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Don't sleep on one of the AFL's most exciting young teams - St Kilda can win the 2024 flag

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Expert
7th March, 2024
12
3485 Reads

St Kilda fans should dare to dream in 2024.

In a season where trying to narrow down finals contenders to a final eight seems to be even harder than usual, the Saints stand out as one of the most well-rounded teams going around.

Overall, the return season of Ross Lyon was a success. A finals appearance was certainly a positive and they conceded the fewest points during the home-and-away season, perhaps unsurprisingly given the reputation of Lyon.

Perhaps the biggest positive was the development of some talented young players, given responsibilities beyond their years and repaying the path with marked improvement.

When you think of a Lyon-led team, the first thing that springs to mind is generally that shared universal ethos that defence will lead to the ultimate success. They only conceded more than 100 points twice, once in their losing elimination final, but offensively, they only cracked the same mark themselves twice.

Ross Lyon addresses his St Kilda players.

Ross Lyon addresses his St Kilda players. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

2023 was a tick, but it’s taken time to come to terms with that. When they were knocked out by the Giants, it felt as though the Saints maxed out on their output – they were lucky to make finals and it seemed the result was fair.

The reality is, last season laid the groundwork for what could be something special this year for a supporter base that has suffered for far too long. Encouraging signs are there to create short and long-term optimism around this playing group.

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Being well-rounded on the field is an important trait for any premiership contender and the Saints can stake some sort of claim to being a top-three club in this area.

In attack, they have the star key forward (Max King), and the hard-working partner (Tim Membrey). They have smalls that can apply pressure and can finish in front of goals, they have aerial coverage with the likes of Cooper Sharman who can develop into anything this season, then there’s the obvious x-factor of Mitch Owens, who can do it all.

They let Jade Gresham and Jack Billings walk, but in bringing in Liam Henry and Darcy Wilson, the Saints have ultimately upgraded on what may have been jaded, tired output from the same players who ultimately plateaued at the club with two guys who suit the system better.

Henry tackled hard in the preseason and his work rate on the wing at Fremantle took his game to another level. Wilson’s fitness is already well above average as a draftee, but what can be underrated are his hands both in the air and at ground level. He’s an immediate starter.

Max King of the Saints celebrates a goal.

St Kilda’s Max King celebrates a goal. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Through the middle, the Saints have the star ruck who plays as an extra midfielder, they’ve got the contested beasts who love to tackle and with the likes of Owens, Mattaes Phillipou, Marcus Windhager and even Jack Sinclair around, they have rotational midfield pieces who have that bursting speed that can get the ball forward.

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The wing area and half-back line is fantastic and really leans into the style Lyon tried to get going in 2023. The Saints want to win the hard ball and spread it immediately. They want their half-backs in advanced positions at the back of stoppages where possible with extra numbers out wide.

Watch recruit Riley Bonner through a few practice matches and note his positioning through the middle at times to give him, as a good user by foot, all the possible angles to enter the attacking fifty.

We already know the Saints are well set up defensively and with everything else covered, this group has flexibility and versatility across the board with depth to boot and no glaring weaknesses.

St Kilda has built a heavy possession style in the last 12 months – they ranked first for kicks, disposals and marks in 2023 and third for handballs. They were one of the better tackling teams in the league as well, with their pressure game forcing their opponents into more handball heavy approaches.

It was ugly at times but there were excuses – what cannot be understated is the impact of King and Membrey combining for just 18 games. The lack of offensive focal point and relief marker around the ground was significant – the Saints’ ball movement against decent opposition was often stifled and at times, it was as if they were applying.

Mitchito 'Mitch' Owens

Mitchito Owens with Nasiah Wanganeen-Milera. (Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

We got a season of Nasiah Wanganeen-Milera off half-back and it’s about to change the fortunes of this team. The third-year player is an elite user who loves to be incisive with his kicking and uses angles to carve the opposition up. Brad Hill playing on the opposite side to him is excellent too, as the league’s best runner and a clean kick himself.

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Bringing in Bonner, perhaps initially thought of as depth but now, a perfect fit if absolved of his defensive responsibilities by playing as a wing/back of stoppage midfielder, it’s another elite kick playing in a more advanced role, along with the evergreen Mason Wood.

The Saints have sought to stack up on weapons that can find targets inside 50, having been ranked 17th for goal assists last season and just generally, 12th for inside 50s. All their half-backs and wings can rotate and at any point, Lyon knows that his team will have at least two elite kicks on offensive possessions to send the ball into attack.

The second part to this transformation is the added focus on having players that can run games out to the very end. Wilson, taken in the first-round of last year’s draft, can run for days. Hill, Wood, Sinclair and Wanganeen-Milera don’t need to take many breaks and can maintain their high-level output to the very end of games, Henry felt like a targeted acquisition for this very reason too.

Of course, injuries tend to get in the way of the Saints, when their players aren’t committing footballing crimes on field that suspend them for a large portion of the season.

The availabilities of King and Membrey in particular will go a long way to Lyon and his team realising their potential this season, skipper Jack Steele remaining healthy can get him back to A-grade potential, while Marshall might well be their best player overall, if Mitch Owens doesn’t take the title as a dynamic midfielder/forward.

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MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JULY 23: Mattaes Phillipou of the Saints is tackled by Luke McDonald of the Kangaroos during the 2023 AFL Round 19 match between the St Kilda Saints and the North Melbourne Kangaroos at Marvel Stadium on July 23, 2023 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

St Kilda’s Mattaes Phillipou (L) is tackled by North Melbourne’s Luke McDonald. (Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Already early in the season, the Saints are down a few key contributors defensively and they may well start off a little slowly as a result – they start the season off travelling to Geelong, then playing the reigning premiers before facing the Bombers, Tigers and Giants. Securing two wins would be a good result before they get back to full fitness.

Their relevance to this season doesn’t discount how St Kilda has set up for the future either – they absolutely nailed their picks in the 2023 draft to the point where the young talent at this club hasn’t been this good in over a decade.

That isn’t any sort of roadblock into what the Saints can produce in 2024 though. Coach Lyon showed a willingness to back in young players that fit the system and he’ll be reaping the gains sooner rather than later.

Make no mistake about it, for as indifferent as many of us felt at the end of last season about the Saints, they’ve quickly turned into one of the most well-rounded, fittest and hardest-tackling playing groups in the competition, with exciting talent all over the park.

While the usual contenders are touted highly and the resurgence of those who have dominated the past decade are at the front of people’s minds, do not sleep on this club.

The St Kilda Football Club can win the flag in 2024 and their fans can dare to dream.

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