Deja Saints: How St Kilda Can Wake From Its Nightmare
Last year, St Kilda was the AFL’s feel-good story.
In a season interrupted and defined by Covid, and with so many questioning the standard and direction of the game, the Saints emerged as a bombastic force.
They occupied a top-8 position for 16 of the league’s 18 rounds, possessed the competition’s 4th most potent attack and ultimately ended their 8-season Finals drought.
However, ten rounds into season 2021 and the Saints have been one of the league’s most disappointing, dispiriting units.
Saturday’s 111-point humiliation at the hands of the Western Bulldogs leaves the club stranded at 4-6 and looking more like a bottom-4 club than a possible return finalist.
This week, you’ll hear plenty concerning what's wrong with the Saints ranging from their abject defensive pressure, their lack of penetration and their inability to kick straight, and while it’ll all be true, you likely won’t be exposed to much by way of positivity.
Which is where we come in.
Let’s explore an alternative to all the understandable gloom presently prevailing at Moorabbin and probe how this snakebitten club can wake from its present nightmare.
Five of St Kilda’s six losses this season have come against seriously good opposition whom all harbour legitimate premiership dreams.
And while sure, based on last season’s performances the Saints had reason to believe they too could dine at the table of flag aspirants, the cold reality is that AFL rebuilds, particularly the likes of which St Kilda is undertaking, take plenty of time.
Last season the Saints benefitted enormously from one of the league’s cleanest bills of health, while a ladder improvement from 14th to 6th is always the kind of massive leap the sporting regression gods monitor with a smirk.
Further concerning for the Saints was that they were slapped with easily the league’s most punishing fixture heading into 2021, and which unfortunately won’t get much easier form here on in.
Instead, if St Kilda are to salvage their season, they could take a leaf out of Port Adelaide’s book and make sure they hold serve when they can.
While the Power have gained a reputation for being something of a flat-track bully, what’s too often overlooked is how incredibly efficient they are beating the teams they’re supposed to.
St Kilda is already 2-1 against bottom-8 opposition this season, and with North Melbourne, an out of form Sydney and Adelaide to come over its next three games, the Saints actually have a golden opportunity to improve to 7-6 and possibly even occupy an unlikely finals position come mid-June.
So what, they’re playing like manure
This is true. The Saints really are playing some truly insipid football at the moment.
Those 5 losses to really good teams came by average margin of 62-points, winning just 2 of the 20 quarters played in those drubbings. Their other loss to the Bombers came by a lazy 13 goals.
However, it’s well worth remembering that in the two seasons prior to St Kilda’s 2020 breakout they went 13-30, and while yes, they were indeed mightily impressive last year, this remains a list that’s still under construction and where so many of its best players are still quite young.
Last season, they were the only team in the AFL that had their entire top-5 at the Best and Fairest all 25-years of age or under, while Max King, a player that didn't nab a top-10 spot but still led the club for marks inside-50 and total scoring shots, is still only 20-years old.
History Lesson Time
Let’s interrupt this story by travelling back to the year 2014, and zeroing in on the Richmond football club. The Tigers were coming off a season where they’d just ended their own 11-season Finals drought and who, like St Kilda, was enduring an horrendous cameo appearance.
At the conclusion of Round 14 that year, the Tigers were 3-10 and in 16th place, while their tormented fanbase was in a state of heightened anxiety thinking they’d once again returned to the doldrums just as quickly as they’d escaped.
Sound familiar St Kilda fans?
What followed was the Tigers embarking on a 9-game winning streak to close out the season and achieve a completely implausible Finals spot. And while Port Adelaide easily easily brushed the Tigers aside in an Elimination Final, one could very reasonably argue the seeds of Richmond’s dynasty were sewn that season with the club refusing to lie down and wallow in their well-rehearsed pity.
Instead of wilting, Richmond used a campaign that was going nowhere to build the kind of resilience that’s served them so well during its current period of dominance.
Right now, the Saints can either chose to crawl back into their hole or use this abhorrent start as a platform for possible future success.
It’s time for Ratten to do what he does best
If Brett Ratten proved anything last season it's that a) it was preposterous that he was without a head coaching gig for so long and b) he demonstrated that he’s not only a good AFL coach, but actually one of its very best.
As coach of Carlton he played a massive role implementing what at the time was a peculiar, small, fleet-footed attack, the likes of which has now become commonplace in the AFL.
At Hawthorn, he served as Alastair Clarkson’s right-hand man, introducing some of the sport’s most innovative tactics and helping the Hawks to a premiership hat-trick, while he made an immediate imprint at the Saints, snapping the club’s offensive shackles and unleashing one of the AFL's most progressive attacks.
While clearly, nothing has worked this season, it’s time for Ratten to once again dip into his bag of tricks and emerge with something new that can potentially turn St Kilda’s season around.
And thankfully, whilst St Kilda’s form wouldn’t suggest it, Ratten actually has a list laden with talent at his disposal, and one whose favourable demographics could even herald a sustainable run.
Max King is only just starting out on what could be an extradorinaiy journey. Hunter Clark is just 23 and improving by the season and while Dougal Howard has played only 75 games, he's already established himself as one of the AFL’s most accomplished key defenders. Still only 25, but Rowan Marshall has the potentially to become one of the game's premier ruckmen, while Jade Gresham, still only 23, has incredible potential so long as he can overcome his rotten injury luck.
Meanwhile their very best player, Jack Steele, is still only 25 and 1 of just 4 players in the league along with Clayton Oliver, Nate Fyfe and Tim Taranto to be averaging at least 26 touches and 24 pressure acts per game.
The Saints aren’t without talent, yet they’re sorely lacking in both application and imagination at present, the likes of which Brett Ratten is uniquely qualified to remedy.
No, nothing's going right, Moorabbin is ablaze and their loyal supporters are desperately worried they're about to return to the bad old days.
And while things indeed don’t look good, perspective is required, along with a good dash of hope and imagination, the likes of which Brett Ratten has continually conjured over his three decades in the AFL.
Rebuilds take time, and they often take dangerous detours through the most horrible neighbourhoods, yet it's how a club responds to such hard times which ultimately defines them.
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