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The "Ifs", "Buts" and Other Stuff - St Kilda

It was a little over a year ago and I was walking through my local newsagency shoplifti… errr, I mean browsing, when I saw a copy of the now-defunct Inside Football magazine. On the cover there were three players from different clubs with the headline “Why not us?”

One of those players was a wearing a St Kilda jumper. Yes, I know – it now seems a little ridiculous.

With the benefit of hindsight, there was no way St Kilda could’ve won the 2019 flag. They were abysmal at times, mediocre at others, and rarely showed glimpses of what some thought they were capable of. Their best win came against Melbourne, when they held off a storming Demon team to get the chocolates, but other than that, they beat who they were expected to beat (Gold Coast, Carlton) and stunk it up against the rest.

As we turn into the 2019 season, the St Kilda team requires a fresh look, and a new perspective. Their list is not terrible but they play like a team full of individuals. The look like a bunch of players who play in spite of each other, rather than for each other. Like a great Disney sports movie, they need to start coming together as a team, although I don’t think they’re going to have a fairytale finish to this season, so perhaps there is more than a dose of the Brothers Grimm in this tale than pure Disney.

The memories of 2018 have not yet faded for me. I watched Paddy McCartin drop his head as Jack Steven burned him on yet another lead. I watched it from another perspective and saw Jack Steven burn McCartin because there was no real reason he should kick it to a bloke who seemed incapable of doing what he was recruited for?

I watched Seb Ross top 30 touches per game, but questioned just how much he was hurting teams. If people were tarring Tom Mitchell with the “he doesn’t hurt you” brush, maybe they should’ve slapped a bit of that on Seb as well.

I watched as Jimmy Webster went down injured. He was their best, most consistent player to that point. His absence stung.

And I watched as players failed to improve to the point where they’d make a difference. But that’s not to say they won’t.

It’s that last point that gives me hope for the Saints in 2019. Whilst many have them slotting in toward the tail end of the ladder, there is definite room for improvement. Perhaps not to the level where Saints fans will be asking “Why not us?” but at least they won’t be looking on in despair, asking “Why us?”

Let’s take a look at some “ifs” and “buts” of the 2019 Saints.

 

IF…

… Dan Hannebery changes the way some think, he was worth the investment.

From everything I’ve read and from everyone I’ve spoken to, Dan Hannebery thinks pretty highly of himself. I’m not saying he’s arrogant; I’ve never met him, but what I am saying is that I am yet to meet anyone, or read a story about him that sees Hannebery come across as humble.

And there’s good reason for that.

Whilst the Saints have been dicking around for years now, Hannebery was a driving force behind the powerhouse Sydney midfield. Whilst St Kilda has players capable of breaking a game open, he was breaking games open in Sydney!

And now he has shown up at Moorabbin looking to add another chapter to a very good career thus far. It’s a risk – he was pretty banged up at the conclusion of the 2018 season, and many were questioning whether he’d jumped the shark in terms of his football performance, but he has shown up to St Kilda in amazing condition, and maybe he is ready to prove some of his detractors (of which I was one) wrong.

Hannebery needs to inject a bit of anger, a bit of ‘mongrel’ into a St Kilda midfield that is highly capable, yet really hasn’t learned how to knock people over and enjoy doing it. Ross and Steven both rack up the numbers, but they’re not the sort of guys to sit you on your backside just because they can. Hannebery is.

Luke Dunstan and Blake Acres look great with ball in hand, but are they the sort to bury you in a tackle and rub your face in the turf to let you know you’re in for a tough day? Hannebery is.

Now I am not meaning to paint Hannebery as some tough guy – he’s not, but what he is, is a win-at-all-costs kind of player, and if that means he has to be a complete asshole to do so, guess what? He will!

The St Kilda midfield needed a hand, and moreover, they needed a foot – right in the backside. Hannebery is the proverbial kick in the backside the “too nice” St Kilda midfield need, but he can only be that if he stays healthy.

I’m looking forward to seeing what he can offer a young group in need of leadership, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Hannebery can accomplish in new colours if he can stay healthy.

So, what’s the downside? Perhaps the players don’t react well to Hannebery? Maybe it upsets the fabric of the club? What if he’s a square peg in a round hole? Even if things go horribly pear-shaped, I reckon it’s worth the gamble. Sitting pretty and hoping for change isn’t usually a way to progress. I love organic improvement at a club, but sometimes people need a good, swift kick in the backside to get them going. If they get that with the addition of Hanners, then great.

