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St Kilda 2020: Look ahead because you can’t look backwards

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Roar Rookie
6 days ago
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I’ve had the opportunity to build friendships with a number of fervent Saints members.

Long-suffering, passionate and generally good people, in my experience not many go to the games expecting to win. While this can be said for many supporters, its only Saints and Demons fans who have experienced over five decades of disappointment and failure. No wonder they are downbeat.

The St Kilda Football Club will enter 2020 with a bubbling sense of optimism likely not felt at the club since the ‘tip-rat’ was crumbing Lenny Hayes long balls off the hands of Nick Riewoldt. It must feel a long time ago for many weary Saints supporters – I can’t even imagine how long it feels since Austinn ‘Aussie’ Jones kicked that goal in the 1997 grand final.

A former boss of mine became a St Kilda member when she moved from the country in 1967. It’s a long, sad tale. One particularly grim story was her having to take a week of leave following the eventual grand final loss in 2010 returning only to find black and white streamers and the Sunday paper from the week before on her desk. Ouch.

I was told this story the day she received her 50-year celebration memorabilia for their sole 1966 premiership. It was a little key chain premiership cup. I thought it was cute. She did not. “Maybe they should try to win another big one then send us all these little stupid ones?” she quipped. I tried to explain I think the two actions are unrelated, but the anger and frustration ran far too deep.

Twenty-seven wooden spoons, a 54-year premiership drought, ten years since the drawn grand final and eight years of missed finals. Many retirements.

St Kilda needs to build a new identity, and there is no better time than right now, after a huge 2019 off-season and a new coach. It’s time to look forward, because the Saints and their fans simply can’t afford to look back.

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The 2019 trade period

In: Brad Hill, Dougal Howard, Zak Jones, Dan Butler, Patty Ryder
Out: Jack Steven, Josh Bruce, Blake Acres

It’s the type of off-season that provides a catalyst for an article like this. The Saints attacked the 2019 trade period aggressively and systematically, getting their men and being mature enough to let established players move on to allow St Kilda as a whole to move forward. Naturally there is risk with all the additions, but you have to respect the endeavour. It was bold.

Five ins and three outs in the best 22 has established this period as the first necessary roll of the dice for future success, even if the Saints are still betting in moderate stakes.

It took plenty to get over the line, but the Bradley Hill acquisition offers urgently needed class in a shallow midfield. A triple premiership player with the Hawks and a best-and-fairest winner with Fremantle, Hill has become one of the competition’s elite outside midfielders. With 25 possessions a game and exquisite user of the ball, he’s instantly the Saints best runner and is a long-term solution on the wing.

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Dougal Howard went from relatively unknown to a Dylan Grimes-Aaron Naughton hybrid in approximately two weeks. Maybe it was my naivety on his upside that factored into this apparent reputation rise, but it was regardless still a quantum leap in value. Finishing last and lapped in the team’s 400-metre time trial back in November, I am unsure what to expect from Howard in 2020. Given his just 45 games over four years and lack of consistency in position and performances, I am probably a little bit cooler than most on how dramatically he will improve the Saints next year. I respect the upside but need to see the output.

The Paddy Ryder pick-up created a bit of a stir. Terry Wallace’s thoughts on Trade Radio 2019 back in October were probably shared by others.

“Paddy Ryder has always wanted to be a main ruckman, not a forward,” he said. “They’ve finally got their man as a ruckman, and now they’re bringing Ryder in? Does he become the number one ruckman, does he become a forward/ruck where he has never sort of settled down?”

I don’t share these concerns. With Billy Longer and Lewis Pierce being delisted, the Saints effectively had no obvious backup in the ruck. It’s a short-term deal, offers some flexibility in attack and actually may even aid Marshall’s development. I think Paddy will buy into his role. It should work.

The loss of Josh Bruce stings. The Saints leading goal kicker in 2015, Bruce was a fabled figure in the Saints forward line. It’s worth noting, however, all Bruce’s production in his time at St Kilda it represents a period of constant mediocrity for the club. I am not saying there is a necessarily a correlation, but if the Saints are gung-ho about change, then not offering the long-term deal Bruce demanded makes sense. If it isn’t working, you need to fix it.

The drafts, free agency and re-signings were all relatively non-events for the Saints this year due mainly to their trade activity. The real results driver will come from the big five, and the consequences of trading picks and salary cap implications will only be able to be analysed when we know who the Saints are.

Other outs Jack Steven and Blake Acres are obviously not ideal, but I have deliberately given little airplay to these departures. Got to look forwards, Sainters.

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Age profile

The age of lists has become slightly more in vogue in recent years as pundits try to predict likely risers and fallers. It’s not the most advanced statistic and requires plenty of context, but it can be effective in analysing a team’s general direction.

