Round 9 started with an exciting game in Perth where a gallant Melbourne were eventually overrun by an Eagles unit that is beginning to look a very good chance to make back-to-back grand finals, if not premierships.
From a purely football perspective, you couldn’t ask for much more than what St Kilda has provided so far.
Two matches for two wins, improved performances from last year and promising performances from new players. But of course, it isn’t just on-field that’s important for clubs, and it’s been a shocking preseason off-field at Moorabbin.
From accusations of rife drug use from more than a decade ago, to injuries, to rumours about current players’ drug habits all set within the media narrative of definite Saints failure this year, it’s been a lot for the club to handle. And yet they do seem to have somehow weathered the storm, and even translated it into positive on-field performances.
To start with the negatives, injuries to key players have taken their toll. Jake Carlisle is the obvious one here with his back complaint not healing at all over the break, and surgery now ruling him out for the majority, if not all of the season. The Saints top two draft picks are also not likely to be seen in the seniors this year, with Max King still recovering from an ACL and Jack Bytel sidelined after his own back surgery.
First choice ruckman Billy Longer has also been sidelined for much of the preseason and could still be a month away from returning.
Dan Hannebery continues to be a problem, with the Saints still insisting that his injury is the mythical ‘hamstring awareness’, a medical term that seems to mean whatever a club needs it to. In short, it doesn’t appear that the club thinks that there is a structural problem with his hamstring, but he for some reason cannot go beyond 80 per cent output.
Having Dylan Roberton and Paddy McCartin spending the night in hospital after a game is also not ideal, and the extent of their health issues will be an ongoing concern throughout this season.
Add to this Jack Steven’s indefinite leave for personal reasons, and the missing players do add up. His return to training this week must have given the club a boost though.
But still, after two preseason games, the Saints are on two wins – and if nothing else that is an extreme improvement over last season when lacklustre JLT games translated into a very lacklustre start to the season, and into a disastrous campaign overall. A win in 40-degree temperatures where the Saints outlasted North Melbourne did lend credence to Simon Lethlean’s boast that St Kilda will be the fittest team in the competition this season.
And while fitness is great, it won’t win you matches by itself. The addition of new coaches, Brett Ratten and Brendon Lade in particular, has certainly helped, as has a new gameplan. This can be shown in one simple stat: last season, St Kilda averaged 181 handballs per game (compared with 207 kicks). This preseason, they have averaged 141 per game and 219 kicks.
Being less handball happy has clearly aided the team which last year struggled with over-possession, especially when under pressure.
Kicking straight has also helped, with preseason scores of 15.12 and 14.9, compared to last year’s average of around 10.12. Tim Membrey’s return to goal-kicking form, kicking 5.3 in two games has certainly assisted here, as has the return of Josh Bruce after a frustrating 2018.
A couple of the new players have also bookmarked their place, if not in the best 22 every week, within the orbit of the seniors. High among these are Matthew Parker and Nick Hind. In Parker, the Saints have found something that they have not had since the retirement of Stephen Milne, a bit of an x-factor and unpredictableness and excitement in the forward line.
Parker may float in and out of games, as he did during the preseason, but he will be exciting to watch. He, along with fellow new recruit Dean Kent, have also shown something else the Saints have lacked – a bit of mongrel. And while violence and anger on the field cannot be condoned, a certain amount of ‘flying the flag’ for teammates must be encouraged.
The massively lopsided free kick count on the weekend (40 – 14) show that rest of the team is also being more aggressive – possibly overly so. The influence of Billy Slater might be evident in this aspect of the Saints’ play.
Nick Hind has also provided an urgent need for the team, foot speed off halfback. He has shown his speed and evasiveness a few times during the preseason. If this will be enough to keep him in the seniors remains to be seen.
Aside from this, and possibly remarkably, fans haven’t turned off from the team. After last year, it was expected that membership and interest among Saints fan would fundamentally decrease. Yet, this has not happened.
Membership is tracking at just below last year’s record levels, and 4,000 fans (double the club’s expectation) turned up to watch the intra-club game in late February. Moorabbin once again had an atmosphere, and the Saints still have faith.
Whether this faith will be repaid is the ultimate question. A lot of experts seem divided about where the Saints might finish this season, although most have them situated somewhere around the bottom four. The first month is all important (as it is with all clubs).
Being at 2-2 at the end of four rounds must be the minimum expectation. But if this St Kilda side is capable of this, we don’t yet know.