St Kilda’s Jack Steven in action against Carlton’s Marc Murphy last weekend.
By LAURENCE ROSEN
Why not us?
That was the mantra at Whitten Oval as the Western Bulldogs completed their finals fairytale last year.
The never-say-die attitude, coupled with a game plan built on forward pressure and swift transition from defence, ultimately delivered them a breakthrough premiership from seventh positon.
Fast forward to 2017 and the football world has made heavy work of trying to interpret this season’s many narratives. From that unpredictability can come in not just surprising results but a shock premiership winner.
What the past few weeks have suggested is a competition where anyone can beat anyone on their day.
St Kilda have already showed they can mix it with the best by beating Greater Western Sydney in Melbourne and pushing West Coast all the way over in Perth. Why not them? If any season is to produce a random winner, it is this one.
Two weeks ago, Adelaide were the best side in the league, but over the past fortnight sides have placed a defensive tag on midfielder Rory Sloane, shutting down the team’s main threat. They lost consecutive matches.
Meanwhile, Fremantle appeared a side on the slide after three weeks, but have turned it around and only lost one of their past six.
This is a season of moving parts where things change from game to game, let alone week to week.
It presents the high-pressure Saints a chance to push right into premiership contention, while mostly slipping under the radar.
When quizzed last week on St Kilda’s fortunes, Carlton coach Brendon Bolton agreed.
“Their balance (between defence and attack) says they’re going to be a contender,” Bolton told reporters on Friday.
“They have many and varied strengths. They intercept the ball well in defence and rebound well.
“They’ve got really good midfield depth, which are using the ball really well forward of centre. As a result, they’re scoring well.”
While Bolton’s comments could be interpreted as merely praising his opposition before an important game, his take on the Saints’ fortunes has merit and only add credibility to their premiership push.
On the back of a weekend that brought into sharp focus the unpredictable nature of this AFL season, sides like St Kilda are well poised to take advantage.
Alan Richardson talks to his team during the round 3 match against the Bulldogs.
Coach Alan Richardson appears to have got the mix right between defence and attack and, crucially, they have yet to hit their peak.
The numbers reflect their ascension, highlighting how they are winning the ball off half-back, transitioning well and, when inside 50, are effective in making repeated forward entries count.
Their defensive structures – aided by the recruitment of talls Nathan Brown and Jake Carlisle – are sound and can only get better, especially in the latter’s case.
Dylan Roberton, who is currently in All-Australian form, is ranked sixth in the competition for rebound 50s. To put that into context, he’s currently ahead of players such as 2016 Norm Smith Medallist Jason Johannisen, Adelaide gun Rory Laird and Richmond’s three-time All-Australian Alex Rance.
He embodies the Saints right now – underrated but quietly getting the job done.
While the Saints are finally sorting out the defensive woes of season’s gone by, their trademark forward pressure has remained. St Kilda are currently ranked second in the league as a team for tackles inside 50 and are only behind Adelaide for marks inside 50.
Pressure players such as Jade Gresham, captain Jarryn Geary and in recent weeks Jack Sinclair are all playing their role.
Modern footy is just as much about turnovers – or lack of – as any statistical indicator and St Kilda are ticking that box too. Only GWS have turned the ball over less this year, suggesting that when the Saints do get the ball they are doing more than most with it.
Pleasingly for Richardson, their steady improvement in 2017 hasn’t been led by Nick Riewoldt and Leigh Montagna, but rather through Jack Steven, Seb Ross, Jack Billings and Jimmy Webster.
Nick Riewoldt isn’t the one making a mark.
The almost unhealthy reliance on Riewoldt in 2016 was a knock on St Kilda when they finished outside of the eight on percentage but with the Saints legend predominately now playing on the wing, those concerns are beginning to dissipate.
And perhaps the most satisfying aspect for Saints fans is they’ve come through arguably their hardest part of the year fixture-wise with five wins from eight.
Two trips to Adelaide Oval headline their season after the bye and those tests loom as defining clashes. Besides those, there are more than enough winnable games in Melbourne that if good enough, should see them push into the higher parts of the eight.
Crucially, they play two of their last three at the MCG, providing a late-season test at the home of football that should hold them in good stead ahead of what they hope is another deep finals run.
As the Crows start to wobble, the Giants continue to waver and the Dogs slowly build, the boys from Seaford deserve to be well within top four and premiership calculations.
They make not win it all, but on the evidence of eight tough weeks of football, the Saints are well in the race to break their long premiership drought.
With two first-round draft picks to come and a stack of a salary cap room to burn in the off-season, many are pinning the Saints’ hopes on the future, rather than the present.
Why not now? Why not them?