St Kilda are the seventh-oldest club in the AFL at an average age of 24.3 years old. I find that staggering considering recent seasons and the narrative around the club. It is slightly misleading as the Saints have only eight players over 27 – the equal-lowest number in the league – but the league-high 24 players log-jammed in the 22 to 26-year-old bracket means this list desperately needs some of their recent draft picks to take the next step. Luke Dunstan, Jade Gresham, Jack Lonie, I’m looking at you.

Here is a couple of clubs younger than the Saints: Richmond, Brisbane and the Western Bulldogs.

It’s concerning and it’s the reason the activity of the 2019-20 off-season can’t be a one-off. I don’t believe St Kilda can catch those above with natural progression from within; St Kilda need to recruit, draft and ‘moneyball’ their list back to contention.

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My best 22

B: Jarryn Geary, Jake Carlisle, Callum Wilkie
HB: Dylan Roberton, Dougal Howard, Hunter Clark
C: Dan Hannebery, Seb Ross, Bradley Hill
HF: Jade Gresham, Tim Membrey, Jack Lonie
F: Dan Butler, Max King, Jack Billings
Foll: Rowan Marshall, Jack Steele, Luke Dunstan
Interchange: Paddy Ryder, Jimmy Webster, Zak Jones, Josh Battle
Depth: Nathan Brown, Logan Austin, Nick Coffield, Nick Hind, Dean Kent, Doulton Langlands, Ben Long, Matthew Parker, Shane Savage, Ryan Abbott, Jack Sinclair

I am bringing the five recruits straight in and a total of ten different faces to their most recent fixture. It’s a big shift from the side that basically watched Buddy’s 300th in Round 23 last year, and it needs to be.

Last year’s 16th-ranked defence for points against rightfully gets two big ins. The Saints will be hoping for instant impact from the returning Dylan Roberton and of course the much-lauded Dougal Howard. The Jake Carlisle-Dougal Howard combination will quickly find out their own natural compatibility in an opening month featuring monster double acts Jack Darling-Josh Kennedy and Jack Riewoldt-Tom Lynch.

The midfield is the area from where any overall improvement will likely generate. The unfashionable but effective Seb Ross remains in the centre, but it’s the Dan Hannebery-Bradley Hill wing combination that has abundant upside. It’s a gut-running duo, which quite frankly makes me feel a bit ill, and I have no doubt the pair will expose a few this year if both remain healthy. I am leaving Jack Steele on the ball as he offers a run with options, and I’m also rolling the dice on Luke Dunstan taking a leap.

With Bruce’s glorious mullet now on show at Whitten Oval the Saints will bring Max King straight in. Most of my knowledge of King is anecdotal, but the upside is obvious and his brother is very fast, so in he comes.

With the inclusion of Bradley Hill I am returning Jack Billings to the forward line. Last year felt a bit experimental. It didn’t necessarily fail, but the Saints may get more value from something like his 2017 output. Billings had 59 shots on goal in 2017 but just 23 last year. For a forward line that ranked 14th for goals per game in 2019, if the Saints get 70-plus shots from Jack, they would be markedly more dangerous.

New recruits Zak Jones and Paddy Ryder start on the bench but Dan Butler gets on the park ahead of a band of sneaky small forwards.

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It’s unlikely the Saints will get this 22 on the ground on a consistent basis, but I’m comfortable it’s just about the peak talent they can squeeze on the park. With so many ins, chemistry issues are almost inevitable, and injuries on any line will immediately change the team’s ceiling. It’s a solid 22, but we’ll really have to wait and see what 22 we see on a consistent basis.

Jade Gresham

(Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Rowan Marshall

Champion Data’s most improved player in the AFL in 2019 and the crown jewel of the St Kilda list, big Rowan gets his own heading. Standing at 201 centimetres tall and weighing in at 101 kilograms, the athletic, skilled no-drama Marshall will command a Brodie Grundy-esque payday when his current contract expires in 2022. Until then the Saints can enjoy having their ruckmen covering the ground like few his size.

Marshall is far from the finished product, but just 33 games into his career and at 24 years of age the ceiling on Marshall is skyscraping. The scope for improvement is everywhere. Last year Marshall finished outside the top ten for hit-outs per game and kicked only eight goals. Despite these sore points, he finished the year the 13th-highest averaging SuperCoach player in the AFL sandwiched between Adam Treloar and Clayton Oliver.

His ability to cover the ground, find the football, link up and provide an extra number at contests are essential AFL skills for elite modern-day ruckmen. His traditional ruck skills will improve naturally with time, and there is a chance he can break into the conversation regarding the Max Gawn-Brodie Grundy ruck duopoly of recent years.

