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Scattergun signings and 'safe bet' drafting will get St Kilda nowhere

Cutting Nathan Freeman doesn't seem to make much sense for St Kilda (Photo by Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)
Expert
28th August, 2018
48
5434 Reads

After being on the edge of finals not that long ago, the St Kilda Saints were one of the most disappointing teams of 2018, falling well short of pre-season expectations and finishing in the bottom four.

Both on the field and off of it they’ve given their fans headaches, and at times it has seemed like the club is determined to machine gun themselves in the foot.

However a look at the numbers suggests their downturn in form probably shouldn’t have surprised us as much as it did, and things aren’t all doom and gloom where the future is concerned.

List breakdown

After the retirements of Nick Riewoldt and Leigh Montagna, St Kilda entered season 2018 as the fourth-youngest list in the comp, with an average age a little over 23 and a half.

They were tied with Gold Coast as the second-least experienced side in the league on average, ahead only of North Melbourne.

Given this, it’s not surprising that the Saints made an above average investment in youth this year – they gave 49.8 per cent of games to players 23-and-under, compared to the league average of 38.

The only teams to make a stronger investment in youth were the five other sides in this year’s bottom six – Carlton, Gold Coast, Brisbane, Fremantle and the Bulldogs.

St Kilda’s under-23 players picked up a total of 61 AFLCA votes – disappointingly, this was less than every other team in the bottom six bar Gold Coast.

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It’s ten votes below the league average, so not too far off the benchmark, but less than would be hoped for from the perspective of a club fielding more players in this age bracket than most.

Looking at the players in this group, you can get a sense of why – names like Jack Billings, Luke Dunstan, Blake Acres, Jack Lonie and Paddy McCartin have all left fans frustrated at times and struggled to build continuity and consistency for a variety of reasons.

Jade Gresham had something of a breakout year and Josh Battle did well enough to suggest he has a future as an AFL player. Jack Steele was solid as expected.

Nick Coffield and Hunter Clark had reasonable debut seasons, Ed Phillips, Ben Long, Brandon White, Dan McKenzie and Logan Austin all showed promise.

Hunter Clark

(Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

There’s plenty of names here who have shown they’ve got enough talent to be serious AFL players, but it would be fair to say that the Saints are lacking a really top-tier superstar in this group.

While Carlton had a worse season than the Saints on the field, they can at least look at their list and envision a future where Patrick Cripps and Charlie Curnow are tearing apart teams week after week.

Despite showing promise, it’s fair to say that no one in St Kilda’s 23-and-under brigade seems to be at that elite level. I have no doubt many of them will become solid AFL players, but teams need more than just solidity.

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It’s not youth where the team is lacking though so much as it is prime-age and veteran players. The Saints are well behind the benchmarks in both categories.

Their prime-age group features players like Tim Membrey, Jimmy Webster, Sebastian Ross, Billy Longer, Jack Newnes, Josh Bruce, Jake Carlisle, Dylan Roberton, Tom Hickey, Shane Savage and Jack Steven.

Only two of these players – Ross and Steven – managed to hit double-digits in terms of AFLCA votes for season 2018.

As a group, the Saints’ 24-to-29ers collected only 91 AFLCA votes, which is just barely half of the league average of 179.

Why is this group so lacking in talent? It’s because they hearken back to what was a very barren period for St Kilda at the draft, and most of it has been cobbled together from other clubs.

Of the 11 players mentioned above, seven of them started their careers elsewhere before coming to the Saints.

Trying to make up for poor past drafting by trading in players of the right age isn’t a bad idea, if you can bring in players of a suitable quality – but St Kilda aren’t a destination club and have mostly had to settle for those who weren’t making the cut elsewhere.

That being the case, it’s no surprise that their core group right now – the players they most needed to perform in order to reach that goal of being a top-four team by this point in time – is a few notches below average.

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Unfortunately the Saints’ veteran tier is also struggling – this is a new challenge to deal with as previously the presence of Nick Riewoldt and Leigh Montagna had them looking very strong in this area.

St Kilda ultimately picked up just seven AFLCA votes by players aged 30 or over, which is worse only than Collingwood in the league, and well below the competition average of 48.

Nathan Brown, Jarryn Geary, David Armitage and Sam Gilbert are the only players on St Kilda’s list in this age group.

In the end they recorded just 159 AFLCA votes for the season across the entire list – the second-lowest count in the league behind Gold Coast, and barely half of the league average.

