jack Newnes is a case in point – he was drafted in 2011 and has played 116 games. He’s entering the prime of his career, yet he seems to just be coasting along.

I still can’t work out whether he’s a defender or a midfielder, as he seems to switch between both roles, and while he tackles and is a good competitive player, I struggle to think of one time when he took the game on and created something for the team.

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He’s symptomatic of the larger problem – either something isn’t getting through to the group, or the players aren’t as good as the club thought they were, and have reached their ceilings.

The decision to re-sign Richo for two years was reasonable, as it gives him time to cement his plans, but doesn’t lock the club into a long-term situation.

Reassessing in two years is about right – we’ll have an idea then of where the club and coach are at, and whether it’s time to make a change.

There’s obviously been a lot of speculation around Richo’s position recently, given the Saints’ terrible form to start the year.

I understand that the final say on most decisions at the club rests with the coach, but I think the Saints have made some errors in their list management, an area in which Richo is guided by the decisions of the list management team (which we’ll come to in a moment), so sacking him would be premature.

Alan Richardson

(AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy)

JE: I definitely agree that making the call to sack Richardson right now would be a poor one – it’s not uncommon for teams to go through a poor run of form every now and then and what’s been forgotten a lot lately is that the Saints right now adjusting to a post-Riewoldt era, something that’s hard to do.

That said, I do feel like the decision to extend his contract so far in advanced was rushed and probably the wrong one. Personally, I would’ve been waiting until about the halfway mark of this season and taking stock then of where the club is at and whether or not it’s the right fit going forward.

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I just don’t really understand what a club has to lose by holding off on the contract extension just a little while longer – yes, it’s going to invite more media scrutiny, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing. Putting a coach under the heat a little will give you an insight into their character.

If he’s the kind of guy who can’t handle the gig when things get stressful then that’s something you might like to know about him, because it will get stressful.

If the Saints had their hearts set on an extension for Richardson at the end of last year though I think maybe the middle ground, a one-year deal extending him through till the end of 2019, would have done the trick.

As it is, I feel like they’ve painted themselves into a corner a bit, as they’re probably not in a financial position to pay out the contract they’ve signed him to in the event that they decide sometime this year he’s not up to it.

You make a fair point though that not all of St Kilda’s current woes can be pinned on him, and the list management team has some questions to answer also. What’s your take on the current state of the playing list?

MF: Let’s start with the positives: it’s a young list centred around players who are competitive and focused on winning contested ball, which is a decent foundation moving forward.

Given it’s a young list – the average age in 2018 is 23, with only Brisbane, North Melbourne and Gold Coast boasting younger lists – there is still plenty of room for development.

2017 draftees Nick Coffield and Hunter Clark look exciting, and recent pick-ups in Jade Gresham, Brandon White, Josh Battle, and Bailey Rice look to have good futures as well.

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Nick Coffield Hunter Clark

(AAP Image/Brendan Esposito)

Recruiting Jake Carlisle has also been a great decision – for too many years, the Saints had a dearth of key defenders, but that area is now in much better shape.

The negatives – well, as has been dissected over and over in the media recently, it’s a very one-paced list, with very few match-winners.

Martin Flanagan wrote in The Age on Sunday that the Saints are the only team without an All Australian in the side – Seb Ross was nominated for the squad of 40 last year, but wasn’t selected for the final team, while Dylan Roberton and Jack Steven have also been sqaud-of-40 nominees in previous years.

That’s a pretty damning assessment on a team that has been ‘rebuilding’ for the past six years.

A lot of this goes back to the list management over the past five or six years. As Chris Pelchen noted on SEN last week, between 2011 and 2016, the Saints have had very few first-round draft picks.

That’s meant that the list management team has had to get creative, and while the players they’ve selected have by-and-large been decent choices, they probably haven’t fit together so well as a collective.

What I mean by that is that they’ve made good choices each year depending on the talent available – there aren’t many recent drafts where they’ve definitely made the wrong decision in overlooking a player who has gone on to be a gun – but that they seem to have selected players based pretty much on their competitiveness, rather than on other attributes.

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This is a bit of a chicken or egg scenario – do you pick players based on what your game style is, or do you base your game style on the type of players you’ve drafted?

The Saints have done the former – chosen players based mainly on their competitive ability, rather than other traits.

