At a glance:

  • St Kilda's Head of Football Program David Rath has given insight into St Kilda's rejigged gameplan.
  • Rath and Brett Ratten, along with the Saints' coaching staff, have been developing a game-style that plays to players' strengths.
  • After over 15 years at Hawthorn and a further two at the AFL, Rath is one of the league's foremost strategists.

David Rath isn’t a household name in general football circles.

But those who've met him know of his acute footy knowledge, expertise in elite AFL coaching structures and brilliant strategic intellect.

The oft-described ‘football guru’ is one of the game’s sharpest minds and observers, and joined St Kilda as its Head of Football Program prior to Season 2020.  

Rath – who at the time was working at the AFL – was also part of the Saints’ coaching subcommittee who selected Brett Ratten as the club’s next senior coach.

Brett Ratten watches on. Photo: Corey Scicluna.

Ratten and Rath worked together at the Hawks for several years, with the pair pivotal figures in Hawthorn’s 2013-15 three-peat.

Now with Ratten at the helm at RSEA Park, the two have joined forces to revitalise St Kilda’s strategy and lead its surge up the ladder.

“Under Ratts’ guidance, we’ve been working on rejigging quite a few things,” Rath told SEN.

If we look at Ratts as a coach, he’s well recognised as a really strong relationship-builder and connector of people, but he’s also tactically very astute and that’s one of his real strengths

- David Rath

“He’s been working a lot on trying to develop a plan that plays to players’ strengths.”

Already, elements of Ratten’s mantra have seeped into the playing group.

Ben Long has moved to defence to great effect, Jack Steele is set to be unleashed inside and not always be joined at the hip to an opposition star, while Josh Battle’s reading of the play has seen him train at both ends of the ground in 2020.

READ: Steele to cast off the shackles

“Our philosophy, I suppose, is that it’s a game, so it should be played,” Rath added.

And if we’re talking about playing, then there’s a sense of creativity and a sense of probing the opposition to see what they give you and then responding to that rather than having a set plan.

- David Rath

“We want our players to be able to make decisions and we’re really trying to empower them to do that.”

Explosive and instinctive players like Jonathon Marsh, Matty Parker and Nicholas Hind – who wield the potential to be deployed as opposition off-setters – could benefit most from Ratten’s philosophy.

Rath’s keen eye, strategic mind and experience at Hawthorn and the AFL has him with a finger on the pulse to the game’s subtle changes and wider evolutions.

According to Rath, a swivel towards defensively structured football over the past decade has been one facet that has changed the most.

The former member of the Hawks’ brains-trust was one of the masterminds behind ‘Clarko’s Cluster’ in 2008.

The prevalence on zones, rolling defences and amplified tactics in today’s game is something the shrewd observer believes the Saints can capitalise off, particularly with creativity at the forefront of their gameplan.

“What’s perhaps emerging more is a little bit more instinctive offence, on the back of some stuff other teams have done as well,” Rath said.

“I think the battle between defence and offence is real in that scores have obviously tracked down for some time now.

There’s probably an opportunity to sort of kick back against that and get an opportunity to perhaps enliven the offensive side of the game.

- David Rath

Going against the norm and embracing unpredictability could give the Saints a critical edge in the amended season.

With opposition scrutiny and analysis a prevalent feature of today’s coaching landscape, having a few extra tricks in the wheelhouse and fully utilising players’ natural gifts could come in handy.

One of the reasons Rath believes the game has pivoted towards a predominantly defensive direction has been technological advances.

Intriguingly, it’s something we all take for granted today: vision behind the goals.

“It was the ability to see the game from behind the goals which was an absolutely massive change for coaches,” Rath said.

“Previously you’re looking at the game from a broadcast camera and what was called ‘Camera 2’, which was a slightly wider angle, which maybe gave you 12 or 13 players at most for each team.

“The ability to see all 18 from both teams was a gamechanger and allowed coaches to really coach structure with a real focus, and that did change the game massively.”

Rath’s keen eye will be watching on when St Kilda begins its 2020 campaign for the second time against the Western Bulldogs on Sunday 14 June.