And here we are entering the 2022 season. It is safe to assume that the Saints did not have the 2021 season they expected.

After a very solid 2020 season saw St Kilda seemingly re-established as a finals team, they found themselves sitting outside the eight in familiar territory in 2021. And with that came the overwhelming sense from supporters that this was simply not good enough.

The first question to ponder is as follows – was 2020 the aberration? Or was it 2021?

This season, we get our answer.

Over the last month and a bit, I have been slowly compiling questions relating to each team to include in our season previews. There were so many questions in need of answers. When I finally sat down and started the previews, it quickly became apparent these articles were going to be huge. There were simply too many things in need of addressing.

So, the way this is going to work is that the first five questions are available for free for each team, to whet your appetite and the next 10-15 are for our members.

So, it’s a ploy to get people to join the site?

Ummmm, yeah, kind of, but it is also about providing value for those who support what we do here and enjoy the content – those who are already onboard. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

I am aiming to compile the most comprehensive team previews out there, so if you like sinking your teeth into articles with a bit of meat on the bone, that’s what you’re getting here. No flippantly thrown together article with a stupid prediction at the end – I’ll leave that to those with restrictions on word counts and pressure to make space for gambling ads. We’re diving deep.

So, without further ado, here are The Big Questions regarding the Saints in 2022.

 

HOW MUCH DOES THE 2021 MELBOURNE TEAM GIVE THE SAINTS HOPE?

Been waiting to drop this one on you guys.

The Saints finished sixth in 2020 and, despite not really having a season commensurate with Melbourne’s 2018 finals run (that ended in a West Coast disaster), they were a big chance of finishing top four and notched a finals win.

The Saints were coming.

And then… they stopped.

It would be easy to be disheartened by this – St Kilda is a club that has inflicted so much agony on its supporters over the last 50 years that it was almost expected that 2020 was some sort of false dawn. Like Melbourne in 2018, who went on to fall in a heap for two seasons, the Saints built up the hopes of their supporters only to let them down.

And they didn’t let them down easy.

However, what has this team taken away from the way Melbourne were able to regroup, reset, and re-establish their group as a powerhouse in such a short time? It’s not like the Dees were a significantly different team to the one that finished in 17th place in 2019. The same pieces of the puzzle were there – they just fit a lot better in 2021.

Is this where St Kilda is now at? Do they have those same pieces that just didn’t fit together well in 2021 suddenly slotting in perfectly? Are they the next team to swoop from outside the eight to take the competition by storm? We’ve seen Richmond do it. We’ve seen the Dees do it. Could the Saints be next?

The last decade of footy has been memorable for droughts being broken. The Dogs, Tigers, and Dees have all sat atop the heap after many years looking up at those on top wondering when their turn will come? Could 2022 be the season the Saints fulfil their dreams? Could they write their version of an AFL fairy tale? Or are they setting themselves up to live out a nightmare by daring to dream?

In the remainder of this article, there will be many “what about” and “what if…” kinds of scenarios. For the Saints to rise and actually have a shot of becoming the next team to get everything clicking, many of these things have to work perfectly, but they wouldn’t be the first team to come from the clouds to give things a shake. And they won’t be the last.

So, who is the real St Kilda? Is it the team that outplayed some of the best teams in the caper in 2020? Is that the team that will turn up in 2022 and hit the league with everything they’ve got? Or are they the 2021 version, who went quietly into the night whenever the pressure was on?

No one rated Melbourne a chance at the flag in 2021. No one. Go back and check the “crystal ball” predictions in the Herald Sun – barely anyone thought they could even make the eight. St Kilda are aware of this, and if I am aware that they find themselves in a similar situation to the Dees last year then those in and around the club would be aware also.

Opportunity is knocking at Moorabbin in 2022. Open the damn door, Saints.

 

WHAT CAN THE SAINTS EXPECT FROM JADE GRESHAM?

