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St Kilda season review: Anything but saintly

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Roar Guru
20th September, 2021
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Welcome to Part 9 of my season review series, today focused on St Kilda.

In the words of Brain Taylor, boy oh boy, wowee, they had a positively atrocious season.

The Saints were tipped to potentially storm the top four, yet they largely failed to fire a shot, dropping games to inferior opposition in poor performances built off the back of languid output from the St Kilda line-up.

As with all these reviews, we will go through what worked for St Kilda, limited as that may be, and what failed as well as the questions that remain before finishing off with the solutions to their problems and discussing a letter grade for the Saints. Now, without further ado, let us begin with what worked for the Saints.

Max King

Max King (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

What worked

The draftees
St Kilda have long been chatting about how they’re going to be storming up the ladder, and they’ve recruited like it. However, it was not the external recruits who were responsible for the positive aspects of the St Kilda season. I am of course referring players like Cooper Sharman, Tom Highmore and Ryan Byrnes. When the Saints largely failed to fire a shot each of these three players was a breath of fresh air developing across the field.

Tom Highmore has flourished as a third tall defender, frequently going third man up, and is rated elite for intercept possessions (5.9) and intercept marks (2.1) and above average for total marks (5.1). In a year that was good for third defenders, Highmore was able to put his name down as a best-22 player, and he is sure to continue to be a useful member of St Kilda’s line-up for years to come.

Cooper Sharman was a midseason draftee who really came into his own in the Fremantle game to cap off the season when he kicked four goals and marked everything that came his way. Sharman can provide a unique set of skills, both providing strength in the air and proficient follow-up work on the ground level.

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The youth of St Kilda provided a lot of optimism for the Saints in a year that was not great for them. I am certain that with shrewd selections at this year’s trade and draft table the Saints will be able to surge back up the ladder.

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Their captain
Jack Steele has been a wonderful acquisition for the St Kilda line-up. He is rated as elite in every single key performance indicator for a midfielder according to the AFL app. He’s elite for disposals (29.2), contested disposals (13.9), kicks (14.1), metres gained (382.5 metres), clearances (6.3), and score involvements (5.9).

In a down year for the Saints, Steele has been blinding in his ability to drag his side over the line in multiple games. He also added a more offensive element to his game, scoring 13 goals to go along with his stellar midfield play. Jack Steele’s season did culminate in an equal fifth-placed finish for the Brownlow. While I am certain he would’ve liked the St Kilda season to finish a little later in September, there is nothing that Steele himself could’ve done to get the Saints there.

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Their key forwards
The St Kilda key forwards, despite having a bout of the yips earlier in the year, have put together a very good year that belies their lowly position on the ladder. Max King and Tim Membrey continue to put together one of the most underrated key forward partnerships in the AFL competition, kicking 38 and 34 goals respectively. Cooper Sharman, Rowan Marshall and Mason Wood have contributed either as third talls or resting ruckmen, giving the Saints forward line a new flexibility where previously it was thought the small forwards were the individuals providing the impetus to score heavily. However, the strides forward St Kilda have made this year are more functional and bode well for them in the future, when hopefully they can get their mosquito fleet firing effectively.

Jack Steele

Jack Steele (Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

What didn’t work

Their trade targets
The price St Kilda paid for their trade targets was enormous, and they have largely failed to justify either a massive price tag in the case of Bradley Hill or the draft capital paid in the case of Dougal Howard, Paddy Ryder and Jack Higgins. The Saints have effectively sold their development staff down the river in their rigid adherence to a trade-first philosophy.

Hill failed horrendously this season as the run and gun that had defined his game at his first two clubs went missing. There were moments throughout the season where he was called to be dropped and had to change position. When a club is paying an extremely healthy pay packet rumoured to be somewhere in the range of $900,000 per year, you need to contribute more than Hill has.

However, it is not all puns about Missy Higgins and bad news for the Saints, as Dougal Howard has become an integral member of the best 22 along with Dan Butler and Zak Jones. Their current captain is the result of a fantastic piece of business with Greater Western Sydney. I think the problems arise when the Saints tried to leap up the ladder too rapidly rather than taking the time to develop their young players as the primary options.

The over-reliance on a two-ruck system
The Saints are dramatically better when they have their two rucks in the side, but relying upon a 34-year-old in Patrick Ryder and an injury-prone Rowan Marshall is a recipe for disaster. The Saints need to find a more sustainable system that does not rely upon the exploits of Ryder – though his best at Essendon and Port Adelaide was indeed fearsome, those days are well past him.

Marshall, on the other hand, is still young, but he has had multiple injury-enforced absences during his time at St Kilda. Moreover, the alternative options that St Kilda have are not clear, and with the delisting of Sam Alabakis – the equal tallest AFL listed player ever – and the retirement of Shaun McKernan, clearly the Saints are backing in their current system to take them up the ladder – either that or they’re drafting Mac Andrew.