And if they don’t, and things backfire… well, at least they had a bloody crack.

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… Jack Billings fulfils his potential, he can drag the Saints up the ladder.

This bloke… I’ve heard so many people say that in a different team, he’d be amazing. I don’t buy that for a second.

Billings has all the tools to be an absolute star of the competition, and can do it for the Saints. He doesn’t need to be traded to light a fire under him. He doesn’t need to be dropped. He needs a consistent position, and he needs to work on his goal kicking. There you go – pretty simple, huh?

Jade Gresham has usurped the role Billings was probably earmarked to play, but as Billings missed goal, after goal, Gresham started snagging them, and that small/medium forward role became his. With Billings probably not at the elite fitness level to move into the midfield permanently, it left him in a bit of an awkward situation.

He became second fiddle in a position he was best suited for whilst running into the midfield for shorter stints. Looking at Billings over the past few years, he has completely stagnated in terms of overall numbers, albeit at a level that is more than acceptable. Less than desirable, yes, but there are many worse.

He has been over 20 disposals per game in each of the last four years despite spending good amounts of time up forward, but was -1.23 touches per game in 2018. It’s not a trajectory those at St Kilda would’ve mapped out for him. His goal accuracy has been appalling, ranging from a career-high 42% in his first season, down to an abysmal 27% in 2016. Last season, he sat right at 35% for the season – still nowhere near where he needs to be as a forward.

BUT… what he did do over the last couple of seasons, which has largely gone unnoticed, is that he started to become the player to set his teammates up for the goal. He led the Saints in goal assists in 2018, with 22. Gresham was next-best with 20, and then there was a significant gap til the third placed Seb Ross with 12.

So whilst Billings couldn’t convert, what he could do was make plays for his teammates. There’s a bloke on the Richmond team named Shane Edwards who does a bit of that, too. As a result, he made the All-Australian team. Truth be told, is he THAT much better than Billings? Or did he just play on a better team?

Billings has had 22 goal assists in each of the last two years. He may not be able to hit the side of a barn when shooting for goal, but when it comes to finding an open teammate, he is right on the money.

If he gets on a roll early in the season and finds some confidence kicking for goal, this could be the year he starts to do what he was meant to do – give the All-Australian team a nudge.

 

… Rowan Marshall plays deep forward, he might be the target St Kilda need.

I’ll get onto McCartin soon, but should things not play out for the former #1 pick, the Saints have this big fella waiting in line to make an impact.

Rowan Marshall may lack a little in mobility, but in terms of sheer size and ability to clunk a mark, he may be the answer to the Saints’ dilemma of kicking goals, particularly on days when Membrey has a bit of a quiet one… which happened a little too often in 2018. Membrey did have a bag of six against the Eagles, but had nine games where he kicked one goal or less as well,

Marshall is still raw, and just 13 games into his career it’s probably too early to put him under the pressure of becoming the number one marking forward. He’ll turn 22 during the season, and will return bigger and stronger after another pre-season, but it’s whether or not his brain has caught up to his body that’ll be the defining factor of his 2019 campaign. I’ve loved that he has the ability to mark overhead under pressure, and think he’d make a fantastic long target inside 50.

I’m sure there are many plans in place for Marshall – he is a talent and he has shown that he is not afraid to trust his skills when the opportunity presents… even if those skills fail him as they did when Alan Richardson had to take him for a walk down the race to chat with him after one such faux pas.

Used sparingly as a second ruck, Marshall could be incredibly valuable against some of the bigger ruck duos in the competition. With the big men able to take clean possession from ruck contests without fear of immediately being pinged for holding the ball, having capable big men contesting every stoppage is now vital. Marshall, at over two metres tall, and 100 kilograms, will be a difficult man to move out of the way in order to take clean possession. Maybe he’ll do a little moving out of the way of his own, and get a couple of clearances along the way.

It may take longer than this season for Marshall to make an impact up forward, and a lot of what he has the opportunity to do may depend on the development, or lack thereof, of McCartin. However, at a point in the season, when the chips are down and the Saints are stalling up forward, don’t be surprised if they holler for a Marshall.

I’ll get my coat…

 

… Jack Steele isn’t regarded as one of the best two-way players by the end of 2019, something’s wrong.

When searching for real positives out of St Kilda’s 2018, this one jumps right out at you. Jack Steele made the leap to become one of the best stoppers/defensive mids in the game last year. His ability to play accountable football, whilst still collecting disposals himself, was a highlight for the Saints.

