Sport AFL Nathan Burke: Saints in good company on top at Easter as expectations rise
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Nathan Burke: Saints in good company on top at Easter as expectations rise

Jack Lonie shares a goal with Saints fans at the MCG on Saturday. Photo: Getty
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Easter is synonymous with resurrections and this year we are witnessing the resurrection of the mighty Saints?

Not even the hardiest and most optimistic St Kilda supporter predicted it would be sitting on top of the ladder with Geelong after five rounds of football. Especially when the team only won four games for the entire 2018 season.

I will qualify everything that follows with ‘It is only early, and there is a long way to go’. But, boy oh boy, the Saints are up and about in 2019.

So what is different?

First you have to give credit to the recruiting staff.

Whilst the big dog, Dan Hannebery, is still some weeks away, the lesser names have been inspirational.

Last year Callum Wilkie was playing SANFL football on weekends and plying his trade as an accountant during the week. This year he is patrolling the hallowed turf of the MCG like a seasoned veteran.

Callum Wilkie has transformed from accountant to AFL player. Photo: Getty

Matthew Parker, a young man overlooked in numerous drafts, had good reason to think he had missed the AFL boat. Again, here he is living the dream and making every post a winner.

We are also seeing the emergence of some real quality players.

The A-Grade potential is now turning into A-Grade talent. Jade Gresham, Jack Lonie, Jack Billings, Blake Acres, Jimmy Webster and Rowan Marshall to name just a few are starting to show how good they can be, consistently.

It’s very much a changing of the guard scenario at the Saints.

The area with the most defining changes has been the much-maligned game plan.

In 2018 St Kilda had no trouble winning the footy. In fact, it had the second most possessions of all teams.

The problem was the frenetic pace the Saints tried to move the ball neither suited their dubious skill level nor resulted in scores.

The Saints took the ball to parts of the ground that were too easy for opposition to defend and when they lost possession they couldn’t defend from.

In 2019 the movement is far more circumspect. They go slow when they need to and fast when they need to. In effect they now have a Plan B.

You get the sense the players have far more faith in this style compared to the old one.

They are predictable to themselves and unpredictable to the opposition. The resultant increase in confidence can’t be underestimated in a league where anyone can literally beat anyone.

The pressure and tackling which has been a hallmark of Saints footy for several years is still there, just more consistently.

The Saints still aren’t as skilful as some teams, so doing the hard stuff relentlessly is a non-negotiable.

Fortunately, when the pressure isn’t enough to win the ball at the source, the defensive set up has been efficient and effective.

If I had to point to one area that has been the major factor in results this year it is the defensive structures they put in place.

The defence is averaging just 64 points against, which is outstanding considering their best two defenders in Jake Carlisle and Dylan Roberton are unavailable.

Who would have thought Josh Battle, Ben Paton and Wilkie would form half of the best defence in the league?

Much has been made of the new assistants (Brett Ratten and Brendon Lade) and their impact. However if the coach is going to cop the brunt when the team is not performing, it’s only fair he gets the credit when they do perform.

Again I will reiterate, there is a long way to go.

However, from what I have seen so far, the Saints are unlikely to lose a game for the rest of 2019.

Nathan Burke is a former St Kilda captain who played 323 AFL games for the Saints, winning three Trevor Barker Awards as best-and-fairest player.