‘Didn’t think the umps had a great night tonight.’
There’s little doubt that most observers of AFL football consider St Kilda to be the biggest disappointment of 2018.
The Saints managed to finish ahead of only Gold Coast and Carlton on points in 16th place when, based on the form and system they had towards the end of 2017, many good judges expected them to challenge for the eight. Like Gold Coast, the club finished the season losing their last five games and looking leaderless and dispirited.
Why did this happen? The 2018 season showed that the Saints did not have a ‘core’ of established players who could show the leadership required all over the ground. Sam Gilbert, the oldest player on the list, has now been delisted, but he managed only 11 uninspiring games for the year. The second-oldest player on the list, David Armitage, was in and out of the side, playing only 15 games.
This meant all the heavy lifting was left to Jarryn Geary, who’s one week younger than Armitage, and Jack Steven, the only two other top-100 game-players still playing at the club at the start of the year.
During the year they were joined by Jack Newnes, who is the future of the club along with Seb Ross. By the end of the season Newnes had joined Keith Drinan and Brett Voss inside the top-70 game-players of all time at the Saints. Sam Gilbert on 208 games finished his career in 26th place. Jarryn Geary drew level with the great Tony Lockett on 183 games, and he and Jack Steven were both in the top 40.
The other main reason for the Saints’ poor showing was the loss of their main forward, Josh Bruce, the current-day leading goal-kicker at the club and number 34 overall. Bruce did not play after Round 3 and kicked only four goals for the year.
Once again the heavy lifting was left to too few, with Tim Membrey, Jade Gresham and Jack Billings rising to the occasion. Despite a midseason attack of the yips, Membrey still managed to kick 34 goals and move to within seven goals and three places behind Josh Bruce.
Gresham managed to kick one more goal than Membrey and moved into the Saints’ top-100 goal-kickers, finishing the year in equal 78th position with Horrie Mason, who was captain of the Saints in the 1920s and shared the best and fairest in 1926 with Harold Matthews.
Billings’s return was much more moderate, featuring 14 goals, but that was still enough to lift him to equal 93rd of the Saints’ all-time top-100 goal-scorers.
St Kilda tried eight new players in 2018, and of these only two were over 21 years old – the now delisted Nathan Freeman and 23-year-old Logan Austin.
Nick Coffield, Bailey Rice and Hunter Clark all played ten or more games and should be valuable contributors next year, but there is no doubt that St Kilda, like North Melbourne, need to pick up at least two mature-age recruits with AFL experience who can help educate the younger players and take on an on-field leadership role.