Jarryn Geary of the Saints

(AAP Image/Julian Smith)

Underperformed or overperformed?

St Kilda fielded a side with an average age of about 24 and a half years old, roughly half a year younger than the league-wide average, and the fifth-youngest in the league.

Their team boasted 1707 games of experience on average – more than 300 games below the competition average, and the third-least experienced side in the league.

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The end of the season saw them at sixteenth on the ladder with four wins and a draw to their name, and a percentage of 75.6.

Verdict: Probably underperformed, but not by very much. While a backwards step in form compared to previous years was disappointing, they had a similar demographic regression. You could argue they just about broke even, but certainly didn’t do any better than that.

Contracts

St Kilda’s contract list is in pretty good shape. They don’t have any major headaches in terms of out-of-contract players this year – but they are giving me a headache with some of the cutting decisions they’ve made.

It was reported last night that after just two AFL games the Saints won’t offer former top-ten pick Nathan Freeman a new contract for 2019.

It has also been whispered that Jack Lonie is unlikely to get a new deal from the club – though his delisting hasn’t been formally confirmed just yet.

These are both baffling decisions if true – both players have talent and are in the right age bracket for the Saints.

Freeman should rightly feel aggrieved. The Saints held off on debuting him much longer than most thought reasonable this year, then dropped him after only two games.

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It might have made sense if they thought a limited taste of AFL football was the best way to manage his body for the future, but instead it comes off feeling like he hasn’t been given a fair chance to prove that he’s worth keeping around.

It’s a perplexing decision to put so much time and investment into getting Freeman fit and able to play at senior level, only to then cut him without really giving him a chance.

Is St Kilda’s list so bursting with talent that they simply have no room to give him a shot at building into some form in 2019? No.

A tone-deaf decision that will leave fans frustrated and confused as to what the club’s overall strategy is – and not unreasonably so.

As for Lonie, he has certainly been frustrating at times, but finished the year by kicking 12 goals in his last six games.

He has only just turned 22 and it would be, from my perspective, far too early to give up on him.

From their 2019 contract group, the player to watch will be Jack Billings.

He was out of contract just last year and took longer than would’ve been expected to sign, and then only committed to a two-year deal.

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Some pundits have already put it forward in the media that the Saints should consider trading him out of the club – I’d struggle to think of a more disastrous idea.

While Billings may not be everything the Saints hoped he would be by now, he’s still arguably the most talented player at the club and one of few on their list with genuine match-winning qualities.

He only just turned 23 two weeks ago and he is not the first footballer at that age to be still working on his game. I have no doubt that with patience and the proper support, he’ll be a star.

It’s crucial that the Saints back him in and lock him up for a long-term commitment to the club, though he’ll probably want to play some 2019 footy in the hopes of raising his value before he signs anything.

Jack Billings

(Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

Jade Gresham and Luke Dunstan are the other notable names in the 2019 contract group. Gresham seems like a slam dunk, but Dunstan is one the Saints should look to sign up sooner rather than later.

Dunstan is a South Australian originally and has struggled to lock down a place in the Saints’ best 22 despite his form usually being pretty impressive statistically.

I reckon he’d be a brilliant fit at the Adelaide Crows – St Kilda should look to head off any possible overtures from clubs in his home state by extending his contract as soon as possible.

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2022
Jimmy Webster

2021
Hunter Clark
Nick Coffield
Tim Membrey
Dylan Roberton
Sebastian Ross

2020
Blake Acres
Josh Battle
Josh Bruce
Paddy McCartin
Ed Phillips
Jack Steele
Jack Steven

2019
David Armitage
Jack Billings
Nathan Brown
Jake Carlisle
Oscar Clavarino
Luke Dunstan
Jarryn Geary
Jade Gresham
Tom Hickey
Ben Long
Rowan Marshall
Dan McKenzie
Jack Newnes
Ben Paton
Bailey Rice
Shane Savage
Jack Sinclair
Brandon White

Out of contact
Ray Connellan
Nathan Freeman
Sam Gilbert
Hugh Goddard
Darragh Joyce
Doulton Langlands
Jack Lonie
Billy Longer
Darren Minchington
Lewis Pierce
Koby Stevens
Maverick Weller
Nathan Wright

Unconfirmed
Logan Austin

Free agency

If St Kilda want to be a more competitive team in 2019 then the obvious path to go down is adding more prime-age talent to their list.

