If a week is a long time in football, four years is an eternity. It was only four years ago that Geelong and St Kilda were the two powerhouses of the competition, with Mark Thompson’s Geelong claiming the premiership over Ross Lyon’s St Kilda in 2009. Yet as the teams prepare to confront one another on Saturday night, the teams will be nearly unrecognisable to the two teams which had one of the great rivalries of the mid-to-late 2000s.
An obvious difference which has affected both sides is the man in charge, with both Thompson and Lyon seeking new challenges at Essendon and Fremantle respectively. With Chris Scott taking over at the Cattery in 2011 and Scott Watters taking the helm for the Saints in 2012, the clubs have moved away from the tactics of years gone by. St Kilda’s change has been particularly noticeable, as Lyon’s ultra-defensive mindset has been diminished as Watters has looked to employ a more attacking game plan for St Kilda.
It isn’t just the coaching personnel that have changed, with both lists boasting noticeable changes. 20 of the 44 players that took the field in the 2009 Grand Final are no longer playing for either Geelong or St Kilda. Players such as Gary Ablett, Brendon Goddard, Cameron Ling, Luke Ball and Matthew Scarlett have moved on, providing opportunities for players such as Josh Caddy, Jack Newnes, Billie Smedts and Tom Curren.
Despite these superficial similarities, the differences run far deeper. Since the 2009 Grand Final, St Kilda has introduced 32 new players, while Geelong has introduced 26. However, only 20 of the Saints’ debutants remain at St Kilda, while 24 of the 26 Geelong debutants remain at Geelong. Incredibly, the only two debutants for Geelong not to remain at the club are Jonathan Simpkin and Orren Stephenson, both of whom remain in the AFL system.
St Kilda is attempting to fix this troubling trend of failed debutants, with Tom Curren last week becoming their 10th debutant for 2013. However, St Kilda’s lack of middle-aged players has caught up with them, leaving them anchored near the bottom of the table, while Geelong continues to be a premiership threat.
Saturday night’s match at Simonds Stadium is unlikely to provide the drama and intrigue that these two sides were famous for, dating all the way back to the 2004 Wizard Home Loans Cup. In light of St Kilda’s win, Paul Chapman controversially claimed that Geelong knew they were the better side. That claim was proven true in 2007, 2009 and 2011 when Geelong won their three premierships, and it remains true to this day.
St Kilda will continue to develop their young players, and may continue to struggle for a few seasons. This will be difficult, but what will be more difficult is when they compare themselves to the still-mighty Geelong and ponder what could have been. On Saturday night, St Kilda will glimpse into what used to be a mirror, and realise that with better player management, better recruiting or any number of variables, they too could still be a threat for the flag. Four years is a long time in football, and these two sides have provided demonstrations of just how good and bad those four years can be.