Despite consistently fielding one of the youngest defences in the league, St Kilda's backline brigade took big steps forward in Season 2020.
Bolstered by new recruit Dougal Howard, a redeployed Ben Long and the return of Jarryn Geary from serious injury, the Saints' new-look defence quickly became one of the most reliable in the AFL.
With Brett Ratten backing in the youth of Hunter Clark, Nick Coffield and Ben Paton, complemented by the experience of Jake Carlisle and the consistency of Callum Wilkie, the new group's accelerated cohesion spelled successful on-field results.
Heading into Round 1, St Kilda's backline minus Geary averaged 41 games; a number bolstered significantly by Dylan Roberton (129).
But as the year wore on, the remodelled rearguard continued to deliver and ultimately, played a significant role in guiding St Kilda to its first finals campaign in almost a decade.
Games (2020): 19
Games (career): 41
Season averages: 13 disposals, eight effective kicks, four rebound-50s, three spoils
Best game: Round 10 v Gold Coast, 18 disposals, six marks (three contested), four rebound-50s, four one-percenters
Key stat: First for St Kilda's rebound-50s and effective kicks, second for one-percenters and spoils, third for intercept marks
St Kilda’s ‘Mr Reliable’ was all that and more in just his second season at the elite level.
Yet to miss a game after bursting onto the scene in Round 1 2019, Callum Wilkie further entrenched himself as a core member of St Kilda’s backline and a first-rate leader of the defensive end.
The 24-year-old’s one-on-one work was just as sublime as his elite rebounding, with Wilkie boasting one of the best figures in that area across the entire league.
Wilkie’s marshalling of the back six alongside Dougal Howard transformed the duo into important leaders on game-day, with their accelerated development in that area set to play a pivotal role heading into 2021.
The No. 44 bettered his year with another top-10 finish at the Trevor Barker Award, but again flew under the radar at this year’s Brownlow Medal count.
Games (2020): 19
Games (career): 64
Season averages: 11 disposals, seven one-percenters, seven spoils, four marks
Best game: Elimination final v Western Bulldogs, 20 disposals, 15 rebound-50s, 604 metres gained, 10 one-percenters, six marks
Key stat: First for St Kilda's one-percenters and spoils, second for rebound-50s, third for effective kicks
Widely acknowledged as the ‘steal of the trade period’ from the moment he put pen to paper, Dougal Howard proved those assertions correct in his maiden season as a Saint.
The former Port swingman locked down the Saints’ key defensive post from Round 1, putting his body on the line on countless occasions to get his side out of danger.
Thumping spoils, classy exits and shutting down key forwards all featured in Howard’s wheelhouse this season, with a 15-rebound effort in the elimination final arguably his best game for the club.
Howard closed out his first year at St Kilda with a third-placed finish at the Trevor Barker Award, joining fellow recruit Dan Butler on the podium.
Games (2020): 18
Games (career): 36
Season averages: 15 disposals, seven marks, six intercepts, three rebound-50s, two intercept marks
Best game: Round 16 v Hawthorn, 21 disposals (95% efficiency), 11 marks, two rebound-50s
Key stat: First for St Kilda's marks, intercept marks and intercepts, second for effective kicks, third for rebound-50s, equal-third for effective disposals
A meteoric rise up the ranks from Nick Coffield – who was overlooked in Round 1 – confirmed his place as a key member of St Kilda’s backline for many seasons to come.
The 20-year-old played every game post-restart, impressing through his intercept plays and safe hands to become one of just five players in the league to top 100 marks during the 2020 home-and-away season.
None were more important than his four intercept marks in the final quarter of the elimination final against the Western Bulldogs, which played a critical hand in steering St Kilda to its first finals win in a decade.
Coffield’s unwavering year was recognised with a top-five finish at this year’s Trevor Barker Award, the Best Emerging Player Award and a place in the AFL Players’ Association 22Under22 side.
Games (2020): 18
Games (career): 47
Season averages: 17 disposals, four intercepts, three tackles, two rebound-50s, two clearances
Best game: Round 8 v Port Adelaide, 24 disposals, five rebound-50s, two clearances
Key stat: Second for St Kilda's defensive-half pressure acts, third for ground-ball gets, equal-third for effective disposals
It’s hard to fathom how Hunter Clark, Nick Coffield or Ben Paton didn’t poll a single Brownlow vote between them in 2020, but it doesn’t take away from their sensational campaigns.
