If pressure creates diamonds, the situation amongst the St Kilda tall forwards almost certainly has to yield some significant gems early in 2023.
When Max King went down with a shoulder injury and went in for reconstructive surgery, many held grave concerns for the Saints. Sure, King would be back by halfway through the season at the very latest, but losing the most significant piece of your forward line puzzle did not bode well for the club as they looked to start 2023 off with a bang.
They still had Jack Hayes, after all, right?
Mmmmm, not really. Hayes suffered a foot injury (although I’ve heard it’s more like nine or ten inches) and will miss the next couple of months as he recovers.
Not to worry – old reliable, Tim Membrey was still around, and he has demonstrated the ability to play as the number one forward over the last few years when required and…
… oh no, he’s out, as well after some issues with his knee.
Given the Saints are now in the era of Rowan Marshall standing alone as a ruckman, it removes him from the equation for long periods, as well. Where do the Saints look for marking forwards when every option seems to have crashed and burned headed into Round One?
Do they persist with Zaine Cordy as their deepest marking option, as they did in the preseason games, or is Ross Lyon ready to give his younger cohort the opportunity to shine?
Firstly, it’s important to settle down. No team lives and dies by a Round One result. The game is worth four points – just the same as every other round of the season, and it is likely that Membrey will return within a month or so to alleviate the stress on the forward line. Until then, the Saints have three young players itching for the chance to make a difference.
Anthony Caminiti barged his way into the conversation as a potential Round One starter with an impressive hit out in the Saints’ intraclub contest. It was impressive enough to see the Saints offer him a place on the list, in fact. He flew at the footy with reckless abandon and obviously made a significant impression on Ross Lyon and company.
He followed that up with a serviceable pair of outings in the practice/match sim contests over the ensuing weeks. At just 19, he is raw and will make errors, but that ability to fly into a contested footy situation and one-grab a mark… you only have to do that a couple of times to make a real impact on the modern game.
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, as long as the delivery was adequate, 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 Brett Ratten and the Saints tried to make him something he wasn’t. With injuries crippling his team heading into the season opener, will Ross Lyon see what his predecessor saw, or will he see the blindingly obvious and play the bloke close to attacking fifty?
Of course, the fact he wasn’t on the A-Team during the preseason doesn’t bode well, but sometimes all a bloke needs is an opportunity. This could be his!
The other thing the King injury, and the ensuing Jack Hayes and Tim Membrey injuries do, 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.
In the practice games, he leapt at the footy with no fear, providing a strong aerial presence for one so young. He seemed to be willing to leap at the footy while everyone else stood around and watched it, at points, and clunked several contested grabs. Sure, he got caught up in the moment here and there and may have misses a handball tone running teammate – he was excited, damn it – but the tools are all there for him. Most comfortable as a mid/forward, Phillipou’s presence across half-forward and up into the middle of the ground could provide a dangerous link for the Saints on the rebound and could be the first step in establishing himself as a legitimate AFL force. Now, with this forward line in a bad way, he has the opportunity to make a name for himself and give Lyon cause to think twice about where the kid sits in the pecking order when the cavalry finally arrives.
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. It could also cause a few who completely wrote the Saints off to reconsider their opinions, at least in the short term.
Yes, injuries to key forwards are difficult to overcome, but where there is crisis, there is also opportunity, and Cooper Sharman, Anthony Caminiti, and Mattaes Phillipou have that opportunity to put themselves into the frame for selection long after Round One becomes a memory.
These kids don’t need to kick three or four goals to make a mark. The Saints have players like Jack Higgins, Dan Butler, and Jade Gresham who are capable of hitting the scoreboard quite heavily. They just need to compete hard, bring the ball to ground and give those blokes the opportunity to succeed.
Whilst this may all end in tears, with a powerful Fremantle defence likely licking their lips at the prospect of carving up an inexperienced St Kilda forward line, there is the chance that these relatively unknown quantities could produce something special with the established stars on the pine.
Are you willing to take a gamble on the youth of the St Kilda forward line, or is it just a fool’s errand to think they stand a chance?
Again, it only takes a couple of contested marks and the small forwards finding the footy at ground level to turn things around pretty quickly, and there have been much bigger upsets in Round One before.
Beware the wounded Saints in Round One. They may just surprise you.
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