THE GOOD, BAD AND UGLY – ST KILDA 2020 SEASON PREVIEW

 

So, we’re making this an annual tradition now – extensive season previews for all 18 teams in this format because… well, people seem to like the Good, Bad, Ugly format for game reviews and I thought why not? Also, I really like Clint Eastwood.

St Kilda went on a recruiting rampage in the off-season, securing the services of some quality players to boost their list. Defence, midfield, forward, ruck.. they added pieces all over the place as they create a list they believe can reverse their recent fortunes. Along the way, they lost some talent as well, but the net gain is a big one.

Can St Kilda get their new recruits to gel as a team quickly and start pushing for the eight? Let’s explore with a little bit of the old good, bad and ugly, Mongrel-style.

 

THE GOOD

 

DO SOMETHING!

When you’re sitting at the tail end of the ladder, there are two ways to go about it.

You can go to the draft, pick up the kids and wait, hoping they’re good and that they’ll hang about once their rookie deals run out.

Orrrrr, you can get aggressive and pursue some talent in the free agency and trade periods, and to their credit, the Saints were sick of waiting around.

In a raid of talent, they acquired several pieces that should slot straight into their best side.

Paddy Ryder can alternate between key forward and back up ruck to Rowan Marshall. Brad Hill provides the sort of run and carry that few in the league can match. Zak Jones provides a hard-running edge through the middle. Dan Butler brings premiership experience and a dangerous inside 50 presence, and then there’s Dougal Howard – oh, I’ll get to him in a moment.

St Kilda have done what many clubs wish they could have. They have thrown caution to the wind and acquired pieces of what they hope will be a finals puzzle. Like a game of chess, some of the pieces have a higher value than others, but all can be very important if the right moves are made.

How will they come together? How will they fit in with current structures? And will they all combine well enough to push the Saints up the ladder?

There are a heap of questions about the 2020 Saints, but one thing is for certain – they won’t sit there wondering “What if…?” when it comes to their list. They went for it this off-season, and deserve a bit of credit for it.

 

THE BARGAIN

I still cannot believe the Saints got Dougal Howard for so little. I’d say I’m shocked, but really… it takes a bit to shock me these days.

Dougal Howard has the potential to be one of the best defenders in the league. He hits packs hard and has wonderful timing and has two of the top four games in terms of one-percenters since the stats was recorded.

In short, he is a defensive beast.

So, of course, Ken Hinkley tried to play him forward.

Howard arrives at St Kilda with the chance to reclaim a career as one of the premier young defenders in the game. It is an opportunity too good to pass up. With Nathan Brown’s career in its twilight, and Jake Carlisle meandering through a career that should have been great, the acquisition of Dougal Howard is an inspired move.

His growth and development in 2020 will be one of the intriguing storylines in the game. At one point, people were asking which player would get an AA nod first; Howard, or Harris Andrews in Brisbane. Well, that has been answered, and now Howard has some catching up to do.

 

THE FOOT IN THE BACKSIDE

And in a nice segue, we come to Jake Carlisle.

Over the journey, and considering the talent he possesses, has there been a bigger disappointment in terms of promise and delivery than Carlisle?

I may be guilty of reading a bit into body language, but Carlisle is just a little too relaxed for my liking, and seems to be one of those guys we may look back on as having enormous potential, but one that never really cashed in on it.

Could the arrival of Dougal Howard be the thing that gives him a foot up the arse?

A bit of motivation, and a clean run at the season may be what Carlisle needs to be the player everyone thought he could be. He has been confronted with the future of the St Kilda backline recruited to play alongside him…

… or take his place.

How does Carlisle respond to a threat from within? Does he continue on, content with being an AFL player in a side going nowhere? Or does he rise to the occasion and challenge Howard to elevate his game as well?

The dynamic in the St Kilda defence is intriguing indeed. The new kid on the block and the old dog are going to be forced to get along, and so much of where St Kilda heads in 2020 will come down to how strong they are in defence. The makings of the defensive pillars are in place – Brown, Carlisle and Howard.

Now, to see how strong they are, and how they function as a collective.

 

THE NOT SO NEW RECRUIT

There has been more than a ripple of excitement amongst Saints supporters centring on the pending debut of Max King.

