Say it quietly, but could St Kilda be on the brink of doing a Western Bulldogs?
There’s a lot to like about Alan Richardson’s side as they begin their first season under his leadership where the expectation is to play finals.
That’s not an external view; bookies have St Kilda outside the top eight favourites for the flag.
After jumping from 18th to 14th to ninth in Richardson’s three seasons in charge, how could the Saints not be thinking of September footy this year?
“We definitely want to play finals (and) we won’t baulk from that,” Richardson said.
He improved that forecast after completing a 2017 pre-season where St Kilda came closest to being the only unbeaten side.
“I’d be surprised if the guys don’t think they – on this small sample – have gone to another level,” he said after a three-point loss to grand finalists Sydney in their final pre-season hitout.
“We couldn’t have asked for much more. We’re a healthy list and we’re playing some pretty strong, albeit pre-season, footy.”
Bracket St Kilda firmly in a group with Melbourne and Collingwood eager and ready to re-establish themselves as an AFL force.
While the Demons have high-profile young guns and topped-up talent, Collingwood have the biggest support in the land and a list primed for 2017, the Saints have something else.
Understated blue-collar credentials that can go a long way in football.
Nothing says that more than the elevation of tough-as-nails defender Jarryn Geary to the Saints captaincy.
The 28-year-old replaces Nick Riewoldt after a decade as skipper but thankfully for fans, the 34-year-old isn’t hanging his boots up just yet.
In his 17th AFL season, Riewoldt should replicate Richmond legend Matthew Richardson, becoming more of a winger in his twilight years.
There’s no shortage of hands in the air to replace Riewoldt as the Saints forward mainstay.
Tim Membrey – whose tally of 44 majors outnumbered the mega-hyped Jesse Hogan last year – will be joined by talls Josh Bruce and Paddy McCartin and smalls Jake BIllings and Jade Gresham in a multi-faceted forward line.
Down back, Jake Carlisle’s eligibility and the addition of Magpie flag-winner Nathan Brown hardens up their defence.
But the Saints’ biggest strength lies in the middle.
Showing his ascendancy through the ranks, if Jack Steven can repeat his 2016 season, he’ll level club legend Robert Harvey with four St Kilda best and fairests.
Steven will be ably supported by David Armitage, evergreen Leigh Montagna and rapidly improving duo Jack Newnes and Sebastian Ross around the ball.
Recruits Jack Steele and Koby Stevens could prove to be canny additions, while at the very least adding to their midfield depth; a key for any AFL challenger.
Then there’s the form-line.
Since the mid-point of the 2016 season, the Saints lost just three times, beating the Bulldogs and Geelong on the way.
The draw is kind too, with just four visits away from Etihad Stadium in their opening 16 matches, and double-up meetings with Melbourne, North Melbourne and Richmond.
So while it’s easy to build a case on St Kilda returning to finals for the first time since 2011, the nuts-and-bolts Richardson isn’t allowing September to be a fixation.
“We expect to improve,” he said.
“Our focus is on what it is that will get us there rather than just worrying about outcome.
“The gap between our best and worst (footy last year) was not the sort of footy that’s going to get you into the finals or play good footy in the finals.”