Wait, you may win

By Tom Briglia

So this is it.

For about the seventh time this off-season, we declare the beginning of a new era. This is really “it”, though. The new coach announcement, the draft(s), the captaincy announcement, the pre-season competition – they all ultimately lead to the season proper, and us finally being able to declare this moment “it”.

Like the most sane of supporters, I’m not bullish about our flag chances. It’s a tough position to be in after all the hopes we’ve had over the last decade. But there are a number of reasons why I and the football world in general would think that a premiership is beyond the club this year – most of them obvious and reasonable; anything else would be the arrogant ramblings of opposition supporters that can lay claim to having witnessed their team winning a premiership in recent times. Whatever.

Getting used to a tinkered game plan will take time, something we saw at the beginning of Ross the ex-Boss’s tenure. It’s an oft-cited example with plenty of merit, though the hope for us Saints is that the ex-Boss’s game will prove to have taken a greater learning curve to master. It relied on fanatical commitment to the most dour of styles, and it meant a season-and-a-half of one of the most attacking and entertaining teams in the competition coming to terms with the idea of relentless accountability and pressure on the opposition after seasons of wielding pace, muscle and slick skills alone as weapons in a premiership assault.

As we saw in the pre-season matches, Swat’s game plan relies a little more on the natural instinct to get the footy and move. Though the focus on defence and pressing will still be top priority, he’ll be using players that are now wired for that kind of requirement (as all players now need to be) and allow them to be let loose and be creative going forward. In theory, this should be an easier transition.

Where this could really come undone is in the simple execution of the game plan. The ex-Boss’s gameplan gave life to the careers of role players. CJ, Dempster, McQualter, Blake, Raph, Zac, Polo and so on. For those in that list still at the Saints, that’s not to say that they’re finished without Ross. It’s just that new questions will be asked of them, specifically of disposal and efficiency going forward. It also puts under the spotlight more dynamic players such as Sam Gilbert and Brett Peake who have been derided for the kicking skills in the past.

New questions will be asked of everyone, of course. But outside the role-players group a huge percentage of the rest of the team is made up of the senior core – which doesn’t quite have the same aura after last year – and the huge raft of young or new players that will have their first opportunity to get serious game time.

That senior core is amongst the best in the competition when fit and firing – Roo, Fish, Lenny, Dal, BJ, Joey and so on. After last year, however, there are a doubts about it.

Roo’s lacklustre performances throughout the season had several contributing factors: the psychological impact of leading the club through the heavy 2009 and 2010 seasons; the 2011 pre-season summer scandals; the one-dimensional focus of the side going into attack making him easy pickings for opposition defenders; the degenerative knee. A potential factor (most often bandied about by the doyens on BigFooty) is that the game has passed him by, but I would suspect this has more to do with the predictability of the side last year. Defenders knew all too often that he would be the target, outnumber him and frustrate him. The side was made to look naive on too many occasions, and everyone will benefit from a more mobile Roo and a larger spread of attacking responsibility in 2012.

After his own key role in the 2009 and 2010 campaigns, BJ was the Angriest Man in the World in 2011 and his game suffered. It’s been floated by the person himself that BJ will spend more time forward this year. The versatility of players is becoming increasingly essential in the modern game and he won’t be the only one required to add more dimensions to his game. Obviously, he’s proven in all parts of the ground – for him, it’s more about meeting his high standards in more roles than simply being a (sensationally handy) jack-of-all-proverbials.

Then there’s Lenny. One of the game’s most popular players – let alone the club’s – the probability is that it will be a difficult year for him. At least several weeks into the season there’s more than likely to be question marks over his ability to return from a second knee construction and at his age; if he can get somewhere close to his capacity then he’ll rightfully have a place in the club’s top nine or 10 players. If he can recapture his pre-Reconstruction #2 form then respect for him throughout the football world will grow from “really massive” to “even more really massiver”.

As for the youngsters, this year just might end up being about them more than anything else. The ideal squad is able to challenge for a flag and introduce youngsters to good effect simultaneously; Swat has preached that from day one but will need to have more of an eye to the latter in 2012 to make that reality in the future.

Attention will turn to Siposs, Cripps, Ledger and Simpkin particularly early in the season as they look the most likely of the youngsters to be playing consistently some time soon. Add to that the much-hyped Rhys Stanley, who – if pre-season selection was anything to go by – perhaps showed just enough in the past few weeks to warrant a spot in the side as a fumbly forward/ruckman that jumps high; either way, there’s too much potential to ignore (though I’m not sure where we’d all be at if he hadn’t run in the 2009 Grand Final Sprint). Throw in mature-age recruits Terry Milera and Ahmed Saad too, and the probable youth coterie of the side for 2012 is just about formed.