We’ve seen this approach of selecting players based on one particular characteristic with many teams over the past few years – Geelong favoured quick, skilful players in its 2007-2011 reign; the Hawks’ four recent premierships were won on the back of precise foot skills; while the Bulldogs of 2016 used the flexibility and adaptability of its players to its advantage.

In that sense, I don’t have an issue with the Saints’ philosophy, but more the decision to base their recruitment choices on competitiveness as the defining attribute.

In my view, this should be the bare minimum required of an AFL player – if you’re not competitive, nothing else really matters.

Consequently, the Saints are a competitive team, but one filled with players with shocking execution by foot, poor decision-makers, and one-paced players who lack the ability to change the game.

Look at the midfield, and this becomes immediately apparent – Jack Steven, David Armitage, Luke Dunstan, Koby Stevens, Jack Steele, Seb Ross.

They’re all decent players, but I’d argue only Steven has match-winning abilities, and even then he’s too inconsistent.

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Jack Steven St Kilda Saints AFL 2016 2

(AAP Image/Julian Smith)

The fact that the club went and recruited Stevens and Steele over the past few years raised eyebrows for me – contested ball winners were the last thing the club needed.

Jack Billings and Seb Ross are really the only A-graders on the list, but there’s too much reliance on Billings to do too much.

In the forward line, there are players like Weller, Darren Minchington, and Nathan Wright, who are good at applying pressure, but rarely score.

Losing Leigh Montagna and Nick Riewoldt at the end of last season has obviously had a huge effect, and its appears that Jarryn Geary doesn’t have much in the way of leadership support – there are no players with more than 200 games on the list.

He does a great job of directing play and marshalling the troops, but more players need to step up and take responsibility when things aren’t going the team’s way. At the moment, there are too many players who are content to just sit back and watch.

JE: For mine the big issue with the Saints list is, as you’ve pointed out, that gap of time where they had little in the way of high draft picks, and the ones they did have were spent poorly.

I remember that for example in the 2012 draft they had their hands on two fairly early picks due to Brendon Goddard leaving via free agency, but traded them away to get the likes of Tom Hickey and Tom Lee, neither of whom have had a notable impact.

Across three drafts between 2008 and 2010 during a period of list transition they brought more than 30 new names into the club but not a single one of them remains on the list.

The only players who have gone on to have AFL careers of interest have all done so at other clubs – Tom T Lynch at Adelaide, Rhys Stanley at Geelong, Jamie Cripps and Mark Hutchings at West Coast.

Such a long period without having acquired any players of note at the draft leaves the list with a serious gap into it, one that the Saints have tried to fill by trading in players in that age bracket.

If you look between Jack Steven (drafted in 2007) and Jack Newnes (drafted in 2011) on the St Kilda list as per player age, all of the players there are from other clubs: Shane Savage, Tom Hickey, Koby Stevens, Dylan Roberton, Jake Carlisle, Maverick Weller and Josh Bruce.

Some of them have been handy pickups but personally I reckon it’s just too big a crack to paper over especially when you’re a small Victorian club which generally makes it harder to attract genuine A-grade talent from other clubs.

Now that Riewoldt and Montagna have moved on these guys are basically the mature corps of the side but they’re neither particularly elite players nor are they demonstrated leaders.

It was a bold attempt to try to fill out age group with canny recruiting, but the results are mixed at best.

Instead too much is now left to the players 24 and under on the list and it’s no surprise that a team which finds itself in that position is struggling a bit.

I don’t think too many criticisms can be made of that group. Definitely the draft picks have been a bit hit and miss but so have every club’s over the same period of time.

Your point about competitiveness being the overriding virtue of the side is well made – but the big question for me is, is that a playing list issue, or a game plan issue?

MF: Really, the game plan isn’t up to scratch.

We saw Richmond win the premiership last year with a game plan based on manic forward pressure and competitiveness, but the Tigers also have four or five star players.

That’s really the only way I see such a game plan working. The Saints don’t have any star quality players, and given their lack of players with good foot skills, they are limited in the game style they can actually play.

Their lack of speed also severely hurts them – it means they move the ball slowly, giving opposition defenders time to man up and cut off the play.

Most of the ball they do win comes from contested situations, and not enough from turnovers or back-half scoring chains.

Whenever they try and move the ball quickly, it usually ends with a turnover, and their goal-kicking is still atrocious, despite being a focus of the pre-season.

At the moment, it’s hard to see what else they can do in this regard, given their personnel. The competitiveness is a good foundation, but the coaching staff need to try and encourage the players to take the game on more.