Taken at pick four despite a knee injury that would sideline him for the entire year, King carries a fair amount of expectation, particularly as the St Kilda forward line undergoes a revamp. McCartin is gone, as is Josh Bruce, and Paddy Ryder comes in to work with King and Tim Membrey as the marking targets.

Is this the combination that will gel and drag the Saints toward the top eight in 2020?

Though Max King sat out the 2019 season, the Saints would be excited due to the preview they got, in the form of his brother Ben at Gold Coast. Prior to the 2019 season, Max was the higher rated of the twins but Ben had a couple of standout performances up north, clunking marks and looking like an imposing forward in the making.

With a year sitting and watching his brother start to hit his straps for the fledgling Suns, Max King will be chomping at the bit to match the output of his brother.

It may take a little time for the game plan to start working the way it is intended, and coming back from a knee injury, it may also take King a little time to start running and leaping at the ball without that nagging feeling that something may go wrong, but the Saints are obviously ultra-confident in the potential of Max King to become a great forward that they were willing to wait an extra year to get their hands on him.

Let’s hope he is worth the wait.

 

THE KID CAN PLAY

About half way through the 2019 season, I started noticing a player really moving up the list in our weekly Player Power Rankings.

As the Saints lost Tom Hickey to West Coast and the Billy Longer experiment continued to flounder, Rowan Marshall bullied his way into the top ruck job at Moorabbin and hasn’t looked back since.

Marshall made a big splash last season, surprising many by the way he was able to compete with the more established rucks in the game, and actually started to dominate those who were a little passive in their attack on the footy.

Whilst the Saints seemed determined to bolster their ruck stops with a seasoned ruckman, the emergence of Marshall as the clear number one option was a clear indication that anyone they did manage to recruit was going to be a bonus.

In the pairing of Marshall and Paddy Ryder, the Saints have a one-two punch that can not only compete, and win, in the ruck, but can create some havoc inside 50 as well. Marshall looks natural as a forward and the prowess of Ryder as a marking target is well known. Can Marshall be to Ryder what Scott Lycett couldn’t be in 2019? Can Ryder find a nice home residing inside the forward 50 and moving into the ruck in short bursts to aid Marshall?

Marshall finished second in the Saints’ best and fairest award in 2019 – a clear indication that he is a player not just for the future, but for now. If he can raise his game, even just a little in 2020, the Saints midfield will be getting some silver service at stoppages throughout the season.

 

MOST UNDERRATED DEFENDER IN THE GAME?

I have to tell you – I watched the St Kilda v GWS game last year shaking my head.

At the time, Jeremy Cameron was on a bit of a tear. In the first six games, he’d kicked 26 goals and Alan Richardson was right to be worried.

At the same time there was a bloke who was leading the league in spoils. Care to hazard a guess as to who?

Nathan Brown.

However, in a “masterstroke”, Richardson dropped Brown from the side to face the Giants, believing he was a poor match up for the rampaging Cameron. It mattered not.

Cameron kicked six anyway as his Giants ran out winners by 44 points, and here I was sitting there, wondering why the hell you would flirt with the form of a player like Brown when he was clearly one of the best pure one-on-one defenders in the game at that point? But then again, that’s why Richo was a coach, and I am just a long-ass article writing dude, I guess.

Nevertheless, Brown had quite a good season for the Saints, and the fact they were able to pick him up for another year at a discount rate is a huge win for the club.

Last season, Brown ranked second in the league for one-percenters (spoils), beaten only by All-Australian full back, Harris Andrews. It was a fantastic season, and with some help arriving in the form of Dougal Howard to bolster the St Kilda defence, we may see him replicate that form in 2020.

I guess the question is who gets squeezed out of that defence now. Jake Carlisle? Josh Battle? Will Howard walk in? And in that case, what of Nathan Brown?

I’m a big fan of Brown, and hope he cements his role as key defender early in the piece. He is close to impossible to move off the spot, and has a little mean streak that I really like. Not all heroes wear capes or kick bags of goals – some of them punch the ball away for a living, and one of the best in the game at that is Nathan Brown – as underrated as hell!

