It was exactly four weeks ago that the heartbeat of St Kilda’s season was becoming more and more faint.
As Brett Ratten’s thunderous voice rattled the changeroom walls of Cazalys Stadium in the aftermath of Round 13, the reality of an inexcusable surrender to Adelaide began to sink in.
It still could come back to be the game that haunts the Saints in six weeks’ time, but it nevertheless unearthed something the side hadn’t experienced throughout its exhilarating 2020 campaign: what it felt to like have their season dangling by a thread.
The fans felt it too. The general consensus among the fraternity was that the season was fractured beyond repair; an impending dressing down at the hands of the Tigers post-bye would all but confirm it.
But the inevitable didn’t arrive.
Instead, the resuscitated Saints stunned the footy world with a shock dismantling of the reigning Premiers at the MCG, backed it up with a mostly complete display against Collingwood before their most cohesive, four-quarter display of the season against Brisbane last Saturday.
Suddenly St Kilda – who only a month ago was one crushing blow away from dropping to the canvas – is fighting for this year’s survival with newfound vigour.
With six games left they sit ninth on the ladder; its predicted ledger of 5-11 at the conclusion of Round 17 remedied to 8-8.
But just who’s driven the resurgence hasn’t squarely rested on the shoulders of Jack Steele as it had in previous weeks.
Saturday night was the perfect exhibition of all 22 players executing their roles – all for the betterment of the team – to full effect.
Jimmy Webster won’t earn the praise he should for locking down All-Australian Charlie Cameron, nor will Seb Ross or Jack Billings after another pair of consistent displays complete with 24 touches apiece.
But it’s St Kilda’s young core – largely unheralded externally – that has really elevated in recent weeks.
It’s something Ratten has reinforced throughout the year: growth and forward momentum will stem from the club’s youth.
Yet with key staples of the brigade in Hunter Clark (broken jaw), Nick Coffield (hamstring), Jack Bytel (only recently returning from concussion) and Josh Battle out of the side – plus Ben Paton (leg) absent for the entire season – it’s fallen to the next iteration to pick up the slack.
Ryan Byrnes is yet to draw the plaudits that others his age have across the league – nine out of 10 people could walk past him in the street without knowing who he is – but the maturity in his game has been crystal clear for those keeping an eye on the former Sandringham Dragons skipper.
Two goals, seven score involvements and 15 disposals on Saturday night was another tick in his 11-game career. Not ground-breaking figures by any means – his touch and influence suggest otherwise – but it’s exactly what his side needs him to do.
He’s not even plying the trade he was drafted for.
The ball-winning midfielder is instead holding down a role across half-forward and serving as the conduit between the engine room and attack; a position he’s pinned down since coming into the line-up in Round 7.
Eventually with more game-time and experience under his belt he’ll transition into the next-generation midfielder he was recruited for, but his place in the Saints’ current fabric has been critical over the past month.
Then there’s Tom Highmore, whose evolution from a ‘Callum Wilkie clone’ to a courageous player in his own right has steadily won over admirers from St Kilda and beyond.
The “shining light” from an otherwise sour evening in Cairns (22 disposals, 15 intercepts, 13 marks) has seasoned into an unflustered addition to St Kilda’s remodelled backline.
Highmore backed up his wonderful month with a team-high nine intercepts from 16 disposals and seven marks, bravely perching in front of oncoming traffic or flying in from the side to win the ball for his team in defence.
Like Wilkie, it feels like he’s been in the side for far longer than 10 games. He’s the player who does the little things right, and the calibre of Saint who you’ll incessantly rave about to your mate in the stands.
‘Gees, how good is this kid.’
And don’t forget the crown jewel Max King, who has realigned his radar and rekindled his confidence to register seven goals post-bye.
All three of his majors against the Lions were slotted in one scintillating quarter, but it was arguably a towering, contested mark to put through his second which had the faithful in raptures.
Keep in mind the 21-year-old was matched up on two-time All Australian full-back Harris Andrews.
Give it time, and one electric seven-minute burst will meld into one terrific performance.
Add Leo Connolly into the young mix after his unexpected debut against the reigning Premiers, the aggression of Ben Long after relocating into the attacking half plus the hunger of Dan McKenzie and the shift in the Saints' output has been there for all to see.
A dash of composure, a touch of grit, a hint of young brilliance: all pitching in to create the winning recipe to keep the Saints’ fight for survival going for another round.
Generally speaking – with the exception of King – it would be the aforementioned Saints who would be the first to give way with an influx of returning players on the horizon.
But any potential changes to the line-up aren’t as clear-cut as they were some weeks ago.
Jack Higgins is due to come back from back soreness, as too Mason Wood after being a late withdrawal from hamstring tightness, not to mention Jack Bytel and Josh Battle lie in reserve alongside several others like Jack Lonie who are banging down the door. Veterans Dan Hannebery and James Frawley are building back up from respective injury setbacks.
The Young Core 2.0 have more than proved their worth, but more importantly have emphasised their importance to St Kilda’s current fabric in the roles they play.
There’s just six games remaining this season, and while that fabled ‘F-word’ will inevitably creep into the vernacular, the mission remains the same.
Find the consistency, maintain the team-first mantra and build around the core.
Who knows what could happen from there.