Fresh start, fresh Armitage
This time last year, David Armitage got to the starting line underdone. He didn’t feature in any of the pre-season games and was barely sighted with the main group over the summer due to a debilitating back injury. Fast forward 12 months and the contrast couldn’t be starker. The 28-year-old has completed a comprehensive pre-season program, appeared in all three JLT Community Series games and found some form ahead of the Saints season opener against Melbourne. After gathering 23 disposals, seven inside 50s and five clearances against Port Adelaide, Armitage played less than a half at Ikon Park as part of his load management program, before he finished the series with 26 possessions (11 contested) and seven tackles against Sydney in Albury. With the back injury that hampered his 2016 campaign behind him, could Armitage rediscover his sparkling form from 2015?
The best Steele from last October?
In the most eventful trade period yet, dominated by Hawthorn’s exits (Sam Mitchell and Jordan Lewis) and entries (Jaeger O’Meara and Tom Mitchell), as well as the Brett Deledio trade to GWS, St Kilda’s acquiring of Jack Steele didn’t generate too much noise. But the drums have started to beat and could grow to a crescendo this season if the big-bodied midfielder’s form continues in the home and away season. After being starved of opportunity across two seasons in western Sydney, Steele has produced an eye-catching fortnight in the JLT Community Series. He won 25 possessions (13 contested) and eight tackles against Carlton and followed it up with 28 (10 contested) and 12 against the Swans on Sunday night. The Saints decision to swap a future second-round pick for the Canberra product could join their growing list of shrewd list management moves in the free agency era.
Defensive key posts already making an impact
While the Saints’ midfield has been boosted by the acquisition of Steele and Koby Stevens, plus the potential growth from the likes of Luke Dunstan and Jack Billings, the defence looks far more capable of competing with the best attacking ensembles in the game. West Coast, Adelaide and Sydney all dominated St Kilda’s back six last year, posting high scores to win by big margins. Those losses exposed holes in the defensive key posts. The pairing of Jake Carlisle and Nathan Brown will take time to fulfil their full potential, but already they have shown signs of what is to come. Brown quelled Charlie Dixon in the Saints’ first game, while Carlisle impressed on Jackson Trengove and Paddy Ryder. Both weren’t tested too much against the Blues, before strong efforts against a Sydney forward line comprising Lance Franklin and Kurt Tippett. Their arrival has also allowed Dylan Roberton and Sam Gilbert to play with more freedom than previously, which has already had an impact in St Kilda’s ball movement out of the back half.
Selection conundrum awaits
Alan Richardson alluded to ‘selection headaches’ in his post-match press conference on Sunday night. He was asked how he could fit a combination of Dylan Roberton, Sam Gilbert and Sean Dempster into the same backline, moments after being quizzed on which ruckman would be given the nod against Melbourne. Competition for spots has never been fiercer in Richardson’s tenure. More than a handful of players will be extremely stiff to miss out when the team is revealed next Thursday night. And it’s a problem all good sides have and one St Kilda has wanted to have for some time. Did Tom Hickey’s dominant display against the Swans book his spot against All-Australian ruckman Max Gawn? Where do Nathan Wright and Jack Lonie fit in the Saints attacking puzzle? Has time run out for Leigh Montagna to return from a calf strain? So many questions emerge at this time of year. All will be revealed in just over a week’s time.
A tale of two Jacks
One Jack was taken at pick No. 42 and after a slow start to his career has won three of the last four Trevor Barker Awards. The other Jack was taken at pick No. 3 and appears on the cusp of a breakout season. Both Jack’s – Steven and Billings – approach the starting grid in a rich vein of form, following three impressive displays in the JLT Community Series. Steven started the pre-season games with leather poisoning, winning 21 touches in less than a half, before adding 23 against the Blues and 28 against the Swans. While Billings has flaunted his class and displayed why he could play a key role for the Saints with his pristine foot skills in the forward half. After collecting 19 disposals first up, Billings was close to best-on-ground against Carlton with 30 touches, before he put the gloss on his pre-season with another 25 in Albury. Steven has set a very high standard for a long time now. Billings appears to be ready to set a new standard for himself in 2017.