Free agency is the ideal way to do this because while the Saints would love to get in some big fish, they also need to retain a strong presence in the draft.

The problem is the same problem that every other club in this section of the ladder has: why would a top-tier free agent come to you when they could go somewhere better?

St Kilda said earlier in the year that they were going to be big players in the market for Tom J Lynch, and they’ve also been regularly linked to Andrew Gaff.

They were reportedly the ones behind a mega-offer to Jeremy McGovern during the year, but he turned them down for the same reasons that Lynch and Gaff will.

Seemingly hell-bent on landing someone, anyone, the Saints have turned their attention to just about anything with a pulse onf the free agency market.

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In particular, they’ve been linked to Scott Lycett, Daniel Menzel, and Jordan Roughead.

Daniel Menzel of the Geelong Cats celebrates scoring a goal.

(Photo by Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)

These are all perplexing targets – none seems especially likely to improve the team’s competitiveness on the field, nor makes much sense looking at their list more broadly.

One of St Kilda’s biggest problems in recent years has been a lack of stability in the ruck as they’ve been unable to settle on which of Billy Longer or Tom Hickey is their preference.

The problem is that they have too many ruckmen of around the same quality to begin with, and throwing more ruckmen into the mix is only going to make things worse, not better.

Menzel on the other hand is a solid goalkicker, yes, but his injury history makes him a risky bet, and his lack of defensive pressure probably not the example the Saints would want a new recruit to be setting for his teammates.

It bemuses me that the Saints would move on a player like Nathan Freeman but consider recruiting one like Menzel.

He might help the Saints’ forwardline be a little more efficient when fit, but is probably keeping a player like Josh Battle out of the team – it’s a no for me.

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What this scattergun approach feels like is a desperate attempt to graft more talent onto their prime-age group with relatively little thought put into how much real value the players will actually add to the side.

What the Saints should instead use to look free agency to do is acquire veteran players with a record of success, class, and leadership skills.

I’m going to sound like a broken record because I’ve already talked about him in regards to Carlton and Gold Coast in the last two days, but the obvious target here is Jarrad McVeigh.

Jarrad McVeigh Sydney Swans AFL

(AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

No need to go over it all again in detail, we know what McVeigh brings to the table: he’s experienced, he’s a leader, he’s been there and done that when it comes to being successful, and he’ll be a valuable member of the coaching team when he finishes up.

If you want to bring in the free agent who has the most to contribute to longterm success at St Kilda, McVeigh (or someone in a similar mould) will have far more of an impact than Scott Lycett or Daniel Menzel, with all due respect to them.

Trade period

St Kilda’s scattergun strategy isn’t just limited to the free agency list – they’ve got an interest in a wide variety of names at the trade table also.

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One they’ve been linked to during the year and who has just requested a trade last night is Adelaide’s Mitch McGovern.

Earlier in the season when his brother Jeremy was also uncontracted, there was significant rumour that the Saints were interested in trying to bring both players to the club.

That interest has probably cooled by now. At any rate, I don’t think he’d be the right kind of player to bring in.

The Saints already have a fairly tall forwardline, it’s one of few areas of the ground that I don’t think they need to recruit to.

Jared Polec, Aaron Hall and Ed Langdon are three others who the Saints have been linked to during the year.

Polec seems certain to go to North Melbourne, and Hall is probably more likely to go in that direction too.

Langdon could be a handy recruit, but there hasn’t been all that much to suggest that he’s interested in moving, and even if he does the Saints will have competition from more attractive destinations such as Melbourne and also Collingwood, where his brother Tom plays.

Instead the trade target at the top of St Kilda’s wishlist – and also the one they are most realistically a chance to get – is Sydney’s Dan Hannebery.

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Hannebery would be an excellent recruit for St Kilda, if they can get him at the right price in a trade.

Like McVeigh, he’s someone with proven leadership capabilities, and has experienced success – I have no doubt he’d be a great influence on St Kilda’s playing group.

Most importantly, he’s elite – or he is when he’s fit, at least. He has struggled a bit over the last eighteen months.

So long as St Kilda have done their due diligence on him and are confident they can get him back to his best over the offseason, I’d be happy to rubberstamp it.

The problem here is the trade price they would have to pay: Sydney don’t want to let him go cheap.

The deal the Swans have reportedly put forward is that St Kilda would have to give Sydney their first-round pick – likely pick 4. The Saints would then get Hannebery and also get Sydney’s first-round pick back.