The smooth-moving Clark started the season across half-back and always appeared to have all the time in the world, even with the pressure cranked to insane levels.
Moves into the midfield in the latter stages of the year were just as successful, with an inspiring second half against West Coast a glimpse of what’s to come in 2021.
Clark finished ninth in this year’s Trevor Barker Award and earned selection in the AFL Players’ Association 22Under22 side.
Games (2020): 19
Games (career): 35
Season averages: 13 disposals, four marks, four intercepts, three rebound-50s
Best game: Round 9 v Sydney, 14 disposals, seven marks, five rebound-50s, four intercepts
Key stat: Fourth for St Kilda's rebound-50s and marks, fifth for intercept marks and intercepts
With a slew of defenders and new recruits flooding into the side at the start of the season, Ben Paton appeared to be one of the young talents to be squeezed out of the line-up.
But Season 2020 was quite the opposite, with the country kid from Tallangatta playing every game this season as a crucial shutdown defender.
All-Australians Eddie Betts, Tom Papley, Toby Greene and Charlie Cameron all featured on Paton’s rap sheet, with the no-fuss Saint getting the job done every time with minimal external plaudits.
Paton finished just shy of the top-10 at this year’s Trevor Barker Award and also dipped out on selection for the 40-man AFL Players’ Association 22Under22 side.
Games (2020): 15
Games (career): 45
Season averages: 12 disposals, six intercepts, three marks
Best game: Round 4 v Richmond, 17 disposals, eight intercepts, seven tackles
Key stat: Second for St Kilda's intercept possessions
There was always that ‘one player’ in pre-season tearing up the track, and for the Saints, that man was Ben Long.
A relocation to his customary half-back position showed the 23-year-old at his best, with sensational intercept plays and toughness in the clinches standing tall each week.
Long’s electric start appeared to be soured by an ankle injury, before the season restart allowed time for him to fully recover and play a crucial role in the Saints’ campaign.
Bumps on Sean Darcy and Jack Macrae halted the young Saint’s run throughout the course of the year, but it will do nothing to lessen his toughness at the contest heading into next season.
Games (2020): 16
Games (career): 204
Season averages: 10 disposals, 11 pressure acts, three marks, two tackles
Best game: Elimination final v Western Bulldogs, 12 disposals, seven marks, two goals
Key stat: Top-10 for St Kilda's intercept possessions
When he wasn’t bagging goals of his own up forward, skipper Jarryn Geary was superb in shutting down his opposition’s avenues to goal.
A new role as a defensive forward opened up for the 200-gamer throughout the course of the year, with Jason Johannisen, Caleb Daniel, Sam Docherty and Brodie Smith all having their colours lowered by the resourceful Saint.
It was only fitting that Geary – the last active player from St Kilda’s last finals campaign in 2011 – would play a critical role in the club’s drought-breaking triumph against the Western Bulldogs, slotting two match-winning goals to put his side into a semi-final.
The 32-year-old similarly celebrated his 200th game in Round 16 against Hawthorn; a game the Saints won by 14 points to take another step towards finals football.
Games (2020): 13
Games (career): 147
Season averages: 11 disposals, six marks, four spoils
Best game: Round 4 v Richmond, nine disposals, nine marks, two rebound-50s
Key stat: Third for St Kilda's spoils, fourth for intercept marks
After a torrid run with injury in 2019, Jake Carlisle was back to full fitness and full impact as a key member of St Kilda’s backline.
Often tasked with the handling of the opposition’s burliest key forwards, most notably Richmond’s Tom Lynch, the long-sleeved Saint helped stabilise the Saints’ backline each week and continually provide a presence in the air.
Prior to dipping out of the senior side in the latter stages of the season, Carlisle sat in the club’s top-two for spoils and marks, and had only been beaten in one-on-one contests a handful of times.
Carlisle departed the hub on the eve of the club’s semi-final clash to be with his wife for the birth of their third child.