While Max Gawn is clearly the most improved ruckman in the AFL this season, if not the most improved player, St Kilda’s Tom Hickey isn’t far behind the bearded beast, in regards to improvement. After playing 11 games last season, parked behind Billy Longer in the ruck depth chart, Hickey has soared in 2016, playing every game to establish himself as a critical component in the Saints’ engine room.
He recorded a club record and career-best 56 hitouts against Port Adelaide in Round 1 and has since averaged 28.9 hitouts (No. 8 in the AFL), 8.8 hitouts to advantage (No. 7) and 3.7 clearances (No. 5). Numbers aside, Hickey has become far more damaging with the ball and become an extra midfielder around the ground at times. Rarely has he had his colours lowered this season, stretching last year’s All Australian ruckman Todd Goldstein and twice beating this year’s No. 1 Gawn.
It’s hard to believe that Tim Membrey had never kicked more than two goals in a game prior to this season, such has been his astronomical rise in 2016. In 12 games last year, the former Swan kicked 9.7. In 14 games this season he has booted 39.18 (No. 11 in the AFL), after overcoming an interrupted start to the season due to a post-season shoulder reconstruction. But since working his way back into the senior side in Round 6, Membrey has been arguably the most improved forward in the AFL.
He has booted four bags of five this year, the equal second most behind reigning Coleman medallist Josh Kennedy, who has five next to his name. He averages 2.8 goals per game, the equal fifth most with Eddie Betts. At 188cm and 88kg, Membrey isn’t key position size, but his ability overhead and game nous to get to good spots has seen him establish himself as a vital part of St Kilda’s future. The 22-year-old is averaging 3.4 marks inside 50 this season (No. 4 in the AFL) to emphasise his ability to find the ball in dangerous spots.
Injuries have held him back in recent years, but in 2016 Seb Ross has broken the shackles to produce a breakout season. The tough inside midfielder has improved his outside game this season, increasing his output from 18.2 disposals in 2015 to 26.0 (No. 3 at St Kilda) this season, growing his uncontested ball from 11.7 to 18.5 (No. 2) and his inside 50s from 2.6 to 4.4 (No. 3).
After missing the entire first half of last season due to a severe hamstring injury, Ross has played every game this year, amassing seven 30 + possession hauls to emerge as one of the best midfielders at the club. It would come as little surprise to see him feature prominently in the Trevor Barker Award next month and he could even poll well on Brownlow night, given his strongest performances have come in some of St Kilda’s best wins.
While the three names above have produced a dramatic spike in output this season, there are a couple of others who have also come on in leaps and bounds in 2016. Jack Newnes has continued to move along a north-east trajectory year-on-year. He hasn’t leapt from one point to another, instead incrementally improving this season, averaging career-highs for possessions (23.1), uncontested possessions (16.4), inside 50s (4.6) and rebound 50s (2.7). His durability is also a feature given the fact he has played 66 successive games – the longest current streak at St Kilda.
Maverick Weller is another player on the rise this season, adapting to a new role with aplomb. After beginning his time at the Saints as a negating midfielder, Weller shifted into a defensive forward role in the latter stages of 2015; a position he has spent the bulk of this season in. He sets the tone for pressure in the Saints forward half, creating multiple re-entries, and is ranked No. 1 at the Saints for forced turnovers in the front half this season with a total of 47 across the ground this year. Weller has also impacted the scoreboard this season by kicking 23.18 (No. 4 at St Kilda) and is averaging 16.2 possessions and 6.1 score involvements (No. 6) per game.