At 23 years old, Steele is maturing, but is taking on man-size roles already. Sitting right at 23.5 touches per game (+1.4), he started to become a thorn in the side of highly-rated opposition mids with his close checking. He averaged 6.67 tackles per game, which was actually down on his herculean 7.90 average in 2017, but was still good for equal fifth in the competition, and he was easily the best tackler on the St Kilda team.

Accountability and toughness were things Steele had in spades in 2018, and as such, I left him out of the section where I was talking about Hannebery’s influence on the Saints’ midfield. Steele doesn’t need Hanners’ influence to be a hard, accountable, and proud player – he already is.

So, where do we see Steele in the coming year? He is on an upward trajectory, and has blossomed in the role of accountable mid. 25 touches per game would be nice, and given he has disposal efficiency at close to 80%, the more of the footy he gets, the more the Saints will hurt opponents. He probably needs to get forward and hit targets inside 50 a little more, as he currently sits at 2.52 per game, and he only had nine shots at goal in 2018 as well.

Add seven tackles per game to 25 touches, and if we can throw in +1 clearances, and perhaps +2 contested possessions, and you might have the next Best and Fairest on your hands. He finished third in 2018, and if his improvement continues, the St Kilda midfield is in capable hands for the next few years.

That said, if Jimmy Webster goes injury free, I reckon he wins the B&F. I have the feeling he’s in for a huge one.

 

… Dean Kent is not the most underrated recruit of the year, I’ll eat a whole bag of salt and vinegar chips.

I swear, I’ll do it! Actually, if he isn’t the most underrated recruit, I’ll eat them anyway. I really like salt and vinegar chips.

Dean Kent is the sort of player that slips under your guard. While you’re paying attention to Gresham, and Membrey, and Billings, and McCartin and maybe Marshall, here’s  Kent bobbing up and snagging three goals to hurt you.

With just 11 games in the last two years, he became a bit of a forgotten man at Melbourne, and when that happens, greener pastures beckon. And for Kent, no pastures are greener than those of Moorabbin.

At his best, he could easily be a goal per game forward. He’s hard at it, and had a good start to 2018, snagging back-to-back three-goal games for the Dees before an extended stint on the sidelines. At 24 years old, and entering his seventh AFL season, the Saints have picked up a player ready to enter his peak years and deliver right now…

… if he can get his body right.

Just how much of an impact could Kent have on the Saints’ forward 50? His career-best season (2016) saw him play 21 games, average 16.2 touches, and convert 1.25 goals per game. If he does that for the Saints, and they get the expected improvements we’ve talked about above, he could be viewed as the trade steal of the year by season’s end, particularly if St Kilda progress up the ladder.

Many view the 2019 St Kilda side as an easy week in the fixture. I don’t. their talent has never been a question – it’s right there for you to see. They’ve added Hannebery and Kent, both acquisitions whose health is the only concern. If Kent is on the park and fit, he adds a dimension to the Saints’ attack that could see them become extremely damaging.

There may come a point in 2019 where Melbourne fans look longingly at the St Kilda team and feel a pang of jealousy. He used to be theirs… and now he is in red, white and black.

 

 

BUT IF…

… the Saints have won less than four games by Round 10, Alan Richardson is gone.

OK, prophet of doom stuff now. Richo was under siege in 2018, and the knives will be out really quickly should the Saints not show a marked improvement in 2019.

The draw has done them a huge favour, offering up Gold Coast, Carlton and Fremantle in the first ten rounds, with the Suns and Dockers having dates with the Saints in the first three weeks. This is St Kilda’s chance to get things kicked off on the right foot, and by God, Alan Richardson needs a good start.

Good wins over the Suns and Dockers could be just what the doctor ordered for the Saints. Momentum is a funny thing. That, and self-belief have been the driving factors behind premiership teams in recent years. Why not the 2019 Saints, particularly when they’re not exactly eyeing a flag this season; just a move from the bottom part of the ladder? A couple of quick wins and the confidence grows. Once that happens, a season starts to take shape that may be markedly different from that which experts have predicted.

I really hope Richo doesn’t do AFL 360 this season. Watching him squirm and search for answers when there were none to find was painful in 2018. I’m not sure he needed the humiliation of sitting there week in and week out explaining why his team sucked. My missus actually started calling him “the sad coach” every time she saw him on there. I reckon that says something – someone who doesn’t follow footy could pick up that this bloke was having the shittiest time having to defend his players, and his own performance week in and week out. I suppose if he takes the gig on again, and the Saints do fall over, it’ll at least make for entertaining viewing in the weeks leading up to his departure.

