Prior to Round One of the 2023 season, I penned an article warning the Fremantle Dockers not to underestimate the Saints. You can have a gander HERE.
You see, every man and his dog seemed to be writing the Saints off. They had suffered a rash of injuries to key personnel prior to the start of the season and were looking like a patchwork team who were going to make up the numbers. Their new coach smiled and nodded at questions about his team, their list, their chances – a relaxed old head answering the same old questions.
I’m afraid he knew the answers even before the questions were asked.
Ross Lyon had been there before. He’d had teams with their backs to the wall. He’d had teams decimated by injury, and he’d sat at the helm of sides that had buckled down, refused to play the role they were assigned by the media, and overachieved.
This was just the latest one.
Lo and behold, after three weeks of the season, the Saints nobody believed in sat 3-0, and those who proudly announced their demise were suddenly quiet, hoping we forgot.
We didn’t forget, Bucks!
The trend continued throughout the season. People waited for them to fall over, but St Kilda stood up. They were the team predicted to drop out of the top eight by the experts.
Experts be damned… they continued to hang in there. And they made finals.
Heading into 2024, it’s a similar story. Again, people are predicting that St Kilda will fall out of the top eight. Again, people are looking to their collapse as though it is inevitable.
It’s up to the Saints and their coach to prove them wrong.
It’s that time of year, already.
The break after Christmas and New Year is way back in the rearvision mirror. The holidays are finished for AFL players, and the hard stuff starts now. Yes, the teams had been training for well over a month prior to Christmas, but as we head into 2024, 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. 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 2024.
We don’t do things by halves here, at The Mongrel Punt. 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 the upcoming 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.
Isn’t it a bit early for a season preview? Well, I suppose, but do you know how long it takes to write seven thousand words? That’s 18 x 7,000… gets out the calculator… that’s 126,000 words. The average novel is about 85,000 words, so buckle the hell up with these previews.
Also, if there are any issues that arise after the publication of the preview, they will be covered in standalone articles to act as additions to this preview.
You will not read a deeper season preview than this – I guarantee it. This is where we start the run to the new season and believe me – nobody does it better than The Mongrel.
ARE THE ST KILDA KIDS THE BEST IN THE LEAGUE?
Oh man, I am such a big wrap for the youth of the Saints, and it was evident in 2023 that Ross Lyon was completely content in putting his faith in them, as well, given the roles they occupied and retained.
Further down this preview, we’ll dive into a few of the individuals, however, collectively the Saints have compiled an impressive array of young talent that should hold them in good stead, particularly as they are the ones that seem to have embraced Lyon’s style most completely.
Whether it was Mattaes Phillipou playing every game and moving from half-forward into the middle at times, Nasiah Wanganeen-Milera taking on the responsibility as the distributor off half-back, or Mitch Owens being asked to be a bit of everything, the young Saints took everything in their stride last season and it bodes well for them going forward.
So many people jumped off the Saints early in the piece. As injuries mounted in the pre-season, Nathan Buckley – usually a considered analyst – shot off at the mouth and claimed St Kilda was a bottom-four list. Sometimes, when you hear that type of criticism, particularly before that analyst has even had a chance to watch the how the group functions together, it can light a fire under a team. The team gets a bit of F-U about them, and I reckon the Saints had plenty of that about them.
People waited for them to tumble from the eight so they could finally be right. People waited for them to fail, and even though the side was ousted in the first week of the finals, it has paved the way and given this group their first taste of success.
If they develop a bit of a taste for it… watch out.
WHAT CAN WE EXPECT TO SEE FROM THE ‘GOODFELLAS’ WING COMBINATION?
Henry on one wing… Hill on the other. Come on, Goodfellas is the perfect way to describe these two running machines. Let’s hope no one hits on their girl or they’ll have to beat his head in with the handle of a pistol.
What does Liam Henry bring to the table for the Saints? He has travelled a slightly similar path to Brad Hill to become a Saint (only without the flags), making his way across the Nullarbor from Fremantle to take up the wing role opposite him. In 2023, Henry started to demonstrate just why he was taken with pick nine in the 2019 draft.
Prior to last season, Henry seemed to be teetering on the edge of the best 22 for the Dockers. He was slight of frame (and still is, if we’re being honest) and perhaps played the game running one-way harder than the other, with his defensive efforts questionable. That changed in 2023, with Henry emerging as one of the best young runners in the competition and with that emergence, we saw his disposal average more than double.
He went from 9.29 disposals per game in 2022 to 20.44 in 2023. I’ll just get out the calculator here… that’s +11.15 on his previous year’s numbers; an outstanding return.