Whenever they make mistakes, they seem to retreat into their shells and play ‘safe’ footy, which only leads to an even greater inability to score.

They’re not going to be able to execute a precision kicking game plan, so I’d be encouraging them to take the game on, run and carry from defence, and try and set up opportunities further up the ground.

At the moment, the stagnant ball movement makes it difficult for their key forwards to have any substantial opportunities, and just makes it easier for teams to rebound out of their defensive 50.

The coaching staff seem to have recognised the need for good ball users in the back half – Jimmy Webster and Shane Savage have become mainstays, with Brandon White and Nick Coffield developing well.

It’s an area that I think the Saints will continue to improve on, and it may be the genesis of a more attacking game style.

They’ve also taken note that the midfield is too one-paced, and so we haven’t seen Luke Dunstan, David Armitage, Koby Stevens and Jack Steele in the same team this year.

For the rest of the season, they should be picking players based on skill level and ability to make something happen, because it’s the only way the team is going to improve.

JE: It’s a bit of a chicken and egg kind of question trying to work out whether the gameplan is bad because of limited personnel, or if the personnel seem limited because the gameplan is bad.

For mine, I do watch the Saints and struggle to work out at times exactly what it is they’re trying to do and be.

In their first few years under Richo it was all about playing smart defensive footy in the same way that Paul Roos and Brendon Bolton have done for young teams in recent years.

But I believe a young team has to grow out of that eventually and start playing a brand of footy that, if not focused on offence, is at least more balanced.

The Saints haven’t really been able to do that and I believe it’s due to a lack of forward-half talent on the list.

You point out that the club has stockpiled good ball users in defence over the past few years but they haven’t really had much success finding players who have good skills forward of centre.

Jack Billings fits in this category but I’d argue that no one else on St Kilda’s list really does – maybe you could make an argument for Blake Acres or Jade Gresham, but they don’t do so consistently.

Jack Billings St Kilda Saints AFL 2015

(AAP Image/Joe Castro)

Nathan Freeman is someone who was clearly recruited to fill this kind of role and hasn’t really panned out. I’d love to believe he can still come good but it’d be a mistake to centre any longterm plans around that being at all likely.

The Saints have picked up a number of small forward types also but none of them really seem to have come on in a big way just yet despite many of them threatening to at one point or another.

They’ve got some talented talls, but none of them are really firing at the moment, so they could really use a crumber type there.

This is probably why the Saints’ early picks last year had me feeling a bit hesitant. I like both Clark and Coffield as players and think they’ll both play 200 games for the Saints – but will they be the point of difference the list needs? From my perspective, they’re just more of what is already there.

Until Gillon brings in his mid-season trade and draft there won’t really be an opportunity to address the list’s short comings and with finals seeming to be pretty much a pipe dream I’d like to see Richo get experimental.

Why not throw some of those good back-half ball users onto a half-forward flank for a few weeks and see if one of them can make the transition? If you can have some success there it’ll go a long way towards balancing out the team’s talent across the field.

The end of the year will come around eventually though and when it does, I’m curious what you think the Saints should be doing at the trade table.

MF: Obviously the big question here is free agency and whether the Saints can attract a big fish. Rory Sloane and Andrew Gaff would be the obvious ones, but even if both do want to move back to Victoria, I see very little to attract them to the Saints at the moment.

The club clearly has a large amount of salary cap space available, but both those players are at the age where they’d only be looking to move to a team in finals contention.

Looking to trades and the draft, the club needs to target some more medium forwards, goal-kicking midfielders, and outside run.

Very few of the club’s midfielders kick goals regularly, and so too much is left to the forwards. Tim Membrey has been a handy pick-up, but outside of him, only the developing Josh Battle plays that ‘third tall’ role.

Perhaps the club could look at moving someone like David Armitage into the forward line, to provide another avenue to goal.

It also needs to look at drafting some more players in the 23-26 age bracket, to provide some leadership and complement the young players.

The club also needs to have a serious clean out of its honest, but dour players – realistically, I don’t see Nathan Wright, Darren Minchington or Maverick Weller playing much of a role going forward, and while they’re excellent proponents of the high-pressure game style, if the club wants to progress it needs to make some difficult decisions going forward.

It also needs to work out if Billy Longer or Tom Hickey is its preferred number one ruckman – injury and poor form has meant that this has chopped and changed so much over the past two years, which seems to have impacted the team structure and continuity.