He comes in like a new recruit in 2022. A highly-regarded, battle-hardened, supremely-skilled recruit who can have a huge say in the fortunes of this club.

Jade Gresham is a special player. Whether occupying a spot in the midfield or patrolling the forward fifty, he is a weapon the Saints have largely been without for two seasons, and one of the most dangerous they possess.

Whilst it would be premature of me (if I only had a dollar…) to start talking about his ceiling when we haven’t seen him much on the park in a meaningful way in quite a while, I am a big fan of using history to guide me when I look at a player, and other than recent injury, Gresham is an All-Australian-capable player. He possesses immense skill, works hard off the ball and knows how to find space when he runs forward. With St Kilda’s midfield having names around Jack Steele, they lack some high quality outside run from the middle. Is this the role Jade Gresham plays?

Or do we see him as a forward who pinch-hits in the middle, ala Robbie Gray at his best?

Gresham’s injuries coincided with his almost-permanent move into the guts – could it be time to ease him back into the action? Should Brett Ratten be looking to start him as a small forward and move him back into the midfield rotation a little more gradually to ease the strain on his body? I’d love to see it.

A three-pronged small forward attack at the feet of Max King and Tim Membrey would be chaotically wonderful. Jack Higgins, Dan Butler, and Jade Gresham buzzing around forward fifty contests would give opposition coaches fits.

The last two full seasons Gresham played for the Saints saw him average 1.6 and 1.4 goals. They could sure use some of that scoring punch again in 2022. The temptation to throw him back into the mix immediately will be there for Brett Ratten, particularly if the Saints drop a game or two early on, but if we are looking at the long game, here, Gresham as a forward makes a lot of sense, and using him sparingly in the midfield under he gets his legs under him again would be wise.

Are the Saints patient enough?

 

CAN DOUGAL HOWARD BRIDGE THE GAP?

I’ve written before about the two young defenders who controlled the air way back in 2017/18.

One went on to become the best key defender in the game, picking up two All-Australian nods for the Brisbane Lions over the past three seasons. The other was thrown forward in a misguided experiment by his then-coach, and was then permitted to explore other options when that experiment failed.

The tale of Harris Andrews and Dougal Howard finally seems to be ready to resume, after three seasons that saw Andrews bolt away and take a substantial lead. Howard may have clawed back a little ground in the eyes of AFL fans in 2021, but the gap is still considerable. The thing is – I think it can be closed.

Dougal Howard is now at home in the St Kilda defensive 50 and if we’re talking excellent recruits to the club, his name would be right at the top of the list. I watch the way he sets up now – taking the responsibility for the best forward, but also ensuring that the structure is in place. You often see Howard pointing and directing in the back half – he is becoming the player he was meant to be – he just took the long way to get there.

Howard averaged nine one-percenters a game in 2021 after notching 7.4 in 2020. His career-best is 12.2 back in 2017, but that was over only four games. His 2018 season saw him average 11.6 over 20 games – that is the standard for what he is capable of.

For the Saints to be the big improver in 2022, the defence needs to be watertight, and that starts and ends with the performance of Dougal Howard. If he is controlling the defensive fifty, then it makes the job of the other defenders easier. The Saints have some great young talent in defence, which we’ll get to as we progress with the questions, but if Howard is on his game, the results could be great for St Kilda.

In terms of expectations, if he can hit double figures for one-percenters per game, and improve his intercepts (he was at 5.7 per game in 2021. In 2018 he had 6.0) we should start hearing his name come up when people discuss the All-Australian team.

Dougal Howard has taken the hard road to be considered an elite defender and as we head toward the new season, he is aaaaaaalmost there. So close, he can smell the success. Just a couple more steps from the big defender and everything else around him will fall into place.

 

DOES THE AFL WAKE UP TO COOPER SHARMAN IN 2022?

Did you see what I saw down the stretch of the 2021 season?

