While Port Adelaide and the Brisbane Lions may be the competition frontrunners and among the favourites for the premiership flag, St Kilda might just about emerge as the dark horses of the 2020 AFL season.
Going into the new season, nothing much was to be expected from the AFL’s perennial underachievers, which has not made a finals appearance since 2011 nor won a final for nearly a decade.
In the intervention, the club rebuilt itself under two coaches, with Scott Watters lasting only two seasons and Alan Richardson five-and-a-half before the latter departed halfway through last season, handing the reins to caretaker coach Brett Ratten.
It’s not often an AFL coach gets a second chance in the coaching caper after being sacked from their first club, but Ratten is one of the very few who has reinvented himself and received his opportunity to once again prove his worth as an AFL coach.
He has taken his second chance with both hands, and is now a much more experienced coach than he was when he coached Carlton between 2007 and 2012.
The difference between his time as Carlton and St Kilda coach was that at the Blues, he was thrust into the coaching role only four years after his playing retirement, taking the reins after veteran coach Denis Pagan was sacked with six rounds remaining in the 2007 season.
At Carlton, Ratten was lucky enough to have the services of ex-West Coast Eagles champion Chris Judd in tow, and would lead the Blues to three consecutive finals series between 2009-11, finishing fifth and winning an elimination final against Essendon in the latter year.
However, despite massive pre-season expectations, injuries and inconsistent form led to the Blues finishing 10th in 2012, with Ratten ultimately paying the price for his side’s poor season and being replaced by veteran Mick Malthouse as coach.
Last September, former Carlton player Heath Scotland said the decision to sack Ratten was “a poor one”.
“To be honest, I think it was a poor decision (to sack Ratten),” Scotland told SEN Breakfast.
“I thought Ratts was doing a great job. I think we might’ve won 11 games (in 2012), we just missed finals, we had a lot of injuries.
“I think Carlton acted on the opportunity to get Malthouse too quickly.
“I was always disappointed that that happened to Ratts.”
After his time at Carlton came to an end, Ratten became an assistant coach at Hawthorn under Alastair Clarkson, and oversaw the club’s hat-trick of premierships before St Kilda came calling for his services in 2019.
He was initially appointed as an assistant coach to Alan Richardson, which was a reversal of roles from their time together at Carlton, whereby Richardson was an assistant to Ratten in the aforementioned ill-fated 2012 season.
After Richardson resigned with six games remaining in the 2019 season, Ratten stepped up to the head coaching role in an interim capacity, as he did at Carlton, and did enough to win the full-time gig after winning three of the final six games of the season.
This was the second chance that Ratten had waited patiently for, and he was keen to make the most of it after seeing his time as Blues coach come to a controversial but ruthless end in 2012.
One of the first things he and the St Kilda playing list management did was to go on a recruiting rampage.
During trade week, they landed the likes of Zak Jones, Dan Butler, Bradley Hill, Dougal Howard and Paddy Ryder from other clubs, with Ryder (who made his debut in 2006) the oldest of the lot at age 32.
All five have played their roles as the Saints enjoy their best start to a season for quite some time, winning six of their nine games so far.
They were ultra-impressive against the Western Bulldogs in Round 2, while they also put last year’s premiers, Richmond, and Carlton, to the sword in consecutive matches at Marvel Stadium before all ten Victorian clubs were forced to evacuate the state in the wake of rising coronavirus cases.
Last week, against the Sydney Swans, they were held on a leash for the first three quarters before they broke the game wide open in the final quarter, kicking six goals as they registered their first win over the Swans since 2012 with a 53-point victory.
Their score of 15.11 (101), of which Max King booted a career-best three majors, was also the first time since 2005 that they posted a century against the Swans (on that occasion, they also scored 15.11 (101) with Fraser Gehrig booting seven majors in his 200th AFL game).
But they could so easily have had an 8-1 record and been on top of the ladder had they not given up comfortable match-winning leads against North Melbourne and Fremantle in rounds one and six respectively.
In both of those losses, Ratten said his side could have played smarter football, but it was after the loss to the Dockers that he savaged his side for having too many passengers.
In the club’s post-match review session, Ratten started with this simple sentence: “Who do we want to be?”
The players were then shown a wide range of news headlines in which they were praised for their win over Carlton in Round 5, before being savaged and exposed as pretenders after their shocker against the Dockers on the Gold Coast.
Ratten also questioned the players’ commitment, saying that he wants the players to make the most of their time at the club and push for just its second premiership, and first since its sole success in 1966 (in which it defeated Collingwood by a solitary point).
If anything, it could prove to be a turning point in the club’s recent history, as it was for the Geelong Cats in 2007.
After the Cats fell to a 16-point loss to North Melbourne in Round 5 that season, and with then-coach Mark Thompson under the pump, the players conducted a thorough review of the club’s operations in which they told each other to take a good, hard look at themselves.
