• Dongquan Van Nguyen

St Kilda might be this year's premiership dark horse

While Port Adelaide and the Brisbane Lions may be the competition frontrunners and among the favourites for the premiership flag, St Kilda might just about emerge as the dark horses of the 2020 AFL season.

Going into the new season, nothing much was to be expected from the AFL's perennial underachievers, which has not made a finals appearance since 2011 nor won a final for nearly a decade.

In the intervention, the club rebuilt itself under two coaches, with Scott Watters lasting only two seasons and Alan Richardson five-and-a-half before the latter departed halfway through last season, handing the reins to caretaker coach Brett Ratten.

It's not often an AFL coach gets a second chance in the coaching caper after being sacked from their first club, but Ratten is one of the very few who has reinvented himself and received his opportunity to once again prove his worth as an AFL coach.

He has taken his second chance with both hands, and is now a much more experienced coach than he was when he coached Carlton between 2007 and 2012.

The difference between his time as Carlton and St Kilda coach was that at the Blues, he was thrust into the coaching role only four years after his playing retirement, taking the reins after veteran coach Denis Pagan was sacked with six rounds remaining in the 2007 season.

At Carlton, Ratten was lucky enough to have the services of ex-West Coast Eagles champion Chris Judd in tow, and would lead the Blues to three consecutive finals series between 2009-11, finishing fifth and winning an elimination final against Essendon in the latter year.

However, despite massive pre-season expectations, injuries and inconsistent form led to the Blues finishing 10th in 2012, with Ratten ultimately paying the price for his side's poor season and being replaced by veteran Mick Malthouse as coach.

Last September, former Carlton player Heath Scotland said the decision to sack Ratten was "a poor one".

"To be honest, I think it was a poor decision (to sack Ratten)," Scotland told SEN Breakfast.

"I thought Ratts was doing a great job. I think we might’ve won 11 games (in 2012), we just missed finals, we had a lot of injuries.

"I think Carlton acted on the opportunity to get Malthouse too quickly.

"I was always disappointed that that happened to Ratts."

After his time at Carlton came to an end, Ratten became an assistant coach at Hawthorn under Alastair Clarkson, and oversaw the club's hat-trick of premierships before St Kilda came calling for his services in 2019.

He was initially appointed as an assistant coach to Alan Richardson, which was a reversal of roles from their time together at Carlton, whereby Richardson was an assistant to Ratten in the aforementioned ill-fated 2012 season.

After Richardson resigned with six games remaining in the 2019 season, Ratten stepped up to the head coaching role in an interim capacity, as he did at Carlton, and did enough to win the full-time gig after winning three of the final six games of the season.

This was the second chance that Ratten had waited patiently for, and he was keen to make the most of it after seeing his time as Blues coach come to a controversial but ruthless end in 2012.

One of the first things he and the St Kilda playing list management did was to go on a recruiting rampage.

During trade week, they landed the likes of Zak Jones, Dan Butler, Bradley Hill, Dougal Howard and Paddy Ryder from other clubs, with Ryder (who made his debut in 2006) the oldest of the lot at age 32.

All five have played their roles as the Saints enjoy their best start to a season for quite some time, winning six of their nine games so far.

They were ultra-impressive against the Western Bulldogs in round two, while they also put last year's premiers, Richmond, and Carlton, to the sword in consecutive matches at Marvel Stadium before all ten Victorian clubs were forced to evacuate the state in the wake of rising coronavirus cases.

Last week, against the Sydney Swans, they were held on a leash for the first three quarters before they broke the game wide open in the final quarter, kicking six goals as they registered their first win over the Swans since 2012 with a 53-point victory.

Their score of 15.11 (101), of which Max King booted a career-best three majors, was also the first time since 2005 that they posted a century against the Swans (on that occasion, they also scored 15.11 (101) with Fraser Gehrig booting seven majors in his 200th AFL game).

But they could so easily have had an 8-1 record and been on top of the ladder had they not given up comfortable match-winning leads against North Melbourne and Fremantle in rounds one and six respectively.

In both of those losses, Ratten said his side could have played smarter football, but it was after the loss to the Dockers that he savaged his side for having too many passengers.

In the club's post-match review session, Ratten started with this simple sentence: "Who do we want to be?"

The players were then shown a wide range of news headlines in which they were praised for their win over Carlton in round five, before being savaged and exposed as pretenders after their shocker against the Dockers on the Gold Coast.

Ratten also questioned the players' commitment, saying that he wants the players to make the most of their time at the club and push for just its second premiership, and first since its sole success in 1966 (in which it defeated Collingwood by a solitary point).

If anything, it could prove to be a turning point in the club's recent history, as it was for the Geelong Cats in 2007.

After the Cats fell to a 16-point loss to North Melbourne in round five that season, and with then-coach Mark Thompson under the pump, the players conducted a thorough review of the club's operations in which they told each other to take a good, hard look at themselves.

It was in that meeting that Thompson singled out a kid called Joel Selwood, who was playing just his fourth game and gathered 25 disposals to be that round's Rising Star nominee (he would eventually win the Rising Star award at season's end), as someone who led his much older teammates by example.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Some 300 games and 13 years later, things had changed, with the Cats