Surprise-packet Saints make strong statement to start AFL season

Perception often lags behind reality in AFL football and in the case of Sunday’s game between St Kilda and Adelaide, seemingly about three weeks behind.

Check the betting for the clash at Etihad Stadium and you’ll find Adelaide still a comfortable favourite at $1.65, the Saints paying a more generous $2.25.

That’s certainly at odds with the AFL ladder, on which St Kilda sits ninth with two wins and a very honourable loss in Perth against West Coast. Adelaide in contrast is second last at 0-3 and has lost its three games by an average of more than 50 points.

But while the naysayers would point to the Saints' two victories over Melbourne and Greater Western Sydney as hardly the stuff of "we were wrongs", there’s enough to suggest even from St Kilda’s loss last Saturday to the Eagles that the Saints are presenting a stronger case in 2014 than most of the football world expected.

New coach Alan Richardson at his very first press conference at the helm of St Kilda last November said he wanted to make sure his Saints would be "a really competitive, aggressive, hard-working footy team". So far, he’s been true to his word.

St Kilda’s biggest statistical improvements thus far in 2014 have all been in key defensive aspects of the game. Richardson’s Saints like forcing stoppages and contests, and they’re doing it a lot better than did their predecessors. Last year, the Saints were forcing an average 58.2 stoppages a game, the second-least of any side in the competition. So far in 2014, that average has climbed to 72.7 and a ranking of sixth. It might not always make for the prettiest football, but so far it’s been pretty effective.

In 2013, St Kilda was minus two on the contested ball differentials, a ranking of 13th. After three games this season, the numbers are plus 6.7 and a ranking of sixth, just behind West Coast, which it beat for contested possession last Saturday. And that pressure is having a big impact on helping its defence stem the bleeding.

Last season, the Saints leaked goals like a sieve, about 14 a game, a number exceeded by only three rivals. At the moment, it’s just 10 goals a game, a ranking of equal third. Even in victory over the Saints, West Coast, which had booted nearly 40 goals in its first two games, was restricted to only 12.

Richardson has his team working hard enough defensively for its inside 50s against ranking to have climbed from 12th to fifth and marks inside 50 against from 15th. And what opposition entries are coming in are also being dealt with more efficiently. The goals per entry percentage falling to 21.7, fourth-best in the AFL and up from equal 14th.

"The boys have been pretty good, really strong with their commitment to defend as a team. We’ve certainly ticked off that area so far," Richardson told SEN on Wednesday.

The other area for which the coach should get a big tick is development. First-round draft pick Luke Dunstan has had a big impact, but so, too, have second- and third-year players such as Jack Newnes, Josh Saunders, Tom Curren, Jimmy Webster and Nathan Wright.

"They are young blokes and still need to improve in significant parts of their game, but they’re heading in the right direction, there’s no doubt about that," Richardson said.

And again, the numbers confirm the decreasing dependency on the same names whohave held the Saints up for a decade.

Dunstan is currently ranking equal first at the club for tackles and second for both contested ball and clearances. He’s tied for second in the last category with Curren, who’s also third for contested possession and equal third for hard-ball gets. Saunders, meanwhile, shares that No.1 ranking for tackles with Dunstan.

Richardson’s greatest strengths as an assistant coach at a score of AFL clubs at which he’s worked have always been his capacity to teach and develop. And while the punters may still be yet to cotton on, St Kilda - within a month of the season’s start - already appears to be reaping the benefits.

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