The Saints were determined not to be left out of the news cycle at the end of a disappointing 2022 season.
After getting off to a flyer over the first half of the year, St Kilda squandered their 8-3 start by going 3-8 in the back half of the year to finish outside the eight. In a bold move, the club dismissed coach, Brett Ratten, and after some protracted negotiating, re-signed former coach, Ross Lyon, who made his way back to the club to take the helm for the 2023 season.
Yep… never a dull moment at Moorabbin, is there?
The move drew a mixed response from supporters, some of whom were dissatisfied with the club going back to Lyon after his previous departure to take a deal with Fremantle for the 2012 season, leaving a St Kilda team he built to win a flag without any silverware, but also without a solid base of young talent to work with. Lyon was a “win now” coach, and if you take that at face value, does it mean he believes that St Kilda are once again in a position to start a charge toward the finals?
The Saints were dealt a significant blow with a shoulder injury to young star, Max King ruling him out of the start of the season, but as we all know, crisis begets opportunity, and there could be some young Saints ready to make a name for themselves as King recovers.
Can the Saints make the top eight in 2023? Or are they destined to head back to the draft to continue building a list ready to contend in the future?
Maybe we’ll find some answers below.
It’s that time of year, already.
As we head toward February, it is time to get serious. The holidays are a distant memory for AFL players, and the hard stuff is well underway. Yes, the teams had been training for well over a month prior to Christmas, but as we head further into 2023, the ante is upped and the intensity increases.
This is where premierships are won and lost. This is where improvements are made and lists come together. This is where the culture is set. New faces, new colours, old heads with renewed passion… so much feeds into the making of a contender. And as the days tick down toward to the intra-club clashes, practice games, and eventually the real stuff, questions are raised about each team and how they’re going to perform in 2023.
We don’t do things by halves here, at The Mongrel. When we do a season preview, we go all out to make sure it is the best, most comprehensive coverage you’ll receive. We pride ourselves on it. If you are going to read one season preview for your team, or any team, this series provides it.
The way it works is as follows.
Each club has a minimum of 15 questions asked about their 2023 season, their coaches, their players, and their expectations. The answers are not glossed over. We dive deep on each and every one – some singular answers would normally be long enough for an entire column. The first five questions/answers are free for you to consume. The next 10-14 for each club are for our members, including a special appearance from Mrs Mongrel to throw her two cents in the mix.
You will not read a deeper season preview than this – I guarantee it.
And with that, let’s jump into The Big Questions relating to the Saints in 2023.
IS THIS THE SEASON ROWAN MARSHALL STAKES HIS CLAIM AS ONE OF THE BEST RUCKS IN THE CAPER?
It has to be this season; he is now right in his prime years.
A few years back, I embarked on a foolish little flight of fancy to name what the All-Australian team could look like in the year 2025. Right there as my number one ruck pick was Rowan Marshall – that is how highly I rated his potential.
He was a powerful young man, with great hands and the ability to hit the scoreboard. It appeared as though it would be a good bet to have him slot in as the main man with the development to come and the ruck situation at St Kilda.
And then they went and recruited Paddy Ryder, who moved across to share the rucking duties with Marshall, and that kind of worked, but also kind of put the brakes on Marshall’s progression as a genuinely dominant ruckman.
Marshall has kind of stagnated for a few years. Injury has played a large part in that, but if I’d pulled you aside following the 2019 season and told you that he was not going to average better than his numbers that season again, you probably would have laughed in my face.
But that’s where we’re at.
2019 remains his career-best season, with 17.8 disposals, 5.5 clearances, and 28.4 hit outs per game. He needs to better those figures in 2023, and the Saints need him to, as well. Marshall is a much better player than his 2022 numbers indicate – 16 touches and three clearances per game are the type of numbers I expect from a part-time ruckman – and really, that was what he was, but Rowan Marshall needs to elevate his game as the number one man.
And he needs to elevate it in a big way.
For me, the bar jumps quite a bit this season. There are no shared loads, no excuses for him NOT to have a huge season. 20 touches per game and over 30 hit outs each and every week – that is what you’d want to see from a big man with the skill set of Marshall, particularly at the age of 27.
In terms of backup, the Saints only have Tom Campbell to slot in and fill the void if Marshall goes down, Jack Hayes played a little as an undersized ruck, but he is out for a while, too. The pressure is on for Marshall to make this season his best. There are a lot of “ifs” involved in the AFL, but this one seems like a non-negotiable.