Marshall surprisingly didn’t win the 2019 best and fairest, but if the Saints can re-sign him beyond 2022, he will win his fair share. While in the red, white and black Marshall will be the barometer for St Kilda. If expected improvement continues, the nature of his position means his performances can directly translate to wins.

However, if Marshall regresses amidst a Patty Ryder ‘ruckgate’ scandal and sides more deeply analyse his on-field antics, the Saints will be struggling like so many times before. There is no more important cog for the future.

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Rowan Marshall celebrates with Jack Steele

(Michael Willson/AFL Photos)

Fixture

It’s more of the same for the Saints in 2020. They play ten Sunday games (up from nine in 2018) and 14 games at Marvel Stadium (up from 11). The Saints will travel six times (down from seven) and get double-ups against Melbourne, Adelaide, Geelong, Carlton and Fremantle. It appears a slightly soft draw, and Simon Lethlean, acting CEO at the time of the fixture publication, said “we are satisfied with the fixture presented by the AFL”.

I feel it’s a bit tougher then the raw stats suggest. A harsh opening month at home will be season-defining: North Melbourne followed by West Coast, Richmond and Melbourne. Round 5 is away to Geelong and Round 6 is at home to Adelaide before the team’s sole Friday night clash: Round 7 against Collingwood. That’s four of my top six in seven weeks. If the Saints can go 3-4, they will be releasing a collective sigh of relief.

The Saints might survive early, and the fixture does begin to open up afterwards, but playing catch-up in the AFL is rarely a winning strategy. An awkward midseason stretch of away games in China to Port Adelaide and Darwin to Gold Coast either side of the bye is about as erratic as an AFL fixture can be.

St Kilda should know who they are by the time they fly to China, but it could all be over by then. It’s a big ask and tough early fixture for a side full of new faces.

The coach

Brett Ratten can coach at AFL level. You don’t usually coach six seasons if you don’t have it. Going at a tick over a 50 per cent win rate for his 126-coached games for both Carlton and St Kilda, Ratten brings plenty to the table. A premiership player with 255 games to his name and a graduate of the now celebrated Alastair Clarkson coaching academy, he brings experience and knowledge this club needs.

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The crowning moment of his coaching career to date is the 2010 elimination final against Richmond while helming Carlton. Completely outcoaching Damien Hardwick when charging home from a 26-point half-time deficit to win by 20 points. Shifting Nick Duigan forward surely his greatest magnet move so far.

It’s a big in for St Kilda and possibly the inclusion that prompted the continued changing of the landscape in the 2019 trade period. I am unsure what the 2020 Saints look like under Ratten as the variables at the moment are just too significant, but a three-year contract means he will get his chance to make this his team.

Brett Ratten

(AAP Image/Julian Smith)

Expectations and predictions

St Kilda find themselves in a strange position when it comes to forecasts. Everything about 2020 screams ‘new era’, yet tempering dreams is a well-practised skill for Saints stakeholders. You can’t help but understand the cynicism when trying to pry opinions out of fans for the year ahead. What the Saints do need is enough success to keep Marshall. Internally I am sure this has awkwardly been discussed.

Prediction: 11th to 12th with ten wins and 12 losses

My prediction is a slightly enhanced statistical year with visible improvement. I can see there being stages this season when mathematical finals chances are a talking point, but I think the Saints will fall just short.

The opening seven weeks put St Kilda immediately on the back foot. If they start hot, my prediction flips on its head, but with so many new faces and legitimate finals teams likely to come bolting from the gate, I am going to side with history on this one. History says there can be teething problems, and it could derail this season early.

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St Kilda have winnable games littered throughout the fixture. Two games against Carlton, two against Melbourne, a Darwin game against Gold Coast and home games against Fremantle, Port Adelaide and Sydney. There is enough meat on the bone to get excited. Those eight games above I am sure are circled on Brett Ratten’s whiteboard.

The problem is I just can’t seem to find the other five or six wins.

I expect the Saints to look better, feel better and have a positive storyline this season. It should at times be enjoyable, but it feels more of a gap year before the real expectations begin in 2021.

Jack Billings

(Michael Willson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

Final words

With most local operators St Kilda are about 30-1 to win the premiership this year, which is almost certainly unders, And that’s okay.

St Kilda surely aren’t using premiership chances to measure success considering their history and the current climate. It’s all about small wins for now. Finals in 2021 or 2022 need to be expected internally and externally.

If the next person to move from the country isn’t going to have to wait five decades for a keyring, it’s going to start now.

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The Saints will come marching in at some point, just as long as they stop looking backwards.