Milera and Saad look set to provide some real zip around the forward half of the ground, and have demonstrated a willingness to chase and harass the opposition and generally work hard off the ball – a glaring omission from the St Kilda teams that took to the field in 2011. It was one factor made the job of those defenders mopping up after predictable kicks to My Favourite Hair in the AFL that much easier every time.

As for Siposs, that forward line will benefit from the mobility he displayed in the NAB Cup, pushing up the ground and using his solid disposal to good effect in setting up attacks – not just finishing off forays forward himself. Just how much benefit he’ll bring will improve with time; he doesn’t turn 20 until late November. His use of the ball can’t be questioned from what we’ve seen, it’s just that he’s got to get more of it and everyone will be happier.

Ledger and Cripps form the rest of the trio of youngsters taken in the 2010 draft that people from within and outside of the club are really talking up – there’s a bit of a Smith, Brown and Jones thing from the mid-1990s happening there. Ledger’s intent at every contest is sensational and his long arms really help him get to the footy first. He was always at the bottom of a pack during the pre-season and looks set to be fantastic inside midfielder.

Cripps kicked 7.2 from 16 kicks last year but his natural game seems to be running through the middle off half-back. His pace and the best of his disposal coming out of defence could make a great weapon in breaking through other team’s presses. With all the hype around Siposs, Ledger and Cripps it’s easy to forget they all turn just 20 this year. It’s a supporters’ mindset that comes from having so many drafts wasted in recent years, with young kids making next to no immediate impression since the good old draft days of My Favourite Hair in the AFL, The Last Man to Have Captained the Saints to a Premiership of Any Kind, Nicky Dal, Lenny, Xavier Clarke and Luke Ball (sigh). (In hindsight, it’s reasonable to say a lot of those draft picks were wasted – X.Clarke at #5 in 2001 – not to mention R.Clarke at #8 in 2003 – and Ball ahead of Judd in 2001.)

Last year’s draft picks have good wraps on them already too, and a few rookies are already impressing at Sandy. The Only Ross At St Kilda and Jack Newnes look set to provide some hard-arsed, no-nonsense focus that this club has severely lacked since 1873, and 2011-drafted rookies in Dunell and Minchington have shown real presence up forward and in the midfield respectively.

Where a real difference will be made is in the group of players in their early 20s that are really ready to blossom. Big Ben made the first steps towards being a genuinely good player last year, but concerns remain for his ruckwork. Around the ground he was fantastic, though some more presence up forward would go a long way to finding a balance between using he and Big Rhys in the same side.

Another trio – this time of smaller, hard-working players – will really want to stamp their place on the side in 2012. Jack Steven did something similar to Big Ben last year, with his midfield work a revelation once thrown in there in the final quarter of the disappointing loss to the Hawks in Round 8. He became a regular in the midfield, something that Armo couldn’t quite do despite glimpses in the early part of the season. Patience is wearing thin with the 2006 Draft’s number nine pick; he’s promised a lot for a long time and with Lenny back into the side, Jack looking at home in the midfield and Ledger set to play more often 2012 is shaping up to be, yet again, a make-or-break year. If he’s going to keep giving mixed results in the midfield then he must show more across half-forward, but we all know what our preference would be.

Jarryn Geary missed a lot of 2011 with a broken leg sustained in the first game for Sandy but played the last eight games, coming on several times as a sub. His good attack on the contest and light frame allow him to play in all parts of the ground, though his disposal will need to improve for him to really make an impact on games.

I lumped Simpkin in with Siposs, Cripps and Ledger a few paragraphs ago due to his lack of games, but he’s only a few months younger than Steven. He’s got more than enough of a competitive streak in him and he looks set to play his third game this week, but his 191cm frame might be thrown around a bit at times by the bigger forwards. It might be one of the teething issues that the side will suffer from this year, but he needs to be played more than Blake for the future’s sake (there’s Gwilt to come back anyway) and Beau Wilkes looks more at home up forward.

Wilkes, if anything, looks home only up forward – a great return of three goals from several shots playing for Sandy on Sunday to go with some neat contested aerial work. His 40 goals for WAFL premiers Claremont in under half a season last year also provide a handy guide as to where he’s most suited.

Swat has declared that there will be a lot of focus on developing a squad that has the depth required to challenge and compete at the top. The mood from within the club seems to be more upbeat than it has been for years. The changes off the field will probably make as much as difference to the club as those on it. A lot of the senior players will be pushing for that last tilt at a premiership. The future is exciting, but patience will be required. So too might be a bit more pain.