A “theme of hard work” is the unsurprising cornerstone of this year’s pre-season for Ross Lyon, and when coupled with the Saints’ emerging young core, sees no reason why the Saints can’t take control of their own story in 2024.
Lyon’s first year back at the helm unearthed several positives - headlined by St Kilda’s pulsating young talent - which culminated in the club’s first finals appearance in Melbourne in over a decade.
Now with all the pieces in place, a refreshed young list in tow and a demanding pre-season looming to cap it all off, Lyon is eager to start the pre-season on the right note as the Saints look to pen an even better sequel to its milestone season.
“My expectation is you do the work, focus on action and write your own story,” Lyon said at his first press conference of the pre-season.
“We did it through hard work (in 2023). We unearthed a lot of exciting young talent and we’ve gone to the well again at the National Draft in particular, and the three we’ve brought in (through trade) - particularly Liam Henry and Paddy Dow - are 23 and under.
“It was hard to lose some loyal servants, but we just feel that we’re shaping the list around Mitch Owens, Marcus Windhager, Nasiah Wanganeen-Milera, Anthony Caminiti and Mattaes Phillipou. If you go back over history, I think at least over six to 10 years, a batch of five or six like this hasn’t come in for a while.”
A large driver behind St Kilda’s finals revival last season came from its youth, which although was partly forced by extensive injuries to key players, proved to be an indisputably game-changing silver lining.
Owens and Wanganeen-Milera’s starring campaigns at either end of the ground earned them top-five finishes at the 2023 Trevor Barker Award, Windhager found a new role at half-back after breaking his way back into the side, Phillipou played every game in his debut season to be the first Saint to do so since Callum Wilkie in 2019, while Caminiti’s unconventional arrival as part of the pre-season Supplemental Selection Period saw him line up for 18 games with barely a pre-season under his belt.
This year’s draft haul added another five promising youngsters to the mix, headlined by first-round selections Darcy Wilson and Lance Collard, defenders Angus Hastie and Arie Schoenmaker, midfielder/forward Hugo Garcia and Category B Rookie Liam O’Connell.
“I think we can run the dual-narrative like last year, we exposed a lot of kids… and with the amount of games we played finals, and I think we can do it again,” Lyon said.
“We’ve got some really good ball-getters, but we did want some more speed. All the kids that we drafted were sub-three seconds (in the 20-metre draft combine sprint) and we love speed and endurance.
“Specifically, Henry and Dow have got some speed and power, and Riley Bonner’s got some real run and kick. He got squeezed out of a top-four club, really, he’s been well coached by Kenny (Hinkley) so we’re keen to have him.”
The Saints will be further buoyed by the return of Tim Membrey next season, who was a late omission from the club’s elimination final against GWS last September due to a personal health matter.
Although managed for today’s rain-soaked and humid training session at RSEA Park, Lyon is “thrilled” with where the key forward is at heading into 2024.
“He’s in really good shape, he’s really blossoming and feels good. He’s got a lot of support - I think that’s the beauty- and there’s no stigma. We’re thrilled with where he’s at.
“Our two power forwards basically didn’t play (last year), so I think Caminiti and Owens will look forward to playing with them.
“He basically hasn’t missed a session, he’s four kilos lighter back to his sort of ‘fighting weight’ so to speak. We’re really expecting he can really deliver.
“There was really no Zak Jones, no Membrey and what Max King did off no work is incredible - basically played 10 games and kicked 33 goals. We think there’s some real upside in those guys and we expect our younger players to continue to improve.”