 

THE VERSATILE FORWARD PROTOTYPE

Of the top ten goal kickers in the league in 2019, only one man amongst them has never had a 50-goal season.

That man is Tim Membrey, yet watching the St Kilda forward in action, he definitely has the tools to rectify this in 2020. If you were to design a forward to thrive in what has become the modern style of football, you could do a lot worse than use Membrey as your starting point. Great hands, good endurance and a nous for the goals, Membrey ticks a lot of boxes.

With an average of 40 goals per season over the past four years, Membrey has developed into a reliable option up forward for St Kilda, but I don’t think there would be much argument against him needing to take the next step.

In 2019 he seemed to rectify the inaccuracy that plagued in him 2018, and with a return of 44.17 in a side that lacked great inside 50 delivery, Membrey will be licking his chops at the thought of Brad Hill streaming toward half forward and spotting him up on the lead. As much as I liked Jack Steven, I’d often find myself rolling my eyes as he was in that position – you know he was either going to have a ping, or go long to the square – he rarely hit teammates up on leads. Replacing him with Hill, while vastly different in their roles, is like exchanging a checkout chick at Maccas for a maître d at a Michelin star restaurant (as if I know what that’s like!)

Whilst Membrey may defer to Paddy Ryder at times, the opportunity presented to him right now to be the best forward on an improving team is a golden one. In 2020, Membrey will be able to mentor Max King, work with Ryder and establish himself as the main target inside 50 for a team with significant improvement in them.

The goal – 50 goals for the year in a career-best season.

 

UNKNOWN QUANTITIES 

You could line up the St Kilda team, shoulder to shoulder in a line up, and the casual footy fan would struggle to name 15 of them without seeing their numbers. I watch a heap of footy – if Nick Hind wandered up to me, dropped his pants and did a dance, sure I might be a bit excited, but I really wouldn’t know who he was. I might think he is just a stranger being friendly.

Okay, I’m being a bit of a dick, but the point I am getting to (eventually) is the Saints have a lot of middle rung players on the current list who are yet to really make a name for themselves. Players like Hind, Dunston, Lonie, Austin, Webster, Phillips, Joyce, Marsh, Wilkie – they’re good, honest battlers that would be role players at any club.

But what happens if one or two step it up in 2020? Yeah, I know – you thought this section was going to have a negative tone to it, right?

Wrong. The Saints have played these guys and have seen what they’re capable of. They know what they have and know what to expect from them. They have given these players every chance to whet their collective appetite for AFL footy, and now it is up to these middle of the road players to put the foot down and really take off.

Hind played 11 games in 2019, Wilkie played 22, Jonathon Marsh played five, Matt Parker played 17 and Ben Paton played 13 to name just a few. Whilst the supporters may be excited by the new arrivals, it is the development of these St Kilda no-names that will go a good way to improving the team in 2020.

Recruiting is fine, but organic improvement in the young, lower-ranked players is where the big leaps are made. The Saints have plenty who fit that bill. Now, to see whether or not they can take the next step.

 

VERSATILITY… A GOOD THING?

There seems to be a thought amongst those in charge in the AFL that good small forwards should be able to move into the midfield, and this is no different at St Kilda, with both Jack Billings and Jade Gresham, arguably two of the best-equipped in the league to play genuine small forward, running through the midfield every week.

Now, I am not saying that they should both be stay at home forwards, but the Saints have talent in the middle. They have Seb Ross, they’ve added Brad Hill, they have Jack Steele and they might have Dan Hannebery “if fit”. Could they send either of Gresham or Billings forward more often to capitalise on their ability to win the ball, and in Gresham’s case, hit the scoreboard effectively?

Gresham moved into the midfield more in 2019, and whilst his disposals per game reflected the move (+5.04 per game) his scoreboard impact diminished from 1.59 goals per game to 0.89. The Saints robbed Peter to pay Jade, and whilst there is an argument that it worked, you’d like more than 22 touches per game from a midfielder with the talent of Gresham, wouldn’t you?

Jack Billings started 2019 like he’d been shot out of a cannon, and whilst he improved his disposals per game average as well (+3.87 per game), he averaged 30.25 touches over the first four weeks before dropping to 25.73 for the entire year.