Yes, it is a very small sample size, and at the tail end of the season, there have been times that players have given teams false hope (Jarrod Grant is a prime example of this on several occasions) but if you were looking for a bright note to end the season on, the attack on the contest from Cooper Sharman would be right up there.

In his four games, playing as the third fiddle to King and Membrey, Sharman managed to get off the chain, notching ten goals, including four in the season finale win over Freo. Whilst goals are one thing, it was the straight-forward, no-BS approach of Sharman that caught the eye. He led hard, threw himself into the marking contests, and displayed a great set of hands. His four contested grabs against the Dockers would have made even the most disappointed Saints supporter raise an eyebrow and wonder what the future held.

However, it would be silly to get carried away at this point. Sharman’s form is just a snapshot in pictorial of the St Kilda season, and with exposed form now something opposition coaches can plan against, he will have to work harder to experience success in 2022.

Can he do it?

Well, it is not as simple as whether he can find form or not – it is largely reliant on the play of those around him. In order for Sharman to succeed, King needs to draw the attention. When King draws attention, Membrey needs to provide an option. If teams manage to cover them off with some help defence, this is where Sharman slots in as a threat.

After a fantastic first four outings, there are some that will be expecting plenty from him in 2022, but I would advise the utmost patience with him. Two or three poor games are not the end of the world – even seasoned stars have down days. Sharman is 21 and playing in a tough position. If he is able to retain his position in the team as the third option in his second season, it is not only a great win for him, but a fantastic effort in identifying his talent and targeting him in the mid-season draft.

 

IS IT TIME ROWAN MARSHALL COMMANDS THE NUMBER ONE RUCK POSITION?

I love what Paddy Ryder brings, but he will turn 33 before we hit Round One. I am not sure we can expect him to play a full season anymore, let alone as the number one ruckman. He managed 12 games in 2021 and when his combination with Rowan Marshall works, it works a treat…

… but how much longer can it work at all?

A couple of years ago, I watched the development of Rowan Marshall with interest. Whilst big guys tend to take a bit longer to really learn their craft, Marshall seemed to be on the precipice of ruck stardom. He was handling the lesser rucks in the game and stretching the established guys. He refused to be pushed around and quickly became a force to reckon with.

Whilst his combination with Ryder over 2020/21 may have been effective, it may have had a three-fold effect.

Firstly, it eased pressure on Marshall’s body, which is a big tick.

Secondly, it gave the Saints a fantastic two-pronged ruck option, allowing Marshall to scoot forward and provide a marking target. Another big tick.

Thirdly… has it delayed the development of Marshall? Possibly a pretty significant downside if this proves to be the case.

Marshall is now 26 years old – this is potentially the beginning of his peak years as a big man. At the same age, Brodie Grundy was coming off an AA season. Max Gawn had just picked up another AA blazer to add to his collection. And Marshall… well, he is still viewed as a developing ruck. To me, that means he has been treading water for the past two seasons.

This has to be the season that Marshall stamps his authority on this team. Whilst I love the combination when it works, the time of Ryder playing 60% in the ruck and tagging out to Marshall when he needs a breather has to end. This has to be Marshall’s time to assume command of the ruck position and make it his own.

Whilst the one-two punch may be great when it works, injury and form meant that there were a heap of air-swings in 2021, and Ryder is not getting any younger.

Marshall in the middle, maturing into a ruck bully in his own right is integral to the Saints taking the next step. Ryder has great hands – he can slot in more as a target inside 50, but unless we see Marshall go to another level in 2022, I am not sure we ever will.

18 touches, 25 hit outs, and five clearances per game – that’s where Rowan Marshall needs to be this year as a start. And from there, we see how good he can be.

 

And that’s it for non-members. The next 10-15 questions are for those members who support us. I want these to be the biggest season previews you’ll read and am determined to give value for money. Some sites will give you lip service about your team – I will be diving deep. The Mongrel does the work… always. Want to join us?

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