While lots of attention is, quite rightly, being paid to West Coast’s ominous dismantling of Collingwood on Sunday, it was a fourth-quarter clinic in St Kilda’s win over Port Adelaide that caught my eye on the weekend.
Leading by one point against the ladder-leaders on their home deck, the Saints piled on five straight goals to two behinds to claim 29-point win that catapulted them to third on the ladder. Sure, there were some lucky finishes in that last quarter – Paddy Ryder’s freakish snap and Tim Membrey’s score review stunner – but make no mistake; they comprehensively dominated Port Adelaide that quarter and the margin was an accurate reflection of their performance.
It was St Kilda’s second straight win at the Adelaide Oval after ten consecutive losses at the venue and 13 straight in South Australia. The last Saints coach to win a game in the city of churches was Ross Lyon. They’ve knocked off legitimate contenders in the Bulldogs and Richmond, while two of their three losses were by single-figure margins in matches they dominated for large stretches.
Just how good is this St Kilda outfit?
I’ve yo-yo’d a bit on the Saints in 2020. When Brett Ratten replaced Alan Richardson at the back end of last year, with the club going on a signing spree soon after, I thought they’d comfortably be the best of the newly-coached sides. Then, after their second-half collapse against North Melbourne in Round 1, I wondered whether a bottom four finish could be an acceptable result as they spent another year working out their cattle.
I should have just stuck to my guns.
Everyone knew Ratten deserved another chance at the top, but the quick manner in which he’s transformed the side has defied all expectations. Gone are the dull, meandering Saints who were as exciting as a game of Truth or Dare with Coldplay (grab the cheese sandwiches and turn the amps up to four!) – now, we’re treated to a daring, slick, attack-focused list who play some of the nicest-looking footy and pull it off.
With 569 points to their name, they’re the second-highest scoring team in the competition – just three points behind Brisbane. In a season bemoaned for a lack of scoring, they’ve put at least 70 on the board for five straight weeks – easily the AFL’s longest current streak.
Impressively, they’ve managed this despite averaging just under 39 inside 50s per game, fourth-lowest in the AFL, with their superb marking prowess inside 50 and ferocious tackling pressure if the ball hits the ground more than making up for it. St Kilda have rocketed from 12th to 3rd for tackles inside 50 this season, while their opponents average just 27 rebound 50s per game – second-worst in the comp.
Ratten deserves enormous credit for this turnaround, but a brave trade period where they said goodbye to some big names while bringing in a host of fresh faces is – so far – paying enormous dividends.
It’s not just the quantity of quality acquisitions they’ve brought in – at mostly reasonable prices – it’s the fact they’ve targeted just about every area of the ground they needed help with effectively.
In the midfield, the loss of Jack Steven has allowed Jack Steele to blossom into career-best form, with Zak Jones adding a sorely-needed injection of pace and a penetrative kick to the middle and Brad Hill adding plenty of class on the outside.
Hill’s stature will always lend itself to excessive scrutiny, but he’s played his role. Jones, on the other hand, has also blossomed into career-best form and could wind up being an absolute steal.
Speaking of absolute steals, Dan Butler has revolutionised St Kilda’s forward structure and is equal-fourth in the Coleman medal race with 15 goals. Importantly, his 16 tackles inside 50 currently lead the AFL. He’s 24 years old and the Saints scored him with pick 56 – already an unfathomable bargain.
While not strictly an acquisition, the arrival of highly-touted key forward Max King has already vindicated the decision to let Josh Bruce walk. Like twin brother Ben, his overhead contested marking is downright ridiculous and the superb tandem he’s formed with Tim Membrey has exceeded all expectation.
Dougal Howard has also been a very handy addition down back. St Kilda still have a problem dealing with tall forwards, but his combination with Jake Carlisle has brought their conceded marks inside 50 numbers down from last year’s catastrophic totals.
Paddy Ryder’s acquisition is the one I’m still working out. I don’t think he and Rowan Marshall can occupy the same 22 all the time and I suspect he was partially brought in to provide Membrey a sidekick if King needed more time in the two’s.
While Dan Hannebery’s injury issues are reaching the point where a return to full form isn’t guaranteed, if he can get back on the park before finals it could be another game-changer.
The Saints might not boast that much exciting talent outside the names mentioned, but they’ve performed what looks to be a masterclass in list recalibration in a very short while.
With many of 2020’s heaviest hitters out of the way already, there’s no reason St Kilda can’t play finals for the first time in the 18-team era.
Their next block of confirmed fixtures sees them take on the Swans, Suns, Cats and Bombers and, on current form, anything fewer than three wins would be a disappointment. Banking those points will be crucial too, with Brisbane, Greater Western Sydney and West Coast among the five opponents they’ll face in the as-of-yet unfixtured home stretch.
They’re not without their problems. They looked decidedly ordinary in their thumping 44-point loss to Collingwood a while ago, while the fact they’ve given up a 30-point lead and lost to a bottom four side twice this season would indicate they’re not all there yet.
But with the interstate curse broken emphatically over the last fortnight, I’d put my money on the Saints marching into finals.