Personally, I am hoping he is able to pull the team together and smile more than frown in 2019. The bad thing is, it can actually get worse than it was in 2018. If he truly isn’t the right man for the job, and the players know it, I don’t think my missus will have a “sad coach” to ask about anymore after the halfway point of the year.

By Round 10, he has to have four wins. You can see where three may come. Who is the fourth? I’m calling it now; Round 4 – Hawthorn.

And whilst I am making calls… Saints 3-1 after four rounds. From there, who knows what can happen, but a 3-1 start is exactly the kind of period that starts to bring a team together.

It’d be nice to see the sad coach smiling.

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… Paddy doesn’t find his niche this season, I hold fears for his future.

So, here we are, about to enter year five of the McCartin era at St Kilda, and what do we have to show for it? Plenty of promise, and little else.

Plagued with injury, weight /conditioning issues and concussions, as well as dealing with the ongoing issue of diabetes, McCartin actually played a career-high 13 games in 2018. That’s a bit sad, huh? Career-high of 13 games…

And what did those 13 games produce? Well, there was a career-high of three goals in a game against Greater Western Sydney in Round Five, and there was… ummm… two “bags” of two goals apiece. And there was…. errrr….I’m going to stop now.

Some players come into the league with big expectations attached to them. As a number one overall pick, those expectations were magnified, and eventually, they became heavy. Are we nearing the point that they’re too heavy for Paddy to shoulder?

The past couple of pre-seasons have seen McCartin front up for pre-season training “slimmed down” and ready to be a more mobile version of the powerhouse forward he was mooted to be. But at what stage does he completely abandon being a power forward and just become another forward who runs all day and takes an occasional mark? That’s seemingly what the league wants him to be.

Is he trading what made him special for something that makes him just like everyone else? In essence, is he abandoning the model he was cast in, in the hope to be recast in a more contemporary role? Is he trying to break the mold?

I can’t see it working.

In life, people who change to fit in, to be a part of something are often miserable. They’re conforming to what society tells them is acceptable. They’re not being true to themselves, and really, that’s what Paddy McCartin is trying to do at the moment. At heart, he is a powerful forward – a young powerful forward who was always going to take time to develop into the player he was drafted to be. And after four years, both he and the club have decided the wait isn’t worth it.

What a shame. Not everyone has a tank like Nick Riewoldt or Chris Tarrant. Not everyone can run up to half back and then beat their man doubling back on the sprint. Some players are different, and the differences need to be embraced, even if they take time. Forcing him to change might seem like the right thing to do, but are St Kilda ruining the player McCartin could be by forcing him to be what he’s not?

That said, patience is wearing thin amongst the St Kilda fan base for a reason. Taken at pick three, Angus Brayshaw just finished third in the Brownlow. Taken at pick five, Jordan de Goey had a breakout year and is on the precipice of becoming a superstar of the competition, and others from further down the order - Mitch McGovern, Harris Andrews, Jack Steele and Isaac Heeney have all become very good players. If you redrafted 2014 right now, does Paddy make the top ten? Number one picks don’t grow on trees, and if they did, you don’t use them on underdeveloped fruit.

So, let’s set some realistic expectations for McCartin in 2019 – the kind of expectations that, should he achieve them, you’d look at him as worth sticking by as he refines his game.

You’d want 17 games out of him this season. Knocks to the head are a horror to deal with, but if he stays out of the way and doesn’t get his marbles scrambled again, it’d be a start. Two contested marks per contest is desirable. It doesn’t sound like much, does it, especially when you consider he was taking 1.55 in his second year in the comp, but here’s the list of players who were able to do it in 2018.

Mason Cox, Tom Hawkins, Max Gawn, Majak Daw, Jack Riewoldt, Lance Franklin, Jack Darling, Aaron Francis, Matt Taberner, and Jeremy McGovern. That’s it. Just 10 men were able to crack that number. McCartin took 15 contested grabs in 2018 in total – he has some work to do. By adding his name to that list in 2019, McCartin will prove he belongs, and he’ll give his teammates some hope that when they kick to him, he’ll reward them. As stated above, he has work to do there as well – I watched Jack Steven burn him a couple of times, and I reckon it was simply because he didn’t trust him. If he takes a few marks, that trust will return.

And finally, goals. As a young key forward, he is actually averaging less than a goal per game. It’s not good enough. With the expectation of two contested marks per game come two goals per game as well. His career-high in a season is just 14, in 2016. Paddy needs to blow that out of the water.

