Youngsters to take St Kilda back

Tom Hickey was sitting in his car on the Thursday morning last October that Ben McEvoy was traded to Hawthorn. The first thing he felt, when the text message arrived, was shock. The next thing he wondered was how his suddenly former teammate would be feeling, and who would be St Kilda's next number-one ruckman. It wasn't until a few days later that it dawned on him: he would be the Saints' new number-one ruckman. "I can remember thinking, Oh..." Hickey said. "I'd better get back into the gym."

He wasn't the only one. When Jack Newnes was drafted three years ago he wasn't sure how long it would take to play in the same midfield as Nick Dal Santo, Leigh Montagna, Brendon Goddard and Lenny Hayes, but presumed it would be a long while. When he finished his first pre-season in the VFL reserves, Jimmy Webster didn't even really feel like a St Kilda player. And in his first few games last year, Josh Saunders simply wanted to get his hands on the ball. "When you start out you're just happy to get a kick. You're not thinking just about yourself, but you can stress out a bit and lose some confidence if you can't find the ball," he said. "After a few games it's different. You start to feel like you want to have more influence. I think all of us young guys feel more like that now."

They don't have much choice, because the St Kilda side that plays Melbourne in round one will look a little unfamiliar. There's a new coach, Alan Richardson. There's no Justin Koschitzke, no Jason Blake, no Stephen Milne. McEvoy is gone, and Dal Santo too. Hayes and Montagna are out suspended, and Jack Steven is injured. But the Saints played nine debutants last year, more than any other side. Three more kids will start out tonight; whatever happens this season, the club has already started trying to get back up the ladder. "There's going to be more responsibility on us, and the senior guys have already said that to us, that if we're going to improve then it can't be up to them and it can't be up to the first-year players," said Hickey. "They've said that it's up to the second, third, fourth-year players to start showing some more direction, to start trying to drive things."

It started in the pre-season. In the players' leadership sessions with Leading Teams, Nathan Wright figured out that it he wants his teammates to be honest with him, he needs to tell them what he really thinks, in a constructive way. On the track, having to show more direction in training sessions made Newnes think more about what the group was meant to be doing, and trying to achieve. "We want the training track to be somewhere where everyone knows where they're at and everyone is thinking about their teammates more," he said. "It makes you notice more things, and think about other players, and try and help everyone out."

Off the track, the young players didn't sit down with their development coaches and get told what they were doing right or wrong. Instead they had to package up their own highights, and talk their coach through it. "We don't want them to rely on us," said development manager Paul Hudson. "We want them to do things, rather than wait to be told, and I'd like to do even more things like that. One of the things I'd like to do with the young guys is have them all go and coach a side, an under-8 side or something like that. When they have to explain things, I think it helps them understand it. They think more about what they're doing."

Now they need to take it into games. When he started, Webster didn't want to get in the way of any senior players, and neither did Saunders. "When you play your first few games and you've got guys like Lenny Hayes and Nick Riewoldt around you, you know what they can do and you assume they'll just do it. You don't really want to get in their way and even though the coaches tell you to play your game, you're not sure you really have the licence to," he said. "But I think those guys want us to do more now, they want us to help them." Newnes agrees. "I think Richo wants us to do things. He doesn't care how old we are or how much experience we have, as long as we're doing the right thing. I reckon he'd love it any of us knocked over a senior player at training trying to get the ball."

When Hickey realised he was no longer anyone's understudy, he got to work. He took knock after knock after knock at training, and tried to still keep running. Saunders asked Montagna for advice on how to work his way into a game when he couldn't find the ball easily. Newnes felt not only confident enough to throw himself at more balls but strong enough to, and they weren't the only kids doing their best to get better. Seb Ross, Brodie Murdoch, Tom Curren, Daniel Markworth, Arryn Siposs and Tom Lee are just six of the many other young Saints who want to do their bit this season.

And for a long time after it. Newnes has always noticed how much Riewoldt, Hayes, Dal Santo, Goddard, Montagna and others were able to share, having played together for so long and in teams that achieved so much. He hopes he and his teammates have already started doing the same thing. "We've got a big group of young guys now, and we just know that if we do everything right we could be playing together for a long time," he said. "It's exciting, to feel like you're embarking on a journey and like you'll be able to make a difference."

The story Youngsters to take St Kilda back first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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