We continue on with our AFL preview series today by looking at two of the clubs that parted ways with their coaches in 2019, took on interim replacements and then kept them in charge for 2020 and beyond.
There is a sense of optimism about both North Melbourne and St Kilda on the eve of the season. Is it well founded or does an ill wind blow?
The Kangaroos have finally rid themselves of Brad Scott and thus get to put a decade of mediocrity behind them. In his nine full seasons at the helm they never finished higher on the ladder than sixth and only once lower than tenth. Yuck. Few coaches get the luxury of a full decade to prove they can’t make an impact.
Let’s have a look at the cattle Rhyce Shaw has to work with this year.
North Melbourne best 25
B: Shaun Atley, Majak Daw, Marley Williams
HB: Jamie Macmillan, Robbie Tarrant, Jasper Pittard
Foll: Todd Goldstein, Shaun Higgins, Jed Anderson
C: Trent Dumont, Ben Cunnington, Jared Polec
HF: Tarryn Thomas, Nick Larkey, Jy Simpkin
F: Jack Ziebell, Ben Brown, Cameron Zurhaar
Int: Mason Wood, Luke Davies-Uniacke, Aiden Bonar, Kayne Turner
Em: Luke McDonald, Josh Walker, Ben Jacobs
Scott Thompson and Sam Wright have retired, taking 377 games of experience out of the backline with them, while Aiden Bonar is the only addition from another club after two years and six games with the Giants. He is expected to get every opportunity at the Roos.
North’s defence hasn’t even been a relative strength in recent times. Despite a ten-win season last year, only four teams conceded more points against than them. Majak Daw’s return after missing the entire 2019 season should help solid citizen Robbie Tarrant, who is entering greybeard territory.
The running backs are a workmanlike lot yet to prove they can stop consistent scores against or to dazzle with penetrating run and carry. No-one is paying their entry fee to watch that lot go to work.
Up forward is where some excitement lies, though. Ben Brown is perennially in Coleman Medal calculations, Nick Larkey has impressed with some strong marking and a couple of bags after finally getting an opportunity and Cameron Zurhaar has shown he can kick goals and take names.
Of the younger brigade, Jy Simpkin is getting better, while Tarryn Thomas lived up to the reputation that preceded him as an academy pick with some classy touches and a sense that he will be a big-moment player.
Looking at the midfield, which Champion Data rank as the second-best in the competition, there is a nice balance there with ruckman Todd Goldstein leading the way.
Ben Cunnington is almost as unstoppable around the clearances as the likes of Nat Fyfe and Patrick Cripps when he’s in the zone. Jack Ziebell provides able support, and Jed Anderson has a harder edge and greater effectiveness than many envisioned when he left the Hawks.
Jared Polec became even more outside than at any other stage of his career in his first year at North, fulfilling the role of attacking wingman while Trent Dumont is more on the defensive side. Shaun Higgins is pure class and has been for a long time, but it would be nice to see him get up to 25 goals-plus again.
From the moment Brad Scott announced his resignation North won five of six games, which was followed by losing four out of five, including a game down at Geelong, where they kicked only one goal. The week after, they kicked 22 majors against Port. What a conundrum.
The best of the Roos under Shaw last year was ferocious and uncompromising, but they were also unable to sustain it. Perhaps a full preseason under their new coach will help reinforce his ethos. They are one of the toughest teams to place this season, capable of contending for the top four but may equally be out of the finals race from midway.
Predicted finish: ninth.
Alan Richardson was a dead man walking for a long time at the Saints given he simply wasn’t very good. His last six games saw a four-point win over a Gold Coast on an 18-game losing streak and five losses by an average margin of 45 points. It was time to go.
Brett Ratten had been assumed as the next coach by many since coming on as senior assistant for 2019, and so it proved. As was a constant theme for caretakers last year, the Saints responded and won their first two games under his care. What does 2020 hold?
St Kilda best 25
B: Jarryn Geary, Dougal Howard, Callum Wilkie
HB: Hunter Clark, Jake Carlisle, Dylan Roberton
Foll: Rowan Marshall, Dan Hannebery, Seb Ross
C: Brad Hill, Jack Steele, Zak Jones
HF: Jade Gresham, Tim Membrey, Jack Billings
F: Dan Butler, Max King, Jack Lonie
Int: Paddy Ryder, Luke Dunstan, Shane Savage, Ben Long
Em: Josh Battle, Jack Sinclair, Daniel McKenzie
The Saints made wholesale changes to their list at the end of 2019, a move that excites fans and breathes fresh air into a stale and irrelevant club.
Gone are Jack Steven (183 games for St Kilda), Jack Newnes (155), Josh Bruce (99), Blake Acres (75), Billy Longer (57) and poor Paddy McCartin (35).
Brad Hill and Zak Jones arrive to give the Saints pace and skill on the outside, a desperately needed duo. Paddy Ryder will offer support for Rowan Marshall in the ruck and between the two of them try and be a marking avenue to goal when resting forward.
Dan Butler brings the precious resource of Richmond culture and should give more bite and pressure inside forward 50 alongside Jack Lonie. Dougal Howard has been brought in to add some steel in defence and aerial support to Jake Carlisle and Callum Wilkie but can also pinch-hit in the ruck or up forward if required.
Max King is yet to debut, an event that is eagerly awaited after glimpses at VFL level in 2019 and seeing what his twin brother was capable of up at the Suns. Add in a much fitter Dan Hannebery and a returning Jarryn Geary after both only played five games last season, plus Dylan Roberton after two years out of the game, and the Saints really do look like a brand-new side.
Each one of these new and ‘new’ faces gives the Saints something that they don’t already have. It’s been extremely astute recruiting at face value, a complementary mix.
How much better can Hunter Clark get? Can Marshall improve again? Is Ben Long finally going to deliver on preseason talk? If Seb Ross, Jade Gresham, Jack Billings, Jack Steele and Tim Membrey play to a high level again and everything else clicks, finals could beckon.
The best way to judge depth at a club is to see what sort of names didn’t make the best 22, and St Kilda are finally seeing the squeeze put on with a number of flankers and pockets waiting in the wings.
Brett Ratten coached five full seasons at Carlton, never delivering less than ten wins, and has since spent several years under the master Alastair Clarkson. He’ll be better for the experience.
A return to Moorabbin and the Saints giving Hawthorn a tune-up in the Marsh series has buoyed hopes. Maybe, just maybe, they have a team that is ready to deliver on them.
Predicted finish: tenth.
9. North Melbourne
10. St Kilda
18. Gold Coast