The criticism in 2023 was not that Henry didn’t work as hard, but that he wasted the footy a bit. In fairness, this came from Freo supporters before the odds of him leaving the club dropped, so I don’t believe this is a case of sour grapes as far as I can tell. Finding the footy ceased to be a problem; using it well became the issue.
Do the numbers back that up?
Hard to tell. He ran at 70.9% efficiency in 2023, which was slightly down on his 2022 numbers, but he was getting a ton more of the footy. Quite often, the more of it you get the more pressure seems to come your way. From what I saw and heard from Freo supporters, it was more the turnovers that came when he had time and space that frustrated them.
Can he rectify this at St Kilda?
Well, the presence of a legitimate forward target demanding the the footy might just help matters. At Freo, who was he kicking to last season? No shade intended to be thrown at Josh Treacy or Jye Amiss, but Max King presents a more imposing figure to kick the footy to than either of them, or perhaps both combined. Maybe that straightens him up a little. He is the bail out kick that will often be in Henry’s line of sight.
Brad Hill shifted between half-back and wing last season. He was always an excellent wingman under Ross Lyon and when he was announced as Saints coach, Hill was one I thought would benefit immensely. Ross knows how to get the best out of him – his 2017 Doig Medal as Freo’s best and fairest is testament to that.
Hill had been a bit of a disappointment in St Kilda colours prior to last year, even moving from the wing spot he’d owned his whole career in 2022, to play off half-back. He was still an elite runner, but I reckon it’s fair to say he was a selective elite runner.
That changed again when Lyon came on board.
Hill was fantastic last season and found much of what had been eluding him since he moved to Moorabbin. All he has to do to make this combination work is continue to do what he started last year.
I love watching the way the wingmen go to work. We have been privileged to gain the permission of the Flower family to name our Wingman of the Year Award after Robbie Flower, and I expect both Henry and Hill to feature prominently in updates as the season progresses.
This duo has the potential to run teams off their legs and be the best pairing in the game, right up there with Sidebottom/Daicos, and Langdon/Hunter. It will be interesting to see how well they combine, and how the opposition goes about curtailing their running power.
CAN THE RETURN OF DOUGAL HOWARD TO THIS DEFENCE BOLSTER THE SAINTS?
I’m a fan of Dougal Howard – have been since he decided that he was going to destroy every contest he encountered at Port Adelaide. That was before Ken Hinkley started getting experimental with him.
And no, I don’t mean that in a kinky way. Kenny strikes me as a missionary man.
Back in those days, Port had Howard killing contests, and Brisbane had Harris Andrews. Both were doing very similar stuff, but the insistence that Howard play forward seemed to sap the confidence from him for a while. Landing at St Kilda, I had high hopes for him to pick up where he left off at Port, before the… unpleasantness.
Alas, injury has stepped in and prevented Howard from getting a continued run at things over the last couple of years and we have not seen him at his best.
What does his best look like?
If we rewind to the days when he had less cares and worries in the world, Howard averaged over 12 one-percenters in 2017, and backed it up by averaging over 11 the next season. Right now, he seems like a man who has become a little lost in terms of what he can do and what he is being asked to do.
There has been a significant shift over the last five years that has seen key defenders add intercept marking to their bag of tricks. It is now a requisite of playing the role, with Andrews, Weitering, Aliir, and Moore opting to outmark opponents as often as they spoil. I can see why – it offers the chance to control of the footy, whereas the spoil opens things up at ground level for second effort scoring chances – it makes sense.
But some defenders are not naturally inclined to take grabs. As much as it pains me to say it, Howard is one of those blokes.
The Saints do have Cal WIlkie, who is one of the best in the league when it comes to intercepts. Josh Battle is no slouch either. However, Howard was in 44th place in 2023. His bread and butter is spoiling, and I wonder whether Ross Lyon will simply not ask him to do more than bring the ball to ground unless he is in position to take uncontested intercept grabs? Play to his strengths, right?
With the right supports around him, Howard has the capacity to be an A-Grade key defender. He is a contest killer at heart and needs to be permitted to do just that, without being asked to be something he’s not. And in saying that, the instruction needs to be that his fellow defenders – the small type – get to the fall of the ball quickly should the spoil not find the boundary or the goal line.
I’m still a Dougal Howard believer. I don’t think he has had the best run at it, but I do believe Ross Lyon is a master of playing to the strengths of his team, and if he does that with Dougal Howard, we could very well see him leading the league in one-percenters in 2024.
For the record, Howard is about 3.6 spoils per game off the pace on his 2023 numbers. A lot of work needs to be done to make it happen.
IS THIS THE YEAR ROWAN MARSHALL BECOMES THE MAN?