Depending on how quickly the Swans get eliminated from finals, it potentially means only sliding eight or nine picks down the order.

However, that is an enormous gap in this year’s draft. It takes them out of the top tier and to a point where the talent is a lot more even.

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While St Kilda could stand to benefit a lot from having a player like Hannebery in the team, they cannot under any circumstances pass up the chance to draft an elite youngster.

Hannebery is contracted for the next three years so Sydney have the power to put their foot down if they want to. If they do, then the Saints have to say no.

If St Kilda are firm on not paying more than they can afford to and refuse to blink, I suspect Sydney will still come to the table. Don’t ask me why, call it a hunch.

Dan Hannebery

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/AFL Media/Getty Images)

Are there other potential trade targets the Saints should look at this year? I’d say it couldn’t hurt to make some inquiries about some of the younger talents potentially on the move.

Will Setterfield, Will Brodie, Jack Scrimshaw and Adam Cerra have all found their name in the trade rumours section at one time or another this year.

Could the Saints have a crack at one of them? Any would be a valuable addition to the list, but the problem is that St Kilda don’t have much trade currency this year.

They’ve already given up their second and third picks in this draft, and shouldn’t dilute the value of their first selection – so it’s probably not on the cards.

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Draft

The Saints have a pretty bare cupboard at the draft this year – they’ve got their first-round pick of course, but then don’t have a pick until the fourth round.

Their second and third round picks were both dealt to Port Adelaide in deals that secured them an extra earlyish pick last year, and Logan Austin.

No doubt they’ll consider finding a way to move back into the second and third rounds of this draft – but I’m not sure what they have to offer an opposition club that’s likely to appeal.

So, let’s talk about their first selection instead. Right now it’s pick 3, but odds are it will become pick 4 after Gold Coast get compensation for Tom Lynch’s departure.

Sam Walsh would’ve been a perfect fit for the Saints – he offers outside class and leadership, and the Saints badly need both.

Unfortunately, pick 4 is going to be too late to get him. If not gone at pick 1, he’ll be gone at pick 2, and St Kilda don’t have the assets to trade up to one of those selections.

Instead the players likely to be in the mix at that selection are Max and Ben King, Bailey Smith, and Izak Rankine.

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Max King I suspect is someone the Saints will consider very closely. He has been doing his rehab work from an ACL injury at the club’s facilities, so they will know him better than any other side in the league does.

However, I don’t think they should pick him up, or his twin brother Ben. Both are elite talents, but a key forward just isn’t what St Kilda needs.

They already have Josh Bruce, Tim Membrey, Paddy McCartin and Josh Battle as 190cm-plus forwards who they’re trying to fit into the side.

There’s simply no way that those four and also one of the King twins is going to play footy for them on a regular basis, so bringing a tall in will inevitably mean moving another out, and is unlikely to be a significant net gain of talent in the best 22.

Instead they’re likely picking between Izak Rankine and Bailey Smith, and if they’ve got a choice of the two, I’d go with Rankine.

Izak Rankine

(Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

While St Kilda have made significant investments in the draft over the last five years, I believe they’ve erred by being too cautious in terms of the kind of player they select.

When faced with the choice between a solid dependable type and a player with more elite qualities but less proven form, they’ve tended to go with the former.

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A perfect example would be last year when they decided to draft Hunter Clark and Nick Coffield instead of taking someone with serious X-factor like Aiden Bonar.

Clark and Coffield both had excellent records at under-18 level and were bankable selections. I’m sure both will go on to play 200-plus games for the club.

However I won’t be surprised at all if Bonar, who went a few picks later to the GWS Giants instead despite having relatively little exposure in his draft year, ulitmately outstrips them both.

Yes, every team needs to draft some safe bets – but these need to be supplemented by taking a bit of a risk every now and then.

Having two top ten picks back-to-back was the perfect opportunity to use one pick on a blue-chip talent like Coffield or Clark, then invest the other in a higher-risk, higher-reward venture like Bonar.

In a world of savvy investors, St Kilda has been the bloke who puts all of his savings into a guaranteed-interest bank account because the stock market is ‘too unpredictable’. It’s time to get a more diverse portfolio.

Bailey Smith is a fine prospect and certainly deserves to be in the conversation, but for mine he’s too similar to the type of player that St Kilda has already drafted plenty of.

