2018 was an annus horribilis for St Kilda.
After winning 15 games across the 2013-15 seasons, the Saints won 23 matches in 2016-17 and were knocking on the door of finals both years. The resurgence seemed to be on, but 2018 showed that it was all built on rotting foundations.
A win against Brisbane in Round 1 was a false dawn, as St Kilda didn’t win another game until Round 13 – almost a full three months between celebratory drinks.
In between were ten losses and a draw, an average score of 64 and an average losing margin of 35 points. The game style was ugly, the skills atrocious.
It was midnight for St Kilda.
From that point on things got marginally better for the Saints, but they still finished 2018 with six losses in a row. Their fans have put up with much over the years, and are currently at a low ebb.
Let’s see what they have to look forward to this season.
St Kilda best 22
B: Jarryn Geary, Nathan Brown, Jimmy Webster
HB: Shane Savage, Jake Carlisle, Dylan Roberton
C: Jack Sinclair, Seb Ross, Dan Hannebery
HF: Blake Acres, Tim Membrey, Jade Gresham
F: Jack Billings, Paddy McCartin, Ben Long
Foll: Billy Longer, Jack Steele, Jack Steven
Int: Jack Newnes, Hunter Clark, Rowan Marshall, Nick Coffield
Em: David Armitage, Dan McKenzie, Luke Dunstan
Starting at the back, and we see a mix of handy footballers, with a couple that are a cut above that.
Nathan Brown is one of the most negating defenders around, and the hope would be that a more attacking option like Logan Austin forces Brown down to Sandringham by season’s end.
Jake Carlisle has possibly been a little bit underrated in his time at St Kilda, but at the same time he hasn’t gone on to the heights predicted during 2013 when he was 21 and looked like becoming a star of the competition at Essendon. The drugs saga happened, and he spent time playing forward where he was adequate enough.
Jarryn Geary is tough and hard but kicks like he’s got two wrong feet. Jimmy Webster is the opposite and took his game to a new level last year. Some players need to cross that 50-60 game mark before they truly believe they belong.
Shane Savage has a weapon for a right boot, and is one of the players expected to take full advantage of the new kick-in rules that allow more freedom for those taking the duties.
The Saints will welcome back Dylan Roberton from a heart scare – 2017 was his best season by far, and let’s not forget he made the All Australian 40. If he can recapture that form, he gives his side a much more stable air down back.
Hunter Clark and Nick Coffield spent time in defence in their debut season, and showed enough to suggest they could be long term prospects. Clark has had a huge pre-season from all reports, and the Saints will be looking for his class to shine through the middle.
St Kilda’s midfield is workmanlike at best, with no match-winners among them.
Jack Steven is the best player there, even though his disposal can be sloppy. He can catch fire from time to time, and looks good with a burst of speed or a nice goal but seems to go in and out of games.
There were questions over his motivation at St Kilda last year, but he still won the best and fairest – his fourth, which says a bit about the Saints in his time there. Lenny Hayes only won three, for instance.
Seb Ross is an accumulator but not the most damaging. Jack Steele continues to improve and has become a very good two-way midfielder. Jack Sinclair could do with winning more of the ball, but uses it well when he gets the chance – for a St Kilda player anyway.
Dan Hannebery has been brought across on a long-term contract, and the wisdom of that decision is certainly up for debate. Already reported to have hamstring issues, his banged up body was there for all to see last year at the Swans. At times he was moving so slowly his shadow looked likely to overtake him.
Billy Longer is a lumberer in the ruck, and would likely get first crack at the position with Tom Hickey’s departure if not for injury – Lewis Pierce should now see games early in the season. Rowan Marshall is a far more athletic specimen and also has more versatility up forward if required.
Up forward, Jade Gresham has become the star of the show and one of the top few small forwards in the competition. At 21, he still has plenty more upside and started to spend more time in the middle in the latter stages of 2018. In regards to living up to potential, he has become the talent Jack Billings was hoped to be.
All eyes will be on Paddy McCartin as usual, and he certainly looks to strip fitter this pre-season. Tim Membrey took 61 marks inside 50 last season, the equal third most in the competition. But this was only converted into 34 goals and five goal assists, a pathetic return.
He had kicking woes early in the season, but the positive is that he kept wanting the ball.
There is room for Marshall as third tall and back-up ruck, unless he steals the pole position off Longer and Pierce.
Jack Lonie’s career was going nowhere but he finished last season strong as a goal-sneak and could build on this by keeping his spot in the team, but Ben Long probably has the inside running at this stage and mature-age recruit Matt Parker from the WAFL will also be eyeing off this role.
This is the sort of competition for spots that St Kilda has sorely lacked in recent times.
It is well and truly time for Blake Acres and Jack Billings to become the players their team needs them to be.
Acres is a difficult match-up through the middle and up forward, and has all the tools. If his career continues on the same trajectory, which is one of mediocre impact, he may find himself on the trade table to the Western Australian clubs.
Billings should be the classiest player on the list but needs to rid himself of lazy disposal – it’s his sixth year in the AFL already and the time for excuses is over.
Fans will want to see more of Josh Battle and he should get his chances, and there is a school of thought that suggests he could be a good swingman or even an old-fashioned utility. He’s clearly got the talent to make it at AFL level.
There are plenty of jobbers waiting in the wings as depth players, but none look likely to take the Saints to great heights.
St Kilda’s biggest problem last year was disposal, particularly by foot. Game plans and defensive set-ups get thrown into disarray when unforced turnovers occur, and teammates end up hopelessly out of position to defend them.
They then aren’t in place to pressure the opposition, which was a trademark under Alan Richardson in his first couple of years.
Even a ball that doesn’t go cleanly to a teammate allows opposition players to close gaps and create pressure, and what may have been a smooth transition to goal becomes a stoppage instead.
The Saints have changed the assistant coach set-up around Richardson, which should be a benefit, and the coach himself has received feedback that he was too negative on the players.
Gradually, more and more coaches are understanding that football is an instinctive game, and you’ll get the best out of players by letting them play to their strengths, not some robotic way a coach wants the game played on a whiteboard.
Brett Ratten has been brought in to be the architect of the game-plan, which should streamline St Kilda’s ball movement, and give the players more clarity out on the field.
This can only be a positive given Richardson’s lack of strategic blueprint – he has always had a reputation as a development coach, so needs a strong tactical mind alongside him.
Richardson has also removed himself from the AFL360 panel on Monday nights, which is good for viewers. Rarely did he offer any insight, and he has never been a voice of authority in the mould of Chris Scott, Paul Roos or Nathan Buckley. The way he talked in circles on the show has been reflected in the Saints play.
St Kilda has a friendly draw, being the only team to play Gold Coast, Carlton and Fremantle twice. That provides some good opportunities, but is offset by the fact most of these matches take place in the back two-thirds of the year.
After Gold Coast in Round 1, their next eight games are brutal, mostly playing teams that finished high up last year or are expected to this season.
Hopes are not high for the Saints in 2019, but they can prove themselves to be the best of the bottom four and maybe sneak higher still if things click together.