St Kilda’s 69 point victory over Hawthorn arrested a run of disappointing results for the club but Coach Brett Ratten was most pleased by his team’s efforts to help their teammates. “We just spoke to the players then,” he told the assembled media. “And the most pleasing thing was not about getting the ball it’s what they were doing for each other,” he said. “It was the really pleasing aspect to our game and I think the care for each other, and the desperation, and the little things, it actually made other players better in the game and that was really the most pleasing thing. I thought we, as a group, everybody was doing something to help a teammate.”
While admitting it might not be a natural mindset for the players, he believed that it was in this space that the team produces its best footy. “Sometimes if you’re not going so well you try and maybe focus on what you can do to try and change the momentum of games,” Ratten suggested. “But to think of others first is probably the greater power of it and we had that tonight which was great. The start got us off to a, we got real reward for our efforts early and it then becomes contagious and it flows through the whole team,” he said.
As pleased as he was with the performance, Ratten was keen to keep the result in perspective. “It is [but] we aren’t getting carried away,” he said when asked if it was the sort of performance that can kick start a season. “The Hawks had a couple out. Key players. With [Chad] Wingard and [Jaeger] O’Meara. O’Meara’s been in really good form. But it was a bit about what we had to do tonight. Not really the opposition and there were aspects to our game,” he said before acknowledging his team remained a work in progress. “We’ve still got some work to do. Towards the end, they came back a bit, kicked a few goals when the game was over but it was one of those things in the game. But I think we are still really improving as a team and that was a shot of confidence for us.”
Coming back to the side after a prolonged absence, Paddy Ryder’s impact was noticeable. It did not go unnoticed by his Coach. “He’s a really good player Paddy,” Ratten enthused. “I think what he did towards the back end of last year showed everybody what he is capable of and even though he might be getting a little bit older but I think he’s probably getting a little wiser too with what he’s doing,” he said with a smile. “I’m really pleased for Paddy because he’s journey so far this year, he’s struggled with some things personally and then to get back. It’s really good to see him back with a smile and he knows how important he is for our footy club and our team. He and [Rowan] Marshall together, you know, that helps [Max] King. It’s just the snowball effect and for him to be playing the way he did first up was very pleasing.”
Despite his advancing years meaning careful management of his body is required, Ratten suggested that the fixture might mean that the veteran ruckman might not need to be rested from games. “I think that will be a talking point depending on, we haven’t got too many short turnaround games coming up,” he said. “We had that five dayer against Richmond which we couldn’t play Marshall and Jones. I don’t think we have many of those games coming up so we might be able to look after him during the week to get him up. He’s pretty important,” he stressed.
But is he the most important player in his team?
“I think its more that he is an extremely important player,” Ratten said. “I think it’s the combinations that make him so important because what it does for Marshall which then is what it does for King. Probably then at every centre bounce what [Jack] Steele gets out of it, or Jones, or [Seb] Ross, or Bytel, or [Brad] Crouch so he’s pretty important though,” he said.
Despite being a lightning rod for criticism early in the 2021 season, Brad Hill has had no bigger advocate than his coach. It was no surprise then that Ratten was particularly pleased with the 27-year-old’s 27-disposal performance against the Hawks. “I thought he was very good, I thought some of his defensive acts were outstanding,” he told reporters. “That smother early in the game, that was a real sign of how invested he is. He’s copped some criticism, and I think sometimes unfairly and he’s been working extremely hard, but for him to bounce back tonight I think was great.”
Had his teammates looked for him more? Ratten didn’t think so. “Not really,” he answered. “I thought we tried to activate our plays a bit more and his running capabilities. Him, and [Jack] Sinclair and a few others, [Zak] Jones, they were quite busy. They got on the end and got some reward.”
In just his ninth game, Jack Bytel impressed again with 21-disposals and an equal team-high seven clearances. Ratten was impressed with what he saw from the 21-year-old. “His work inside, he’s very creative by hand and seems to find a little bit of time and space,” he said. “He’s a young man, he missed his whole first year as a footballer in the AFL system with the back but he’s really progressing well and showcasing what he can do.”
Second gamer Ryan Byrnes also impressed the coach. “We call him Ronnie. Ronnie Burns,” Ratten joked before sharing his opinion on the 19-year-olds game. “Yeah, Byrnsey’s run and ability to get up and then spread, he’s got fast feet, he’s competitive and he just keeps grinding away. He’s a young kid who’s played one game of AFL football before tonight, it was good for him to get some reward but he’s going to be a good player for us for a while,” he enthused.
The highlight of the day came from Hunter Clark with a goal of the year contender that saw him smother a Hawthorn kick and gather the loose ball then evading capture spectacularly before splitting the middle. Asked his thoughts, Ratten answered. “And then probably the next one as well, he’s probably got two goals of the day back to back,” he said full of admiration and with a nod to Clark’s second goal in the final quarter.
“We know what Hunter can do, today was a little bit different for him in where he played but he has always showed his class and poise,” Ratten said. “He seems to have more time than others do but he’s still growing. He’s still got aspects of his game but we all know what he can do and potentially the sky is the limit for him. He’s growing and getting a lot of self-belief.
Refusing to be drawn on where Clark’s best position would be, Ratten vowed to continue taking advantage of the number seven draft pick’s flexibility rather than play him in a set position. “He uses the ball so well and just plays left and right so you can’t tell which side he kicks the ball. But I think he could nearly play anywhere and maybe that’s what we need for him to play in multiple positions and allow others to showcase what they can do in a more primary position. So he has that flexibility and I think we should keep using it.”
Are there any players coming back from injury or suspension?
“[Daniel] McKenzie through suspension will be available and [James] Frawley will play tomorrow, [for Sandringham against Box Hill in the VFL], so we’ll have a look at him and see where that sits,” Ratten said.