It was in that meeting that Thompson singled out a kid called Joel Selwood, who was playing just his fourth game and gathered 25 disposals to be that round’s Rising Star nominee (he would eventually win the Rising Star award at season’s end), as someone who led his much older teammates by example.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Some 300 games and 13 years later, things had changed, with the Cats developing a newfound attitude and culture that delivered three premierships to Kardinia Park in the space of five years.
Despite nearly nine years having passed since their last flag in 2011, the Cats are still right up there among the contenders for this year’s flag.
Back on topic now, and perhaps the review the Saints undertook after the loss to the Dockers could be the spark they needed if they are to fully realise its potential this season, something they have struggled to live up to in the past decade.
Since their Round 6 loss to Fremantle, the Saints have won their past three matches, all against teams they previously hadn’t beaten for at least eight years.
In the past two weeks, the Saints have:
* ended a ten-game losing streak against the Adelaide Crows, having previously not beaten them anywhere since Round 18, 2011, nor in Adelaide since Round 2, 2009;
* ended an eleven-game losing streak at the Adelaide Oval, their win over the Crows having been their first at the venue in 11 attempts;
* ended an eight-game losing streak against Port Adelaide, also at the Oval; and
* ended a ten-game losing streak against the Sydney Swans with a 53-point win at the Gabba.
Going into Round 7, the Saints had lost 31 of their previous 32 matches against those three teams combined dating back to Round 22, 2011.
But they say that hoodoos are meant to be broken, not extended, and that’s what the present St Kilda side were able to do when previous sides would find the going too difficult.
Their next task is taking on an emerging Gold Coast Suns side, which is also starting to realise its potential despite having lost four of their past five games to drift further away from the top eight, at Metricon Stadium this Thursday night.
The Suns had won their first three games since the season resumption, but apart from a 32-point win over the Sydney Swans at the SCG in Round 7, things have gone south for Stuart Dew’s men, speaking fears of another repeat of their bright early-season starts going to waste.
What hasn’t helped the Suns is the season-ending shoulder injury suffered by last year’s number one draft pick, Matt Rowell, in their loss to the Geelong Cats at Kardinia Park in Round 5.
However, the rest of the team have picked up the slack, not least fellow youngsters Izak Rankine and Noah Anderson, who have both picked up Rising Star nominations in recent weeks, as well as experienced heads David Swallow, Brandon Ellis and Jarrod Witts.
After the Suns, the Saints then face a tougher task, facing the Geelong Cats before they take on the out-of-form Essendon, with both matches to be played at the Gabba while Melbourne enters the early days of stage four coronavirus restrictions.
Should the Saints win their next three matches, which would take them to a 9-3 record, then they can just about secure their first finals berth since 2011 and should they finish in the top four, then they, not Port Adelaide or the Brisbane Lions, will be the team no one will want to face come finals time.
Their resurgence in 2020 is closely similar to the events of the noughties, when the club slowly but surely rebuilt its list to a point where they could continually challenge for the premiership, which sadly proved elusive.
In 2004 and 2005, the club reached the preliminary final stage under the coaching of Grant Thomas, only to fall short to eventual premiers Port Adelaide and the Sydney Swans respectively.
After Thomas was sacked, Ross Lyon took over as coach and got them into consecutive grand finals in 2009 and 2010, only to be on the receiving end at the hands of the Geelong Cats and Collingwood respectively on either side of a drawn decider in the latter year.
They could so easily have been premiers in 2010 had Stephen Milne not misjudged a bounce of the ball at the death; that, and Nick Riewoldt being run down from behind by Heath Shaw in the replay are two moments that will continue to haunt the club’s fans.
The club has not won a final since then but should they continue their impressive form going forward, then who knows – perhaps they could be the most serious challenger to Port Adelaide or the Brisbane Lions for the premiership flag?
Should they reach the grand final, which would be beyond anyone’s dream given the club hasn’t reached the finals since 2011, then there is the chance it may have to be played at the Gabba, with the MCG’s chances of hosting the game growing increasingly unlikely by the day.
Victoria has not recorded a day of single-digit coronavirus cases for over a month and have just entered stage four restrictions, which will see nearly all non-essential services such as community sport and fast food services in the state suspended for at least six weeks.
Richmond coach Damien Hardwick has said that this year’s premiership “could be the greatest flag ever won”, given the unique circumstances that have affected the season, such as the shortened quarters, low-scoring matches and the COVID-19-enforced season suspension.
Thus, should St Kilda win this year’s flag, then it won’t just eclipse their 1966 premiership win over Collingwood as their greatest achievement yet, but also be one of the most talked-about AFL flags ever, and it could even be spoken about in a century from now.