Rankine on the other hand has numerous elite qualities and serious superstar potential. Pound-for-pound, he’s the most exciting player in the draft, and comfortably so.

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Yes, there’s a little more risk attached – he’s a South Australian rather than being a local boy, and it’d mean another undersized player on a list that already has several.

But St Kilda needs to start investing more in players who have some dynamism and creativity, and Rankine possesses both these attributes in spades.

What I said last year

“If the Saints still want to win their second flag by 2020 then they’re likely going to need more talent still added to that middle tier.

“I suspect the more likely result is that their next real premiership assault will come when the current youth have all hit their prime and become the core of the team.

“This would most likely see them really challenging for a flag around, say, 2022-2027, though they could easily crack into finals well before that, perhaps as soon as next year.

“Despite a disappointing season, if those in power at St Kilda stick to their guns and continue to make good decisions then fans will sooner or later get the taste of success they crave.”

Outlook

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Five years ago St Kilda set out a plan to make the top four by 2018 and win another premiership by 2020 – it hasn’t happened, and it’s not going to.

The plan required them to bring in some seriously elite talent to their prime-age group and while they’ve had some good value acquisitons, it’s nothing on the level of what they needed.

They might well add Dan Hannebery to that group this year – I think they should, so long as they can do it without diluting the value of their first draft pick.

However while he’d be an excellent addition and no doubt help the club be more competitive in 2019, his influence alone is not going to be enough to put them in the finals equation.

Would the addition also of players like Scott Lycett, Daniel Menzel and Jordan Roughead do that? I can’t see it happening.

They only seem likely to make St Kilda’s list more confused than it already is, and possibly see deserving young players miss out on the chance to develop at senior level.

It’s clear that an unexpectedly poor result in 2018 has seen St Kilda become impatient in the extreme – they’ve sacked their list manager, brought in a new one, and are making calls to anyone who might be interested in coming to the club.

But the scattergun strategy is only going to be ineffective and drive them madder still. It’s the answer no one wants to hear, but the path to genuine success is to keep the focus on drafting elite young talent and developing it as best they can.

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This has to be priority number one, and any decision that takes away from their ability to achieve this goal is a poor decision to make.

That’s why they simply can’t afford to swap down pick 4 in a Dan Hannebery trade. The gap between the talent available at those picks is just too wide.

They will be tempted to make sure the players they draft are safe bets, but they’ve got to be more willing to take risks on players who are less well-rounded but have more elite qualities.

What’s most crucial is to make sure that when they do bring youth in, those players are coming into an environment that is as constructive as it possibly can be.

St Kilda’s list needs more leadership – it should be something that they look to bring in via draftees, but they should also look for it by targetting veteran free agents like Jarrad McVeigh.

With all due respect to Jarryn Geary he hasn’t blown us away in his two years as captain and at 30, only has a limited amount of time left in the role.

I look at St Kilda and have absolutely no idea who is coming through the ranks to be the next captain, or the captain after that. That is a problem that must be addressed.

The biggest question of all though and one that the Saints may have to consider in detail at some point next year is whether or not Alan Richardson is the right senior coach to take them forward.

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Alan Richardson

(AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy)

When you think about Alan Richardson, what strengths of his come to mind? The playing group clearly puts in the effort for him, but he doesn’t have a lot else to hang his hat on.

Richardson is contracted until the end of 2020 and the Saints’ strategy seems to be to back him in for next year, but bring in some fresh blood among their assistant coaches.

Brendon Lade from Port Adelaide has already signed on, and there’s been a lot of talk to suggest they’ll also acquire Brett Ratten from Hawthorn.

It seems like a wise path to go down for now, but if performance doesn’t improve next year – and I do believe there’s a serious chance it will – expect the scrutiny to intensify.

My number one piece of advice for St Kilda is to resist the urge towards radical upheaval of the playing list and scattergun recruiting.

The path they chose to go down, letting players like Brendon Goddard, Nick Dal Santo and Ben McEvoy go to increase their investment in the draft, meant things were always bound to get worse before they got better.

They may feel impatient, and they may worry that their fans will feel frustrated and the club will lose support – but this is a poor rationale to make decisions based upon.

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The St Kilda supporters I know are loyal and sensible people. They’re realistic about where the club is at and would rather see prudent investment in the draft than a frantic free agency frenzy.

St Kilda have a fair distance to go in their rebuild and they do need to tinker with their approach a little, but if they keep their heads they’ll find they’re not too far off course.