It’s been just over six weeks since Nathan Buckley made the prediction that St Kilda were destined to be a bottom-four side in 2023.
It’s a but harsh to isolate that one comment from the former Collingwood coach, who also went on to speak about the sacking of Brett Ratten, the way Ross Lyon needed to get his head around this crop of players under his tutelage, and how the process was not likely to be a quick fix.
Of course, the AFL Media picked up on the one section of his assessment they knew would make coin and ran with it, which is why that’s all you’ve heard about it.
Fact is, on one account, Bucks was completely correct – it has not been a three or four month turnaround for the Saints.
It’s been weeks.
St Kilda have been such a hard team to gauge over the past few seasons. Some heavy recruiting led to a finals appearance in that horrible 2020 season before two years of mediocrity had Saints fans wondering where it all went wrong – something they’ve been left to ponder way too often over the years. Many would have seen or heard the grab from Buckley and solemnly nodded their agreement, such has been the mindset of Saints supporters – they’ve been conditioned to accept their fate. But many would have also failed to grasp the value of a simple game plan and the willingness of an entire list to buy into something – the willingness to believe in something again.
That has made all the difference in 2023, so much so that slumbering St Kilda supporters are starting to awaken. Their team is 5-1 and shaking them awake!
Whilst many have lamented the way other teams have performed against St Kilda this season, there are only a few who have delved into the cause of this poor play.
In Round One, Fremantle were lambasted for their conservative, timid style of play against the manic Saints. Listening to the commentary around it, you would have thought Freo had simply lost a game due to their own ineptitude
Whilst that is an argument that cannot be discounted, particularly given the way they’ve competed since, it is too much of a coincidence to see the same issues affect the Western Bulldogs, Gold Coast Suns, Essendon, and now Carlton.
It is the Carlton game that really rams home what is happening at Moorabbin, as the Saints employ an accountable, responsible, defence-first style of game that allows them to launch from half-back whilst maintaining a solid structure behind them to nullify the effects of any turnover of their own.
It’s nothing new. It’s not revolutionary. They’re just doing it better than anyone else in the game at the moment.
For Ross Lyon-coached teams, being the number one ranked defensive team in the game is not surprising. Hell, it’s almost expected.
Despite assurances that the Saints would not be a dogged, defensively-minded team, there they are, sitting as the number one ranked side in the AFL when it comes to points against in 2023. Essendon and Collingwood are the next best, and they both have a game to play before they’re on level-pegging with the Saints. With one game more played, the Saints have already allowed less score against them than the next best club. THAT is some impressive defence
History tells us that the Saints, with Lyon at the helm, will be the best defensive team in the game at the end of this season. He’s done it four times before. He’ll do it again.
The bloke has had plenty of options to come back and coach since departing Freo in 2019, but he wanted the right opportunity – not just any opportunity. He chose the Saints for a reason.
In a return to St Kilda, he saw a team primed to make a defensive statement. With pillars like Cal Wilkie, Dougal Howard, and Jack Sinclair in the back half, you know he sensed opportunity. You know he sensed potential. And you know he sensed success.
When you watch St Kilda play at the moment, I defy you to find one player out there not fully committed to the game plan. Just one.
From the small forwards chasing and applying pressure, to the rejuvenated wingman in Mason Wood, to the 2023 version of Brad Hill that looks a hell of a lot like the 2019 Freo version of Brad Hill that won a Best and Fairest, to the emerging young forwards like Mitch Owens and Mattaes Phillipou, each and every Saints player out there is playing every week as though it is the most important game they’ll ever play.
Lyon demands no less.
Earlier this season, there was footage aired of Alastair Clarkson addressing the first-to-third year players at North Melbourne. He told them that if they stick to the basics and work together, they’d be surprised at how quickly things can turn around. I wonder whether those same conversations have occurred within the St Kilda Football Club – quietly and privately – but the message would be the same; we’ve got this… all you have to do is believe in what we’re doing.
Enthusiasm is infectious at a footy club. Almost as infectious as negativity. Right now, despite an injury list that should have destroyed the morale of the St Kilda players, these blokes are walking on air. If there is a loose ball, they win it. If there is an aerial contest, they fly in with a reckless abandon. And if there is a chance – even a small one – that their defensive actions can make a slight difference, you’d better believe they put everything into making sure they make those efforts. It’s those little moments that make good teams great. Is that the St Kilda destiny in 2023? To be that team that comes from.the clouds?
Critics will point to the 2022 St Kilda team and insist this purple patch of form will pass. They’ll drop into the argument that the 2022 team was 5-1, as well, before falling in a hole and being unable to drag themselves out.
It can’t be disputed, however, there is a different feel to this team. I am not a Saints man, but I can feel it. I can see it.
This is not a team with a load of talented players going at three-quarter pace. When you watch blokes like Brad Hill, Jack Billings, Dan Butler, and even Jade Gresham last year (I know he as coming back from injury), you’d see a cohort of players with a mindset that “near enough was good enough”.
They were nearly a good side. They nearly applied good forward pressure. They nearly did enough early in the season to set themselves up for a run at the finals.
In the 2023 team, nearly isn’t nearly good enough!
This is a team that demands commitment. It is a team that is establishing standards that must be met, whether you’re the most talented bloke on the park or a perennial reserve. Half-efforts will simply not be tolerated.
No, what is occurring with this St Kilda team is not rocket science by any stretch. It is a coach coming in and inspiring his group to do better, work harder, and capitalise on their vast potential. It is a system being championed by the undisputed champion of the system. It is a football team finally being given the foot up the backside it has needed for quite a while, courtesy of Ross Lyon’s size 12s.
This is the standard by which the Saints will be judged during the Ross Lyon tenure. 100% commitment, 100% of the time.
This is Saints footy in 2023, and it is built on the back of hard damn work.
And so far, it has been glorious to watch.
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