Oh, and he needs at least one game where he slots 4+ goals.

So, 34 goals from 17 games, two contested marks per contest and we’re still on the McCartin-Train. Anything less, and I am afraid I’m off at the 2019 Post Season station. A bit harsh? Well, that’s what you get when I get impatient.

 

OTHER STUFF

As much as I have written about others thus far, Jake Carlisle is one who deserves some column space. I reckon he looks like he’s going at three quarter pace all the time, and thus he cops a bit of flack. He had a couple of ordinary moments in 2018. His dropped mark against the Giants that effectively cost the Saints a chance to win was almost a metaphor for their season. Whether Phil Davis interfered in the spoiling action as Carlisle tried for a second bite at the ball shouldn’t have factored in. As good as he is, he should’ve one-grabbed it.

The second moment was his ‘mistimed’ spoil that sent Jack Riewoldt crashing to the turf. They’re not exactly the moments you want highlighted on your CV, are they? Carlisle needs a big year. As Essendon start to ramp up their challenge for a finals spot, it must burn Carlisle a little. It was him who wanted out of Essendon. It was him that chose St Kilda, and now, he will play a big part in whether the Saints are able to climb the ladder, or whether they stay in the bottom half. He’s 27 years old – his time is now.

I stated above quickly that I reckon Jimmy Webster wins the B&F if he’s healthy. He started 2018 like a train, registering 24 or more touches in six of his first nine games before injury sidelined him. Once back, he was unable to recapture his early-season form, and finished the season averaging 22 disposals per game. For reference, after 10 games, he was averaging 25.3.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Webster charged with the majority kick-in duties this season, displacing Shane Savage as preferred kicker. This will capitalise on his run-and-carry. Without having to kick it to yourself, I expect Webster to grab and go more often than not. Might be one to watch for stat-heads.

So, as with every team, organic improvement will be vital. Where does it come from for the Saints?

I touched on Jack Steele before, and Jack Billings as well. The latter simply has to be better in order for St Kilda to start climbing, but he could be helped along nicely by a nice jump from Blake Acres. I liked his use of the ball in 2018, and he looks like the prototypical mid/forward if you were charged with designing one. I’d like to see him earn a little more of his own touches and get that contested possession total up around 10 per game (+1.1), and he’ll have to be a bit better around goal as well (29% accuracy in 2018).

Hunter Clark is another who should be better this year, and if both he and Ed Phillips can string together a few good games, the Saints will be getting a lift from rather unexpected sources – that’s what teams do when they suddenly improve out of sight. Nick Coffield showed a fair bit in his first year in the game, as did Ben Long in his second year. Significant improvement from either would be a tremendous shot in the arm.

The young talent is there, and I am a big believer that improvement from within will supersede any recruitment. Picture it, Saints fans – Long, Coffield, Clark, Acres, Billings and Steele all raising their game, complemented by the additions of Hannebery and Kent, and the return of Dylan Roberton. Excited yet? What about Billy Slater becoming part of the club? Will he bring a winning attitude with him? Will he teach some of these boys what it takes to be successful?

We touched on the draw a little earlier, so no need to rehash what’s been said. The Suns, Blues and Dockers twice each allows the Saints a genuine chance at building a solid win total. Let’s face it – if they’re losing those games, they don’t deserve to move up the ladder. They also get the Crows and Dees twice as well – those two are tough asks.

Their last three weeks could be pivotal. If they’ve caused a couple of upsets and done what is expected of them against  lesser teams, the Saints go into the final three weeks against Freo at Marvel Stadium, Carlton at the MCG, and finish with Sydney at the SCG. Two out of three is a very realistic goal.

Looking at the season as a whole, if things go right, are the Saints ok to start using the f-word? You know the one…

Call me crazy, but I actually think the Saints underperformed significantly last season, and may have lulled a few people into thinking they’re genuinely no good. 9-10 wins is not out of the question, and if they’re around that mark, a sniff of finals may compel them to find a little extra.

So righto – a 3-1 start is on the cards, the team is choc-full of talent, and they have players of high calibre that can go to another level. Will the stars align, or will Paddy McCartin get a head knock from a late spoil at training by Jake Carlisle and the wheels fall off completely.

The Saints were horrible in 2018. It wasn’t even a roller-coaster ride; it was all downhill. This year, I think they’ll be seeing a lot more ups to make up for the downs. Anywhere from 9th-14th is in play.

But don’t say the f-word…

… yet.

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