That 2025 All-Australian team selection looks a ways off on his form over the last couple of years, but maybe…. just maybe a clean run at the number one role without having to share it with Ryder is the direction the Saints needed to g in all along?
WHAT DOES THE SEASON OF MARCUS WINDHAGER LOOK LIKE?
Well, reports out of Moorabbin are that he is already in the good books with the new coach, with Ross Lyon namedropping him in a press conference last year, and having a bit of a penchant for playing blokes that don’t mind sacrificing their own games and stats for the betterment of the team.
And Windhager was doing that before Lyon walked back in the door, so I reckon he will automatically be a favourite of the new/old bloke in charge. Not Zac Dawson levels of favouritism, but still a favourite, nonetheless.
The young fella made a name for himself with tagging jobs on some of the game’s best mids in 2022 and it is difficult to see him playing a different role in 2023. He’s still about three and a bit weeks away from turning 20, and will get a fantastic opportunity to run with and learn from the best mids in the game in the process.
Not just a defensive stopper, Windhager was able to start winning more of his own footy in the closing stages of the year, adjusting his game to run off his preoccupied opponents to register two games with 20+ disposals.
As he continued to refine the balance between negating an opponent and finding his own offence, I expect Windhager t make some significant strides in 2023. I’m not talking as though he is going to jump through the roof and rip games apart – not by any stretch – however, what I am anticipating is that we will see more of him leading his opponent to the footy than the other way around, as he continues to discover that he can match it with the best and gain wins here and there.
There has been a real push away from the “tagger” role in the AFL over the last however-many years. You can hear coaches talk about “backing their system” against other teams and going head-to-head with them, but in Windhager, Ross Lyon has himself a player that will willingly put his personal glory on hold in order to get a better outcome for the team.
That takes discipline.
Part of me wonders whether Lyon eyes off Windhager and sees the possibilities of a young Ryan Crowley type? People often forget that Crowley was quite adept at winning his own footy – never averaging under 11 touches per game in his 11 seasons.
Personally, I think Windhager can and will be more. He has an offensive side to his game that Lyon will be wise enough to capitalise on.
This season, you’d want a list of victims of the Windhager tag with names on it like Lachie Neale (again), Sam Walsh (if he is back by R6), and Connor Rozee (Round Seven) to name just a few. If he can do that, whilst pushing into the mid-teens for his own touches, and elevating both his tackling numbers (2.2 last season) and his clearances work (1.1 last year – a higher number is all but guaranteed this year), the Saints will be thrilled with his output.
DOES THE ACQUISITION OF ZAINE CORDY ALLOW DOUGAL HOWARD TO BE A BETTER FULL-BACK?
Nobody batted an eyelid when Cordy joined the Saints. He’s a premiership player with a big body and is unafraid to stand under the long, high ball in order to restrict an opponent until the cavalry arrive, and as we’ll touch on, that cavalry has plenty of numbers back healthy this season.
A combination of Cordy and Wilkie doing the grunt work could allow Dougal Howard to finally fulfil the potential he demonstrated as a young key defender at Port Adelaide. At that point in time, it seemed as though both Howard and a young bloke playing for Brisbane named Harris Andrews were going to be the next big things in terms of key defenders. But something happened on the way to stardom for Dougal (his name was Ken Hinkley) and he found himself thrown forward. When his future was mapped out and Hinkley wanted to continue the forward experiment, Howard knew his time was up and had to pull up stumps at Alberton.
At 26, Howard is in his prime right now. He is now the centrepiece of the St Kilda defence and will be a prized possession of the new coach. In each of the past two seasons, he has averaged over nine one-percenters per game, but is often found locked in a duel, which impacts his intercept numbers.
Having Cordy do more of the heavy lifting allows Howard some freedom. He’ll share the load instead of having to carry so much of it by himself, which could see the Saints capitalise on his elite pace (in a straight line… I don’t trust him with any zigging and zagging).
I’ve long thought that Howard had the ability to be one of the best couple of key defenders in the game. As it stands, that is yet to eventuate, but the Saints have now made moves to ensure he has every crack at making it so. He is surrounded by quality and youth in defence and if the Saints are going to improve, with Ross Lyon at the helm, it is obvious they’re going to be doing it starting in defence.
Howard’s contribution in 2023 will be pivotal in terms of how the Saints perform. If he finally gets the support he needs, we could see a career-best season from him. And if that occurs, I reckon he might owe Zaine Cordy a coffee of three for getting his big body in the way and giving him a chop out.