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Rowan Marshall

Rowan Marshall (Photo by Sarah Reed/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

One-paced midfield
The Saints midfield are extremely blue collar. They lack poise and skill around the ball, instead relying on keeping their nose to the grindstone with players like Jack Steele, Zak Jones, Luke Dunstan and Seb Ross. With the decline of Brad Hill and severe injuries to Jade Gresham exacerbating matters, the Saints urgently require some outside run and carry.

If they continue to insist on taking two big lumbering rucks into their line-up, then the Saints are going to urgently need to acquire talent who can easily kick the ball. Thankfully they do seem to have options aplenty at this year’s draft.

One thing I will say is that they made a horrendous decision to move Luke Dunstan, who polled second for the entire club for Brownlow votes. We may very well be looking at Jarryd Lyons redux. The only complicating factor is the appearances that Dunstan himself seems to want out of the Saints, though I believe the side should have tried harder to keep him at the club.

Questions that remain

Do the Saints regret their trading?
Yes and no. Their trade targets have been a mixed bag. I think they don’t regret it, as the AFL requires that you spend a certain percentage of the total player payments regardless of the talent you have available. However, I am certain they would have been hoping for greater output from some of their players to now. I cannot in good faith say that this position worked well for the Saints, as it is an indicator of the lack of faith they had in their development staff.

Players like Dougal Howard, Paddy Ryder, Zak Jones and Jack Higgins have been able to contribute to the progression of the side, but for each of those players there’s a James Frawley, a Bradley Hill and a Shaun McKernan who’s completely failed to fire a shot for the Saints.

Is 2020 or 2021 an accurate reflection?
The Saints of the preceding two years are consistently inconsistent. It felt at times throughout 2021 that the Saints just thought it was all going to come together as they appeared listless and without a leader on the field. I think they hoped they would take a step forward, but they were caught off guard by the weight of expectations. I feel that the Saints formed an interesting juxtaposition with my own side, the Bombers, where Essendon were this year’s Saints. It remains to be seen whether or not this is the new normal for the Saints, but it was good to see them get some solid wins on the board to end the season.

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St Kilda coach Brett Ratten looks on

(Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Solutions to St Kilda’s quandaries

Acquire outside run
The Saints need to return to the draft, as they’re further away from an elusive flag than they thought. They need to return to the draft so they can start developing a young complement of players who can effectively assist one another in their development. At this year’s draft they should look towards acquiring Josh Ward or John Sinn. Ward has been compared to Zach Merrett at Essendon with his ability to run up and down the ground and run his opposition off the park, while Simm is considered to be lightning-quick and brilliant on foot. Either of these players would satisfy what the Saints need most, which is skill and poise on the outside to provide an increasingly flexible midfield.

Play Membrey further up the field
Standing at just 188 centimetres tall, Membrey is tiny for a key forward, yet he makes it work. He kicked 34 goals to sit second on the St Kilda goal kicking, and he has been an astute pick-up for the Saints since moving from the Swans. He should play further up the ground – he has the tank to do it – and he was able to play behind the ball earlier in the season. The added benefit is Membrey is a key forward who would hopefully understand how he likes the ball kicked to him.

Develop a younger non-injury-prone ruckman
As I mentioned earlier, the Saints have delisted Jake Carlisle, Sam Alabakis and Shaun McKernan, leaving them dangerously light on in the ruck department. They have Paul Hunter as a more mature-age option alongside Max Heath, who they picked up in the midseason draft. With the ageing Paddy Ryder and the injury-prone Rowan Marshall as their primary ruck and given the efficacy of their two-ruck system, they will need to look to their understudies sooner rather than later.

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Season overall

Best win: West Coast Eagles, Round 4
They were down by five goals midway through the third term of this match. They romped home to win by 20 points to run over the top of an ageing West Coast outfit. Max King showed his massive upside with five goals and two behinds, and the mosquito fleet put their best feet forward with frenetic pressure and seven goals to their small forwards. Sadly it was a lone highlight in an absolutely putrid first half of the year for the Saints.

Best and fairest: Jack Steele
Steele has joined rarefied air with back-to-back Trevor Barker medals and was really the only player who could contend for the Saints best and fairest. He finished 79 votes clear of the second-placed Jack Sinclair and probably should have polled hire in the Brownlow.

Letter grade: D-
The Saints were top-four smokies at the start of the year. but I got the feeling they just expected it to happen without a willingness to put in the hard yards. They were able to correct their course in the second half of the year, and it was good to see the development of players like Cooper Sharman, but it indicates a need to move towards a more focused need-based development.

Way too early prediction: fourth to 12th
Brett Ratten is too competent to allow his charges to go down for a second consecutive year. They will benefit from having reduced expectations on them next year and having a higher draft pick this year. I think thanks to the continued improvement of Max King and the shrewd development of the Saints backline the Saints will be pushing for a spot in the bottom half of the eight.

There you have it. I am continuing my series tomorrow with my focus on West Coast Eagles. Leave your thoughts below and I will do my best to respond to each of them.

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