So, we have these two versatile stars – one is a proven goal kicker on a team lacking proven goal kickers. The other a midfielder capable, in the right team, of racking up big numbers. Does it make sense to have Gresham play forward and Billings midfield, or is this just going back to what didn’t work once before?

Brett Ratten is not Alan Richardson. Brad Hill is not Blake Acres, and Max King is not Paddy McCartin. These are new teammates, with a new set of skills. Gresham up forward at the feet of King, Ryder and Membrey is something that will scare opposition coaches. If I were playing the Saints, I’d be rapt to see him up on the wing. Get the footy up there all you like, Jade – stay there.

As for Billings, he has already demonstrated that when you put a couple of big sticks in front of him, things go a little awry.

Billings on the wing makes a lot of sense. If he has trouble converting, don’t torture the poor bastard – put him in a position where he can play his best footy, and do the same for Gresham.

Answer this – would you rather 17 touches and a couple of goals per game from Gresham, or 23 touches and a goal every couple of games? Very good small forwards aren’t as easy to find as people believe. Jade Gresham has the potential to be the All-Australian forward pocket if he plays closer to goal, and Jack Billings needs room to operate.

To me it seems a no-brainer… but then again, I have been accused of having no brains more often than I’d like to remember. Shout out to a couple of my exes…

 

THE MAN OF STEELE

If you read my columns, you’d know how much I love a player who shuts down his opponent and wins his own footy. I have a lot of time for Matt de Boer, Ben Jacobs, George Hewett, Mark Hutchings, and yes, Jack Steele.

If there is one bloke at St Kilda whose organic growth can be spotted a mile away, it’d be Steele.

In his fourth year at the Saints, Steele is looking for another year of 20+ disposals next to his name, but football lovers won’t just look at those numbers and shrug – they’ll look deeper, and they’ll find plenty.

Steele’s overall touches per game have remained at similar levels, but the nature of his disposals have started to shift a little. He amassed a career-high average for clearances in 2019, sitting right at 4.2 per game which added a bit of grunt to a St Kilda midfield that lacked it at times, and he led the entire league in tackles, averaging 8.2 per outing.

There is a bloke out west named Elliot Yeo who has kind of captured the attention of football purists. His run and carry, aggressive attack on the ball and the man, and his overall willingness to play good, hard, accountable football.

But how far behind is Jack Steele?

Steele is two years younger than Yeo, so it would be prudent to look at where the Eagle was a couple of seasons back. Yeo was averaging 3.3 tackles and just 2.22 clearances per game – way below Steele at the same age, however Yeo did average 23.13 disposals, which is +1.23 touches per game when compared to Steele. At the same point in their careers, Steele looks to be the more complete player.

That said, it was 2018 that Yeo exploded and captured the attention of the footy world with a brilliant display against Dustin Martin. Maybe that’s the scalp Jack Steele needs under his belt to make people sit up and take notice as well?

Steele has all the tools, and he has worked hard to place himself in a position to succeed. 2020 should be his year, but he will have to make it so. 24 touches and eight tackles per game – hand him the Trevor Barker award now if he hits those marks.

 

AN ELITE RECRUIT

I have to admit, I shook my head a little when the details of the Dan Hannebery deal came to light following the 2018 season. If you watch him walk off the ground after his last game as a Swan, you can see how banged up he is, and the fact it took him basically the whole of 2019 to find some semblance of health is unsurprising.

But the Saints weren’t going to throw cash at another player who needed time to get himself right (they also drafted one last year) so they went after someone ready to deliver right now.

And they landed Brad Hill.

Guys, some of you may know I am a Hawks supporter – let me tell you a truth and a lie about Brad Hill. The lie is that he isn’t a speedster. He’s quick, but he isn’t going to run people down with bursts of speed. That’s not his game, and despite what some commentators tell you, it is definitely not his “blistering speed” (Thanks Dwayne) that hurts teams. It’s his endurance, and his ability to be running at the same pace with five minutes to go in the last quarter as he is with five minutes elapsed in the first. He gut runs, and then gut runs again, and again.

