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AFL Media Season Preview

Dinny Navaratnam, AFL Media  March 20, 2017 9:50 AM

AFL 2016 Rd 14 - Photographers Choice

Can St Kilda return to September this season?

Best 22 – round one

B: Dylan Roberton, Nathan Brown, Jarryn Geary
HB: Shane Savage, Jake Carlisle, Sean Dempster
C: Jack Newnes, David Armitage, Nick Riewoldt
HF: Tim Membrey, Josh Bruce, Jack Billings
F: Jade Gresham, Paddy McCartin, Mav Weller
Foll: Tom Hickey, Seb Ross, Jack Steven
I/C: Luke Dunstan, Jack Steele, Sam Gilbert, Daniel McKenzie

Injury list

The Saints have only one player from their best team missing but all their concerns are in the backline. Leigh Montagna won't play round one with a right calf strain but hopes to make the trip to face West Coast the following week. Key defender Hugh Goddard will be out until the middle of the year after a ruptured left Achilles tendon while Bailey Rice will miss another three weeks with a broken finger. Rookie Nick Coughlan is out indefinitely after a stress fracture in his right foot.

The big questions

Will the Saints do better when jumping on a plane?
Travelling was a major problem last year, with damning away losses against West Coast, Adelaide and Gold Coast. The club will take a less structured approach when going interstate, allowing players to do their own thing rather than filling their day with meetings and other obligations. Improvements in this department need to be seen, and they should be.

How will Jake Carlisle and Nathan Brown fit in with the backline?
It seems a match made in heaven – a team that struggled against power forwards adds two big men to handle the gorillas. Carlisle in particular might take some time to adjust after missing all of last season with a doping ban, and then spending time in the rehab group following hip surgery, but once they settle, St Kilda should be a much better outfit. 

Can the veterans keep their form up?
For so long, Nick Riewoldt, Leigh Montagna and Sean Dempster have excelled, and while Sam Gilbert has been maligned at times, his versatility and experience is valuable. The biggest question marks surround Montagna since he succumbed to a calf injury but considering his durability and consistency, it's tough to question him too much. As for the rest, they have looked impressive in the JLT Community Series and should continue in that vein this year.

Look for…

Jack Billings – Saints fans have been waiting a while for the No.3 selection in 2013 to deliver but the wingman has finally been free from injury during the pre-season and looks set to deliver on his obvious talent.

Who they play

There are six interstate trips, four of which are against finalists from last year: West Coast, Hawthorn (in Tasmania), Adelaide and Sydney. Playing the Swans and Eagles twice is tough, but return clashes versus Melbourne, Richmond and North Melbourne should be negotiable. St Kilda loves playing at Etihad Stadium and has 14 games at the venue this year. Twice the Saints will have consecutive six-day breaks, which will make recovery difficult.

Fantasy cash cow

Jack Steele might be a little pricey at $432,000 but it's hard to overlook his form in the JLT Community Series. His game time was limited in the first game but the former Giant racked up 120 points against an understrength Carlton and had the same score against a Sydney line-up containing Josh Kennedy, Luke Parker and Dan Hannebery. The main concerns around Steele are whether the broken foot that hampered his pre-season affects how he runs out the season, and him being in the risky mid-priced range, but Steele could end up being a keeper if all goes to plan.

Sudden impact

As mentioned, Jack Steele is flying and has booked himself a spot against Melbourne in round one. St Kilda needs big bodies in defence so Jake Carlisle and Nathan Brown should also be there. Koby Stevens is too good to be consigned to the VFL all year but he suffered food poisoning before the last JLT Community Series game against Sydney and didn't get a chance to show his wares against a hardened outfit. Ben Long is ahead of the other draftees but the added depth at the Saints means he will have to string several impressive performances together for Sandringham before he has a chance in the senior team.

It's crunch time for…

Nathan Freeman. Not that he needs to dominate or do anything extraordinary, but the luckless midfielder has to play consistently for Sandringham and show his body is cut out for the rigours of the AFL. He is contracted until the end of 2018 and the Saints don't have any great expectations for him this year but after he put six straight matches together in the VFL and VFL seconds at the end of last season, he needs to keep showing he can stay on the park.

Pressure rating on the coach

'The expectation starts now'. Alan Richardson's three years in the system have been about building a young team but after a 12-win season, both the club and its supporters expect St Kilda to push hard for a finals spot. The coach has not been exposed to a great deal of external pressure and St Kilda will need to start the season well to ensure that continues.

The Saints will have a good year if …

Their midfield depth has improved as much as expected.

They’re in trouble if …

Their stars get injured – that can be said about any team but the Saints are a little short on serious, A-grade players.

Pass mark …

11 wins. Finals might be the expectation but St Kilda's fixture is much tougher than it was in 2016. Another overlooked point is the relatively short injury list it had last year. The Saints took some hits in their back six but were generally healthy everywhere else. Despite those factors, the club is embracing the expectation and has put September action on the agenda. Percentage was costly for Alan Richardson's men last year so if they can improve on that 95.7 per cent mark, it would be a sign they have taken the next step.

AFL.com.au predicted ladder finish 

Ninth. Melbourne and St Kilda are the two teams with the most hype surrounding them so it's appropriate those clubs have been tipped to finish eighth and ninth respectively. The Saints would be disappointed if they weren't in the finals race coming into the final couple of rounds.

Player Ratings star

Jack Steven, No.14. The onballer's ability to bust out of stoppages and kick long makes him a very effective player. Many considered him unlucky to miss out on All Australian selection. It would have been a tough decision to make and a slightly slower last third of the season may have cost him.