HAS THE DOOR OPENED FOR COOPER SHARMAN?
Well, it’s not an ideal way to have the door opened, but after a season being played in what I thought was the wrong position, Cooper Sharman has the chance to return to the role that saw people start to take notice of him in 2021.
The injury to Max King is a huge blow for the club – losing your leading goal kicker is a kick in the guts for any team – but this affords the Saints an opportunity to hand the keys over to others and see what they can produce. My eyes will be on Sharman in this regard.
If you’ve ever played footy, you will at some point have played with a bloke who just knows what to do, when to lead, and when not to. That’s how Cooper Sharman struck me when I watched him seem right at home as the third marking forward for the Saints at the conclusion of the 2021 season.
In his final four games of the year, Sharman snagged ten goals, clunking marks and kicking beautifully for goal. However, as great as that was, the thing that leapt out at me more than anything else was his timing. He just seemed to know exactly the right moment to create a break on his opponent and gain that little bit of distance to get free. From that point, taking the mark on the lead seemed a formality.
Looking at the Saints at the start of the 2022 season, I was convinced that we’d be seeing a settled forward combination of King, Membrey, and Sharman, but instead, the young man was switched into defence and remained there for the final seven of his ten games for the year. I didn’t really understand it then – I still don’t understand it now.
Sharman is a natural forward. Even a bozo like myself can see that, but Ratten and the Saints tried to make him something he wasn’t. Will Ross see what they saw, or will he see the blindingly obvious and play the bloke close to attacking fifty?
The other thing the King injury (and the ensuing Jack Hayes injury) does, is open the door for Mattaes Phillipou to get a run early in the piece. Already, my favourite draftee, Phillipou has displayed plenty of confidence since being drafted, and I would love to see him get the chance to strut his stuff early in the season.
With King and Hayes out for a while, a lineup of Sharman, Membrey, Phillipou, Higgins, Butler, and possibly even Gresham would make this a forward line lacking a bit of height, but not excitement.
CAN JACK HIGGINS BECOME MORE THAN JUST A CRAFTY SMALL FORWARD?
I have to say, despite him being criticised at times, Jack Higgins has surpassed what I expected from him at this stage with the Saints.
Are my expectations too low? I’m sure some of you are thinking that they might be, but Higgins’ comeback from brain surgery seems to have been forgotten in the grand scheme of things. Granted, he is now entering his third season as a Saint, but let’s have a gander at who has outperformed him in front of goal in that time, shall we?
Max King has 88, and rightly so as the key forward
Tim Membrey has 64 as his 2IC
And then comes Higgins with 57… no bloody slouch at all considering he splits time as the number one small forward with Dan Butler (37) and had Jade Gresham sneak back in as a presence inside 50 with 16 goals in 2022.
This was the season I’d earmarked for Higgins to truly hit his straps. I figured that something like surgery on a brain bleed would take two full years to recover from completely. The rehab would have been slow, initially, and it would have taken him a whole year to get his legs under him again.
Last year, he started very strongly with 14 goals through his first five games, but tapered off after that. It speaks to me of a player that has all the ability in the world and can deliver when fresh, but runs out of gas relatively early in the season.
If he is going to take the next step, that is the challenge he must overcome.
Higgins has always been the type of player you want to watch play footy. Unlike some, who are like 9-to-5’ers with their profession, Higgins has always eaten and slept footy. His playfulness and exuberance were infectious, and his love for the game always made me smile.
I want to see more of that from him in 2023.
Higgins is cheeky, in a fun way. He smiles and jokes on the field, and whilst everyone loves the bloke, I’d like to see a few people start disliking him a little. And I would like to see him make them dislike him.
Not that I think he can be a modern Stephen Milne, or even have some of Hayden Ballantyne about him, but I want to see more mongrel in his game. I want to see him get in an opponent’s face, bring some attitude and maybe get some real bite into his game, instead of being like an easily distracted puppy.
Guys, I am a believer in Jack Higgins. He has a great feel for the game, and though he has earned the ire of some fans for inaccuracy when kicking for goal, his 2022 record of 30 goals and 25 behinds is far superior to many in the upper tiers of goal scorers. I’ve said for a long while I believe his absolute best would result in a close to All-Australian season, but it’ll have to be as a forward that ranges up to the wings, runs back hard, and hits the scoreboard at an increased rate. At 12.2 touches per game last year… he needs to be involved a little more.
This ends the free component of the article. The next five or so thousand words are for our members. Want to join us?