At this stage, my preferred 2018 best-22 would look something like this:

B: Dylan Roberton, Nathan Brown, Jarryn Geary
HB: Jimmy Webster, Jake Carlisle, Brandon White
C: Shane Savage, Jack Steele, Blake Acres
HF: Jack Sinclair, Josh Bruce, Jack Billings
F: Jade Gresham, Patrick McCartin, Tim Membrey
R: Billy Longer/Tom Hickey, Jack Steven, Sebastian Ross
IC: Luke Dunstan, Nick Coffield, Hunter Clark, Darragh Joyce

Others to choose from would include Ray Connellan, Rowan Marshall, Bailey Rice, Logan Austin and Daniel McKenzie.

JE: Free agency is definitely something the Saints should be looking to hit and hit hard this year – even though the odds of small Victorian clubs luring big names isn’t great, at the very least you may as well splash the cash and keep the big clubs honest.

Andrew Gaff for mine is the perfect name for the Saints to target. Their midfield mix at the moment leans far too much towards the grunty and grindy type rather than players with outside class, and Gaff is exactly that.

Andrew Gaff West Coast Eagles AFL

(Photo by Daniel Carson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

Rory Sloane is an interesting case. Most would say he’s too old for it to be worthwhile for such a young list, but I do reckon that the Saints could really use his leadership and influence on the younger players.

It’d be a really hard sell to get him across on that basis though because he’d probably doubt the Saints can win a premiership in what’s left of his career and I expect he’ll want to go to a club where he feels that’s a possibility.

On a purely speculative basis, I believe he’ll be an Essendon player if he does decide to return to Victoria.

There are some other free agents who might be of interest though, specifically I reckon that the Saints should be getting in touch with Alex Fasolo and Daniel Menzel.

We know Geelong are only going to offer Menzel a short-term contract, so there’s an opportunity there to get a really good goalkicker if you’re willing to take the risk and give him more job security.

Fasolo I’d say is more likely to go to West Coast if he does move but it’s worth asking the question all the same. What have you got to lose?

End of the day though, the cornerstone of most good list management strategies is to keep going back to the draft and that’s what the Saints have to do again in 2018.

The good news is they’ll probably have a very early pick at this rate, and there’s some really good midfield talent in the mix early.

As a very early thought, someone like Izak Rankine would be the perfect fit for their list if he happens to be available at their first selection.

We’ve saved the biggest question for last though. When do you think the Saints will get back into finals?

(Also as a complete aside, since we mentioned Tim Membrey, I have to put it out there that his palm tree tattoo is my favourite in the game. I have no idea why, but it captivates me.)

MF: The club’s 2014 ‘blueprint’ made some bold assertions, including that the team would be well ensconced in the top eight by 2018, and challenging for the flag by 2020.

The statement was necessary at the time, as the supporters and sponsors needed to see that the club had a clear vision and direction, but it has unfortunately set on-field expectations which the club has failed to achieve.

The fact that the Saints were mere percentage from making the finals in 2016 had many predicting they’d take the next step soon, but they were lucky on the injury front that year and found that their competitive focus kept them in games and somewhat masked their inability to score.

This year’s form so far is a truer reflection of where the team is at – with the current list, I don’t see them making finals for at least the next 3-4 years.

By then, players such as Gresham, Clark, Coffield and White will be entering their prime, and should form the nucleus of a decent team.

I don’t think bringing in a free agent at the end of the season will bring them any closer to finals – sure, Gaff or Sloane will add immediate quality to the team, but there still won’t be enough good players to help them out.

JE: I do think that St Kilda’s 2016 season can be put down that oft-seen confluence of having some good veterans and some good kids who both happen to play decent footy at the same time.

It’s a shame they didn’t break into finals on the back of that, they came so close – although given that them doing so would’ve meant North missed out, I’m not too cut up about it.

The natural follow-on from being in a position like that is that the veterans retire and the team takes a backwards step or two while it waits for the kids to mature, and that’s where the Saints are at now in my opinion.

I do think it could be a little sooner than 3-4 years before the Saints get into finals as there is a lot of untapped potential among the younger players.

Say the club signs Gaff and finds away to get one or two dangerous medium or small forward types, combine that with Billings going to true A-grader status in 2019 and genuine breakout seasons from the likes of Dunstan and Acres… they just might surprise us.

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