Successful venture: but not by the looks on these faces. Coach Scott Watters and Saints players show their disappointment after the loss to Sydney in Wellington on Thursday. Photo: Sebastian CostanzoRebuilding can be a dirty word at football clubs. The same miserable Melbourne weekend that Mark Neeld declared his Demons were implementing ”a rebuild of a rebuild”, Scott Watters took many at his club by surprise when he commented that St Kilda was in rebuild mode.
While you could argue the incremental merits of the comments by the dispirited Saints coach – his team had just opened its season with disappointing losses to Gold Coast and Richmond – it seems beyond doubt that few at the Linen House Centre had seen them coming. Not the board, not the executive and certainly not the senior players.
Sam Fisher, speaking in Canberra the following week, made it clear that rebuilding was not a popular term among older players, who saw it as a suggestion their careers were rolling to a close. Captain Nick Riewoldt, another passionate card-carrying member of the 2003 Saints players pact, was mildly more enthusiastic and spoke of the responsibility of all senior players at all clubs to help develop younger players. There is no doubt that the senior players had, at the very least, not bought in to the concept that the club, which narrowly missed finals last year, was in some form starting again.
Since the Richmond loss, the club has worked to rewrite its public philosophy. Football boss Chris Pelchen publicly hosed down the rebuild talk earlier this month in what seemed a strategic interview. Watters, like many St Kilda coaches before him, is being encouraged not to let the burdens of a relatively under-resourced club weigh too heavily upon him.
The obvious symbol of St Kilda’s position is Brendon Goddard. The Saints chose not to keep him last year and he chose not to stay.
Goddard, too, was part of the agreement during the Grant Thomas era that the group of young stars would stay together until they achieved the ultimate success – but the lure of success, an extra year of football, and an extra estimated $750,000 made him choose Essendon.
That, and the most compelling fact that he felt his old club had not worked as hard as possible to keep him. Only he knows why the pent-up emotion leading up to the Essendon-Saints clash caused him to shed tears after the game, but it seemed significant that he looked a little lost and alone after the siren sounded and was not exactly mobbed by former teammates.
Symbolically again, the club redesigned the Saints’ adornments in the Linen House gymnasium at the end of last year. Gone was the large poster of the players – including Goddard – walking onto the ground before one of their three grand finals over 2009 and 2010.
While some senior players raised their eyebrows, the philosophy behind the large new photographs placed around the walls spoke not of removing Goddard but of a new beginning and a refusal to dwell on the past. The sad fact for Riewoldt, Lenny Hayes, Fisher, Nick Dal Santo, Leigh Montagna and Stephen Milne is that a Saints flag will not come for them.
St Kilda’s executive was emphatic that it was right not to match the Essendon offer, but the fact remains that some older players remain equally firm that the team was good enough to keep challenging. If the club had to work to regenerate Watters with a dose of optimism, then surely Watters’ tough task is to bring his senior group on board.
Dal Santo appeared on Friday to have cautiously signed on, after joking that the word rebuilding was a dangerous one. ”Whether it’s called rebuild or whether it’s called fresh blood, it’s needed, there’s no doubt about that,” he said. ”In the past we’ve had a pretty solid, set team for quite a while, and things have changed a little bit. That’s just the way footy goes. At some stage you do need new guys to come through and take some responsibility, and that’s happening a little bit.”
Certainly the state of St Kilda’s list, while uneven and ageing in terms of its stars, is not in a terminal state. Rhys Stanley, Nathan Wright and Brodie Murdoch stand out as future stars, while Ben McEvoy, the hot favourite to take over the captaincy from Riewoldt, and David Armitage have become obvious leaders. And if Riewoldt is nearing the end of his career, it is proving a more than impressive twilight. He starred again on Thursday night in New Zealand.
The Saints’ history-making foray into New Zealand was a success mitigated only by the result. In fact, the staging of a game in Wellington seemed such a perfect fit that you had to question why it hadn’t been achieved earlier, given the number of times practice games have been staged there in the past 15 years.
St Kilda was not the first club to suggest New Zealand, but it was the first club to pull it off and, as Andrew Demetriou said before the game, the Saints were a club that ”needed to be bold”.
The club will reap about $500,000 from the game and clearly the cautious long-term plan is to make Wellington a part-time home of four games a season. Two games a year seems likely from 2014, and with Anzac Day falling on a Friday next season, that fixture looms as a good fit embraced by AFL travelling fans and locals alike.
Having secured a healthy new major sponsor and having quietly but firmly transformed its board over the summer, St Kilda looks increasingly healthy off-field. The one rider on that is the vexed question of Seaford. This remains an inherited reality – a home with a frighteningly long lease that the players remain less than fond of. Just how the new board and AFL-endorsed executive can remedy the situation should they choose remains intriguing.
And then, of course, there’s the football team – a work in progress but not, according to everyone in it, a wreck in need of rebuilding.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.