Story of the Summer
The Saints were relatively quiet during the trade period, preferring to focus their attention on bolstering the holes in their list through the draft. The decision to trade enigmatic ruck-forward Rhys Stanley to Geelong along with pick 60 netted the Saints pick 21 in return, thus helping them achieve their aim of acquiring three first-round draft picks for the second straight year.
The loss of Stanley, which has left the Saints lacking for height in their forward line, has been somewhat offset by the acquisition of former Swan Tim Membrey as a delisted free agent. After being drafted in 2012, Membrey only managed one AFL game in his two years on the Swans’ list, but was in sublime form in the NEAFL, kicking 48 goals in 17 games. He is not a key forward, but is a good overhead mark for his size, an accurate kick, and should develop into a reliable third tall forward. Above all, his recruitment should help alleviate some of the excessive burden placed on the shoulders of Nick Riewoldt to kick a winning score for the Saints, and will complement the still-developing forward line of Tom Lee, Josh Bruce and Jack Billings.
The Saints’ long-term strategic plan, released in 2013, outlined the club’s desire to rebuild based on a foundation of astute recruitment. Their 2014 draft haul went a ways to achieving this this – with the coveted pick one, the Saints were able to recruit Patrick McCartin, the key forward they have long craved and have anointed the successor to Riewoldt. McCartin has shown signs in the pre-season competition of his potential, clunking marks and presenting strongly, giving Saints’ fans a glimpse of promise for the future. Picks 21 and 22 also netted two exciting youngsters in midfielder Dan McKenzie and versatile key position prospect Hugh Goddard. Exciting small forward Jack Lonie was recruited with pick 40, and after some good NAB Challenge form, looks likely to make an early season debut.
Where They Excel
While 2014 was a disappointing year for the Saints, their emphasis on developing the defensive side of their game was apparent during the season, with Richardson placing a premium on defensive pressure. This was borne out in the Saints ranking second in the competition for least opponent tackles per game, and fourth in the team-to-opponent tackles per game ratio.
Another positive sign for the Saints was their ranking of fifth in the competition in marks. This may in part have been due to over-possessing the ball in their defensive 50, but was also as a result of the marking prowess of Riewoldt in the forward line.
Where They Struggle
The Saints struggled in just about every facet of the game in 2014. One of the biggest challenges they faced was getting their hands on the ball, evidenced by their ranking of 17th in the competition for disposals per game. This was further compounded by their inability to score when they did have the ball, again ranking 17th out of 18 teams for points per game – to put it another way, the Saints averaged roughly 9.6 goals a game, compared to their opponents’ average of 16.5 goals per game. Scoring will again be a challenge for the Saints this season, with off-season reinforcements in McCartin and Membrey unlikely to bridge the gap of an extra six goals per game.
The fact that the Saints conceded so many goals in 2014 is due in large part to the inexperience of their defensive line up. Luke Delaney was the club’s only real key defender, and although he battled admirably, lacked decent reinforcements. Veteran Shaun Dempster, who is best suited to a third defender-type position, was forced to play on the opposition’s second tall forward for most of the season, and injuries to fellow experienced players Sam Fisher and Sam Gilbert meant the Saints fielded an extremely inexperienced back six. The Saints do have a plethora of running half backs (Shane Savage, Cam Shenton, Dylan Roberton, Jimmy Webster and Nathan Wright), but all are young and relatively inexperienced. The Saints hope that Hugh Goddard will one day become a key defender, capable of manning opposition talls, but that may take several years to eventuate.
The Year Ahead
From wherever you look, the Saints face a tough road ahead in 2015. Finishing last on the ladder in 2014 means they have a relatively soft draw, facing Essendon, West Coast, Melbourne, Bulldogs and GWS twice. The two clashes with GWS, one coming in round one, and Melbourne, shape as the most winnable, but it’s hard to see the Saints obtaining wins in any of their other games. The only other game in which they could conceivably steal a win is their Anzac Day clash against Carlton in Wellington – the Saints have a good recent record over the Blues, and will be eager to win their first match in their home away from home after two unsuccessful attempts. It’s nearly impossible to see the Saints winning any games after their round 17 clash with Melbourne, with a horror home stretch that delivers them consecutive games against Port Adelaide, Fremantle, North Melbourne, Geelong, Sydney and West Coast from rounds 18 to 23. Whichever way you look, it’s not going to be a pretty end to the season.
Coach Richardson has stated that the team’s performance this year will not be based solely on its win-loss ratio, but rather on the effort exhibited and the development of the players. The emphasis will be on developing the team’s defensive ability and being cleaner and more efficient with disposal, as well as finding more avenues to goal. Progress will be made if the team can win three or four games, have reliable scoring contributions from Membrey, Ahmed Saad and some of the more experienced midfielders, and tighten up their disposal efficiency and turnovers. This, combined with a sustained defensive and competitive effort throughout games, will set a good platform for the team to hopefully make a climb up the ladder in 2016.
Ladder range: 17-18
B: Sam Fisher, Luke Delaney, Jarryn Geary
HB: Nathan Wright, Sean Dempster, Jimmy Webster
C: Jack Newnes, Luke Dunstan, Leigh Montagna
HF: Tim Membrey, Josh Bruce, Jack Billings
F: Eli Templeton, Nick Riewoldt, Adam Schneider
Foll: Tom Hickey, David Armitage, Jack Steven
Int: Farren Ray, Tom Curren, Maverick Weller, Seb Ross