Ladder position: 18th
Indicative selections: 1, 21, 38
Gone: James Gwilt (delisted), Clint Jones (delisted), Lenny Hayes (retired), Sam Dunnell (delisted), Trent Dennis-Lane (delisted), Beau Maister (retired)
Going: Terry Milera (requested trade to SA), Adam Schneider, Arryn Siposs
Pleasingly for Saints fans, there were a number of improved performers this year. Young midfielder Jack Newnes had a superb season, showing an ability to amass disposals at will while also winning plenty of contested possessions. He is very highly rated internally, and is being groomed as a future captain of the club. Key defender Luke Delaney also had a great year for the Saints. Recruited from North Melbourne at the end of last season, Delaney played every game, holding down the full-back role with aplomb. Young defenders Cam Shenton, Nathan Wright and Jimmy Webster also cemented places across the half-back line, while recruit Mav Weller found his niche as a shut-down midfielder. Seb Ross also showed that he has the potential to develop into a solid contested-ball winner; he just needs to exhibit this on a more consistent basis. Josh Bruce, recruited as a defender, was solid down back before a mid-season shift to the forward line saw him become one of the focal points of the Saints’ attack.
Jack Billings and Luke Dunstan made an immediate impact in their first year of AFL. Dunstan looks a ready-made replacement for mentor Lenny Hayes, while Billings oozes star quality. Development of his fitness and strength will see him push into the midfield in coming years. Blake Acres also showed promise in his three games before injury, as did Eli Templeton. Saints’ fans also got to see a glimpse of the mercurial Spencer White – playing in the final two games of the season. White is still raw, but showed undeniable talent.
Not his fault, but it was another disappointing year for Daniel Markworth. Touted as a future star, Markworth has been unable to play any AFL games since being drafted in 2011 after three years crueled by injury. Forward Tom Lee had a shocking year, playing only a handful of games and performing poorly in each one, while ruckman/forward Rhys Stanley continues to tease, showing glimpses of talent, but being unable to put this together on a consistent basis. Forward Arryn Siposs was another who had a disappointing year, and is playing for his career in 2015. Terry Milera was another who would fit this boat, but has already requested a trade back to his native South Australia.
Firmly in rebuilding mode, last season saw sweeping changes to the Saints’ list. New coach Alan Richardson and list manager Chris Pelchen were ruthless in their list management strategy, trading first choice ruckman and possible future captain Ben McEvoy to Hawthorn, and allowing veteran Nick Dal Santo to leave via free agency.
The strategy was to gain three picks inside the top 20 in the draft. Armed with pick 3 already, the McEvoy trade allowed the Saints to net picks 18 and 19, which they used to recruit Dunstan and Acres. Pelchen has flagged the same strategy this year, which suggests that the Saints will again be big players in trade week come October.
Clearly, there are many areas in which the Saints are deficient. Captain Nick Riewoldt had a stellar year, capped off with an All-Australian berth, but the lack of support he had in the forward line was evident all year. Stanley was inefficient and inconsistent, while Tom Lee and Beau Maister also proved ineffective. Josh Bruce showed promise as a forward, and Richardson may be tempted to play him as a swingman next season. White clearly has talent, but is still very raw, and cannot yet be relied upon to be a consistent second or third tall. Thus, recruiting a key forward is the number one priority for the Saints.
Bruce’s move to the forward line, while advantageous for the Saints’ scoring ability, left them undermanned in defence. Delaney was solid at full back, but Bruce’s move left Shaun Dempster exposed and having to play as a key defender, a role he fulfilled battled manfully in all season, but not one that Richardson would want to make permanent. The Saints do not have a developing key defender on their list, so recruitment of a ready-made defender in the Delaney mould, as well as some youngsters who can fill the position in a few years is crucial.
Another area of weakness has been outside run. The Saints have a number of outside midfielders, but none is particularly quick. They also lack genuine goal-kicking midfielders, which was evident in their lack of scoring potency. Young midfielder/forwards Brodie Murdoch and Josh Saunders were recruited to play this role, but they are still developing and have been inconsistent to date.
For the first time since 2000, the Saints hold the coveted number one draft pick, meaning the world is their oyster. In a draft filled with excellent key position talent, the Saints can have their pick of the best young key forwards in the country. Ruck/forward Patrick McCartin seems to head this list at the moment, but other choices could include Peter Wright and Hugh Goddard. Any of those players, while still developing, could make an impact next season, and relieve some of the heavy burden carried by Riewoldt.
However, complicating matters is the scintillating form of midfielder Christian Petracca. After playing as a forward alongside Tom Boyd last year and kicking 40 goals, Petracca developed into a genuine midfielder in 2014, and had an outstanding season. He racked up plenty of the ball, averaging 25 disposals, but still managed to hit the scoreboard. If Petracca slides past the Saints, he will be snaffled up by Melbourne, as he is a genuine match-winner, and will be a definite star of the competition. The Saints, then, are faced with the age-old dilemma of whether to recruit the best available player (Petracca), or the player they most need (McCartin).
Integral to this decision will be who the Saints can pick up during trade week, and, more importantly, whether they can engineer a similar draft strategy to last year. Holding picks 1, 21 and 38, there’s room to move for the Saints. Pelchen has ruled out pursuing any free agents, and has again stated his desire for three picks inside the top 20, meaning the Saints will be looking to the trade table. The Saints’ are also open to trading the number one pick.
This being said, there are several permutations that could take place. One scenario is a trade with Gold Coast who, thanks to a compensation pick, hold three top-30 selections (7, 14 and 28). A deal involving picks 1 and 38 for a player and picks 7 and 14 could be a possibility – Gold Coast is well stocked for young talent, so they could then look to on-trade pick 1 to a team in desperate need of a key forward, say Carlton, for some more experienced players.
GWS could also factor into negotiations. Young talls Kristian Jaksch and Sam Frost have already signalled their desire to head back to Victoria, while midfielder Jonathon O’Rourke is considering his future. The Giants would love to get their hands on Petracca, while Jaksch and O’Rourke are two talented young players who the Saints could add to their arsenal. Frost would be a boost for the Saints’ developing back line. A deal involving pick 1 and these players could be a win-win.
Trading would seem the Saints’ best bet of uncovering a key defender, and on this front there are a number of options. Essendon defender Tayte Pears has been starved of opportunities, as has West Coast defender Mitch Brown (who the Saints tried unsuccessfully to poach him last year). Frost would also complement the list, as would Western Bulldogs youngster Michael Talia.
It was interesting that the Saints decide to delist rather than trade James Gwilt. At 26 and having played 100 games, Gwilt could have carried some currency in trade negotiations. As it is, he will find another home as a delisted free agent.
Saints’ fans will be waiting with bated breath to see if Pelchen pulls off any audacious moves like last season. If Pelchen wanted to be really bold, he may look to trade David Armitage. Armitage has some serious currency, and while his departure would leave a gaping hole, you have to trade something good to get something good, as was the case with McEvoy. Stanley could also command some interest, although trading him would leave them largely bereft of tall stocks.