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.
On Good Friday 2018, St Kilda put in one of the worst performances seen on a football field.
They couldn’t hit a target, couldn’t find a goal and were simply horrible to watch. This sadly set the scene for the rest of the season as the Saints limped into 16th.
After the one-point win against Gold Coast in Round 1, the smart money was on the Saints continuing to struggle this season just as they did last year.
Now though, redemption is at hand. On Easter Saturday, the Saints took their form from the first four weeks of the season and utterly destroyed the Demons. The 40-point margin could have arguably been even larger. And while four victories do not make a season, it is certainly better than four defeats.
Before the season, I said that for Alan Richardson to be safe he would need at least two wins from the first four weeks of the season.
His team now has four from five, and while this doesn’t make him completely safe, it does give him confidence to continue to build this team. He now looks likely to take his place as the second-longest serving St Kilda coach by the end of this season, something that was not guaranteed only a month ago.
How much of the improvement is due to the new assistants, how much is due to the players natural development and how much is due to Richardson himself are questions really only known to those inside the club. But what isn’t questioned is that improvement has occurred.
What St Kilda has been fantastic at this year is stopping the opposition from scoring. From early in the second quarter when Chris Petracca gave Melbourne the lead, to the start of the final quarter, the Demons were restricted to just four points.
The Saints did the same to Hawthorn in Round 4, where the Hawks were restricted to two points from the 15-minute mark of the third and against Essendon where the Bombers were kept goalless for the first quarter and a half.
What makes this even more remarkable is that this new defensive structure has been in the hands of a relatively inexperienced defence. With Jake Carlisle and Dylan Roberton injured, Nathan Brown has taken his place as the general in defence.
Surrounding him are Callum Wilkie (five games), Ben Paton (five games) and Josh Battle (12 games, but only five in defence).
Against the Demons this defence was on show. During the first half of the second quarter when Melbourne was well on top, the defence restricted them from scoring, before the midfield and forwards of the Saints gained the ascendency by the end of the quarter.
Against the Hawks, Dockers and Suns, the Saints fell well behind and had to make up the margin (which they just did against the Hawks, failed to do against Fremantle and did against the Suns before letting them get on top again).
Against the Demons, they never fell behind, and therefore when they began to win the battle in general play, they were able to get well ahead.
It’s not just in defence though that the Saints are exploiting their inexperienced players. Rowan Marshall has, after just 17 games, solidified himself as first choice ruck. What’s more remarkable is that it’s not really off the back of his ruckwork. He’s ranked 15th in average hitouts.
However, he’s also ranked 12th in average clearances (that’s equal with Patrick Dangerfield and Tom Rockcliff), making him the most effective clearance ruckman in the AFL.
He has been called the best young ruckman that St Kilda has had since Peter Everitt, and considering St Kilda’s problems with the ruck in the last ten years at least, this description rings true. As he matures, and his ruckwork improves, he has the capability to become one of the competitions best ruckman.
The Saints now sit first (or second) on the ladder. Since 1990 at least, no team has ever finished Round 5 first and failed to make finals. Unfortunately, every game is a danger game for them.
A loss is not just a loss, it is the chance that everything will collapse and this start will be wasted. With Games against Adelaide, GWS, West Coast and Collingwood to come, the road ahead does not get any easier.
And, in bad news for the Saints, seven teams in the last 20 years have missed finals after a 4-1 start. So September is certainly on the Horizon, but that could quickly disappear.
There are few definites in this season of strange results, but one thing is now guaranteed, the Saints cannot be ignored for the rest of 2019.