That’s the truth of Brad Hill – while others slow or stop, he is ready to run again – it is what makes him one of the top handful of wingmen in the league. What St Kilda have acquired is the ability to increase their workload when the game is tight. When the heat is on in the last quarter, it is the legs of Brad Hill that will start pumping, and create overlap. It is Brad Hill that will make space for others and work to make the next contest.

I may have been critical of the recruitment of Dan Hannebery, and believe me, I hope he comes good, but I am in no way critical of the recruitment of Brad Hill. It was an astute move, and one that will reap visible rewards late in games.

He’s a gem.

 

A COACH WHO KNOWS WHAT HE’S DOING

Look, Alan Richardson may have been a wonderful guy, and I am sure he was terrific in the role of development manager, where his strength was his relationship with the players, but head coaching is a different kettle of fish, and didn’t he learn that the hard way? When watching Richo, I just got the feeling he was always struggling to keep his head above water in the role.

I’m not sure I ever saw him genuinely happy except after a close win. He always looked like the sky was about to fall on him.

And then it did.

Enter Brett Ratten.

Ratts has been there, and done that. He’s been sacked and knows how the game is played, but there is something different about Ratten, and something that the Saints haven’t had in a while. He exudes an air of confidence, of calm. With Richo, I felt the Saints were always on a knife’s edge; with Ratten, I feel as though they are walking a path he knows well, and his steps are sure. His persona says “follow me” and I have the feeling the Saints will follow him willingly.

This is a man who took Carlton… yes, Carlton to the finals. He is a coach in control, a coach who knows the game and the pitfalls associated with being a leader of men. There will be hiccups as the new blokes acclimatise, no doubt, but with Ratten at the helm, the Saints will navigate through them and come out the other side better for it.

For a long while, I’d sit and watch AFL 360 and my missus would glance up at Alan Richardson and sigh.

“He looks so sad,” she’s say.

She was right – he did. And that was how he was known at Casa Del Mongrel – the sad coach.

Time for Brett Ratten to put a smile on a few faces at Moorabbin, and it all starts in Round One.

 

THE BAD

 

THE TIME IT TAKES TO GEL

There is a misconception that you can shake things up and immediately, it pays dividends. That is a rarity. The fact of the matter is, in team sports, recruiting is just the first part of improving.

Next comes patience.

I’m sorry, Saints supporters… I know you’ve already been patient, and that patience must be wearing paper-thin at times, but this team, and these new faces are going to take a little bit of time to find their way in their new surroundings and with their new teammates.

Running patterns, how and where a forward likes to receive the ball, communication, little nuances of their teammates… it all takes time to work out and you can train with them every single day, run drills and hammer info into their heads all day long –  it is on the job training that will help, and unfortunately that only comes in the legitimate heat of battle.

Whilst there will be signs and moments where the Saints look to have put it all together, I fear that it maybe after the half-way point of the season until we see the Saints really start to put it all together.

The Saints are still integrating Dan Hannebery into the team. Add in Howard, Butler, Hill, Jones and Ryder and it’s gonna take some time.

Patience, Saints fans… patience.

 

THE UGLY

 

HE’LL BE GREAT… “IF FIT”

I read a fair bit of stuff in preparation for these columns. What, did you think I just make all this stuff up and take little of what others think into consideration?

Well, yeah I am guilty of that at times as well.

One thing I continually read from St Kilda supporters is how they’re looking forward to what Dan Hannebery can provide… “if fit”, and it is that last bit that worries me.

At this time of year we are all pretty optimistic, and we’re all looking forward to seeing what our teams can muster in the new season. There are some circumstances where recent injuries cast a cloud over the season of a player (Franklin) but with Hannebery, it seems as though there is a perpetual cloud of uncertainty hanging over him.

His recruitment, and long term deal have the potential to start feeling like a noose around the club’s neck and the only way to loosen that is with a solid season with a consistent presence in the team.

So, what would be the pass mark, given the club’s commitment to him?

15 games would be an outstanding success (which kind of sounds silly, doesn’t it) but I would be extremely pleased to see Hanners suit up for 12 games this season as he works his way into the team and builds as the season progresses.

It’ll be interesting to see what Saints fans believe the pass mark would be. It’s their team that has shelled out the coin to get Hannebery on board. I would think their expectations in year two may be a little more demanding than mine.

 

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