Some could argue it was last year, with a fair few St Kilda fans stating that the big man should have been in the All-Australian team. Personally, I think that is a bit of a stretch, but I do applaud the passion.
Did he breakout in 2023?
Well, he averaged a 20/20 season, with 20.54 disposals and 26.63 hit outs per game, and was a menace when it came to second efforts, elevating his tackling numbers by 34.5%. His clearance rate also jumped to get close to the career-high he set back in 2019.
When people used to speak about Brodie Grundy at his peak, it was the former Magpie/Demon’s ability to stay in the contest and almost act like an extra midfielder that made him special. That is the position that Marshall now finds himself in.
Back in 2020 (what a horrible time that was) I got a little bored with being stuck in my house 23 hours per day and decided to speculate on what the 2025 All-Australian team would look like. And yeah… as you’d expect, some of it is way off the mark, but at that point, I had a feeling that a certain big man from St Kilda might just be the number one ruck in the game.
And that was one prediction I am still quite comfortable with.
Some see Marshall as a young player. I had a discussion with an admittedly causal St Kilda fan a couple of months ago who listed Marshall as one of their excellent young players. Young is a relative term when there are two old blokes talking about footy, but he was shocked to learn that Marshall was 27 (now 28). He is right in the middle of his prime, and actually started playing that way in 2023.
The thing is… I still think he can go to another level.
Marshall is skilled for a big man, has great hands, and after tag-teaming with Paddy Ryder for years is now the number one man at Moorabbin, is primed to play great footy for a few years on end. What does he have to do to displace Tim English and claim that AA blazer?
1 – Win more hit outs.
Marshall was ranked fifth in the league in taps, but English was the man sitting one spot above him, with +4.6 hit outs per contest. I reckon some of the selectors might be sticklers for the basics, and it doesn’t get more basic than ruckmen winning hit outs.
2 – Hit the scoreboard more often.
This was where English looked great in 2023. He kicked 16 goals for the year, doubling the output of Marshall. This one is a stat that sticks out to selectors, as they see English drift forward and punish the opposition on the scoreboard.
In all other relevant areas, Marshall has English’s number. He tackled better, won more clearances, and picked up more of the footy. He was close, but not close enough. 2024 can be his season, but he just has to do the basics a little better.
Oh, and if that Gawn fella misses games again, that’d help a fair bit, as well.
WHAT IS THE PASS MARK FOR MAX KING IN 2024?
King came into the 2023 season under an injury cloud, missing the first nine weeks of the year with a bung shoulder (technical term… you can use it if ya want to) that required off-season surgery. This obviously prevented him from doing a lot of the work during the preseason and left him as a player that was lesser than he could have been.
He finished the season with a very respectable average of 2.55 goals per game, but that is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what he is capable of. I know it, you know it… hell, everyone knows it. We all just want to see him put it all together.
Max King has the potential to win the Coleman Medal. He has the potential to be the most feared offensive weapon in the competition. If he gets a run at the footy and is able to leap at it, you either get into his body and run the risk of giving away a free kick, or you reach as high as you can and try to spoil (again risking a free kick for the arm chop – you’re not going to reach high enough to cleanly spoil). Either way, it takes an exceptionally gifted athlete to match him in the air, so the bulk of the work done to engage him is done very early to put him off his line and prevent him from leaping at the footy. It’s one thing to say it is King’s responsibility to get separation and launch at the footy, but his success relies as much on his teammates blocking for him and putting a bit of pressure on his direct opponent as it does on King leaping and clunking grabs.
As much as I wrapped up the efforts of the young St Kilda forwards above, King is central to any plans Ross Lyon has for this club.
At 23 years of age, King (and his Gold Coast brethren, for that matter) is poised to take the big step this season. He already has a 50-goal year under his belt (2022) but given what we saw from an underdone version of him in 2023, we should be eyeing off 65-70 goals this season.
King is still a beanpole, but he is a lot stronger than he was when he kicked 50 back in 2022. Whilst we’re not talking Wayne Carey-like levels of power in one-on-one contests, he is now at the point where he should be able to match strength with most full-backs in the game, save the absolute best.
With Tim Membrey working back, Mattaes Phillipou, Anthony Caminiti, Mitch Owens, and Cooper Sharman on deck to provide aerial support (and perhaps capitalise on the gravitational pull of King when it comes to defenders), the Saints have the forward line to cause some real headaches.
Ross Lyon has not coached a big man as impressive as King since he had a blonde fella wearing number 12 running around for him. Let’s see if he can make the most of what King has at his disposal.
As mentioned above, the first five questions are free – the next 14-15 are for our members. Yep, I believe my work is worth twenty-five cents per day. If you don’t, that’s fine. You’re welcome to join and keep reading