In 2019 the AFL saw an unpredecented phenomenon. After only a single coaching sacking in the previous two seasons, four coaches left their clubs mid-year, three replaced by caretakers who would eventually be promoted to the ongoing position.
In most years we see a club make a leap up the ladder that no-one saw coming.
It used to be that a new coach would do the trick. Think of Ken Hinkley lifting Port to fifth in his first season after finishes of 16th and 14th. The Bulldogs finished sixth on the ladder in Luke Beveridge’s first year after being 15th, 15th and 14th under Brendan McCartney.
In recent times, we’ve seen sides jump up after sticking by the senior coach but rearranging the structure and support staff around him. Richmond under Hardwick is a famous example, delivering a premiership in 2017 from a 13th-placed finished in 2016 – the biggest jump in history. Collingwood went close under Nathan Buckley, with last year’s narrow grand final loss also coming after finishing 13th on the ladder the year before.
It seemed that Brisbane was going to be the surprise finalist after a bright opening few rounds, but their momentum has ground to a halt after two poor performances. Could it be that St Kilda, almost by stealth, are the team that will catch us all on the hop?
After five rounds, they sit second on ladder, one of only two teams with a 4-1 record. They won both of their JLT matches too, so their solid form goes back a couple of months.
When Richmond won the flag in 2017, a large part of their improvement was attributed to assistant Blake Caracella, who was brought in as ball movement coach and revolutionised the Tigers’ style. It’s a brand they continue to be identified with today.
St Kilda are in a similar position, with the well-credentialed Brett Ratten hired as forward and ball movement coach in the off-season. The Saints have looked brighter and more confident with the way they move the ball across the ground.
They continue to be high possession, but whereas last year they looked stodgy, lost and backwards, this year they are either moving forward or switching with the view to do so as soon as possible.
The club spoke publicly about their high level of fitness, and this has been borne out. They are covering the ground well, and their work rate is enabling them to be more free in space than they have in the past. This means the player with the ball has more options, and it’s easier for him to hit a target. It’s harder for the opposition to force turnovers too.
Josh Bruce and Tim Membrey are working well together as the tall forwards, and the smaller players have taken turns popping up – Dean Kent, Jack Lonie, Matthew Parker, Ben Long. All are doing their part when it comes to the all-important pressure applied inside forward 50.
The Saints are getting the mid-forward balance right with Jade Gresham too, and he’s having an impact in both areas. Jack Billings, another previous small forward, has been playing a perfect wingman’s season – getting back to help out his defenders, giving his team an outlet out wide, finding lots of the ball, using it well, and hitting the scoreboard. He is now a great connector between defence and attack, and should start to get tagged soon.
Down back, conceding only 69 points a game, St Kilda has plenty of unheralded names doing the job too – Nathan Brown, Callum Wilkie and Josh Battle.
The backline has been helped by the Saints midfielders not giving their opponents an easy ride with their ball movement. They are a high tackling side, one of the best in the league in this area.
All of the factors mentioned so far are connected, with each one helping the other. This is a team doing them well.
What the Saints have had in their favour is the quirk of the draw. When you play teams can be a critical element through the course of a season. Getting them at the right time increases the chance of victory, and St Kilda has had a charmed run to set up their season.
Gold Coast have been in good form for what they are, but better to get them in Melbourne and the Saints could easily have drawn or lost anyway. Essendon’s first two weeks were woeful and inept for reasons unknown. Already they’re a much different proposition now.
St Kilda got Hawthorn at a good time too, having lost Shaun Burgoyne and Liam Shiels a couple of weeks earlier, exposing their lack of midfield depth with Tom Mitchell gone for the season.
The Hawks then lost two of their three best defenders, James Frawley and Ben Stratton in-game. When you win a match by five points, these are all factors to be considered.
And then we get to Melbourne, and their horrible form. You would think they will turn it around, and become hard to play against at some point. And if not, all of a sudden playing them twice in a year looks better than it did when the fixture came out.
Saints fans would say that it hasn’t all been ice-cream and fairy-floss for them either, and they have a point to an extent.
They would point to Dylan Roberton, Dan Hannebery and Jake Carlisle not playing at all this season, despite being in the best 22. Roberton and Hannebery weren’t a factor at St Kilda last year either, so comparing apples to apples we see the Saints are clearly playing a different and better brand of football.
If Carlisle or Roberton were available, would Wilkie have been playing? You’d argue not, and how impressive he’s been as an intercept player. Based on how Hannebery looked in Sydney last year, he wouldn’t be taking anyone’s spot either. We can only hope the Saints can get his body right.
St Kilda have been good enough to win four games, taking advantage of their draw, and using the blend of players available to them. Their fans are excited, as they should be. They are already a long way from where they were at the end of last season.
The Saints are playing organised, committed and honest footy. It can take them a long way in a season where we have already seen several flaky teams that are struggling with these basic principles.
They get Fremantle, Gold Coast and Melbourne again, plus Carlton twice and winnable games against interstate sides like Adelaide, Port and Brisbane on their home deck. A fast start means they could now possibly win less than half their matches from this point on, and still play finals.
What’s the ceiling for St Kilda this year? A lull can be expected at some stage, but finals could very well be on the agenda.