Saints' season review: Development continues, veteran shines, injuries hurt

ST KILDA started the season with a bang, recording big wins over expansion sides Sydney and Hawthorn, but then struggled to consistently bring that sort of footy against the better sides. 

Battling consistent injuries to important players, the Saints worked with a new mindset focused on gaining territory and becoming more of a forward half team. While at times that worked, in other moments it didn't, but it is all an indicator of a developing side. 

Over the next few weeks, womens.afl will look at each of the 18 AFLW teams' seasons in reverse ladder order.

St Kilda celebrates a goal against Sydney in round one, S7, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

Head coach: Nick Dal Santo 

Leadership group: Hannah Priest (captain), Kate Shierlaw, Bianca Jakobsson (vice-captain), Nicola Stevens 

Ladder position: 13th, three wins and seven losses, 82.3% 

Debutants: J'Noemi Anderson, Deanna Jolliffe, Simone Nalder, Hannah Stuart (AFLW debuts), Erin McKinnon, Nicola Stevens (club debuts) 

Milestones: Nicola Stevens (50 games), Rosie Dillon, Caitlin Greiser, Molly McDonald, Georgia Patrikios, Tarni White (25 games) 

Rising Star nominations: Nil 

Retirements: TBC 

Hannah Priest in action during St Kilda's clash against Port Adelaide in round nine, S7, 2022. Picture: Getty Images

Best team performance 

Although a loss, St Kilda's performance in round six against Collingwood was its best showing of the season. Without key players Olivia Vesely and Erin McKinnon, and coming off a 50-point loss to Geelong the week prior, the Saints almost caused an almighty upset against a Pies side that – to that point – had lost just one game. 

The Saints brought the pressure around the ball, laying 74 tackles, and also went at the highest disposal efficiency of their season, going at 64.7 per cent. Up forward, they scored from 57.1 per cent of their forward entries – their second highest rate of attack of the season. 

It was a four-quarter performance against an eventual finalist, something rarely seen from St Kilda, and save for a last-gasp stunner from Eliza James, would have been an unexpected victory. 

AFLW S7 Highlights: St Kilda v Collingwood

05:30 Oct 1. 2022. 6:03 PM

The Saints and Pies clash in round six of the 2022 NAB AFL Women's Competition

Best individual performance 

Hannah Stuart's performance in that close loss was a sight to behold. Plucked from the Southern Saints' VFLW program which made this year's Grand Final, Stuart was known as an elite ball-winner through the middle of the ground. Tough, persistent, and reliable. Once reaching AFLW level, it took a few games to settle in but by round six she was starring. 

Against the Pies, Stuart had 25 disposals – the most of any Saint all season – laid five tackles, won four clearances and kicked two goals. She was a key cog in that near upset, and everything was built from a willingness to dig in and do what the team required of her. 

That movement from midfield into attack was something the Saints lacked against better sides throughout the season, so when Stuart was able to bring that, it was a game changer. 

Brilliant Stuart gives Saints the early jump

00:50 Oct 1. 2022. 4:23 PM

Hannah Stuart bursts her way through and kicks her side's first goal of the afternoon inside the first minute

Most improved 

Starting the season with a bang, Kate Shierlaw had the best season of her career at the age of 33, proving there is no age limit to improvement. Prior to season seven, Shierlaw had never kicked more than one goal in a game. That was a record she broke across the first three weeks of this season, including a career-best four goals in round one

Shierlaw also set new personal bests for disposals with 15 in round five, and marks inside 50 with three in round one. Being used across different lines as the season evolved, Shierlaw averaged 8.3 disposals, 3.8 marks and 2.6 score involvements. 

All of which resulted in the vice-captain being named in the All-Australian squad, win the Saints' best and fairest and leading goalkicker – all for the first time. 

Shierlaw stars with fantastic four-goal haul

02:14 Aug 27. 2022. 7:32 PM

Kate Shierlaw kicks off the season with a bang, notching four goals for the Saints

Star recruit 

While she only featured in the first half of the season, Erin McKinnon's impact in that time proved just how valuable a recruit she is. Her neat tap work and physicality in the ruck set up the Saints midfield beautifully, but in what was an impressive personal improvement, McKinnon was able to increase her impact around the ground. Averaging a career-best six disposals, McKinnon won 20.4 hitouts per game. 

A concussion in round five as the result of a dangerous tackle – which earned Geelong's Georgie Prespakis a two-match ban – stopped McKinnon in her tracks. Unable to play after that incident, it is easy to forget how important of an addition she is to the Saints. 

Erin McKinnon contests the ruck against Tamara Luke during St Kilda's clash against Hawthorn in round two, S7, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

Unsung hero 

Clara Fitzpatrick is an inaugural Saint who slipped off the radar after a combination of visa issues and injury kept her out for two seasons. Returning this season, however, she slotted straight back into her key defensive role and thrived. 

Fitzpatrick averaged 8.4 disposals, 2.1 one percenters and 5.3 intercepts in her return season. Working well in tandem with Bianca Jakobsson and Bec Ott, Fitzpatrick's combination of one-on-one ability and speed makes her a really hard player to line up against, and the Saints really missed her when she was sporadically unavailable during the season. 

Clara Fitzpatrick in action during St Kilda's clash against Collingwood in round six, S7, 2022. Picture: Getty Images

What went well 

St Kilda's mindset heading into the season was all about gaining territory. Too often in the past were the Saints trapped in defence, bereft of options to clear the ball, so with that metres gained mindset, they were able to not only create more scoring opportunities but also settle more into a forward half game. 

From that, they worked hard to keep the ball inside 50, averaging a club-high 12.2 tackles inside 50 per games across the course of the season. This included a round one competition record of 34 tackles inside 50 in their 29-point win over Sydney. 

This style of play allowed Kate Shierlaw to thrive ahead of the ball, and Bianca Jakobsson in her aggressive rebounding role. 

Brooke Lochland is tackled during Sydney's S7 round one clash with St Kilda at North Sydney Oval. Picture: AFL Photos

What needs improvement 

Injuries to kay players – specifically Erin McKinnon, Bec Ott and Clara Fitzpatrick – did see the Saints break down structurally in the second half of the season.  

The defensive trio of Ott, Fitzpatrick and Jakobsson found a groove with each other, allowing the latter to play an intercepting, rebounding role because of the trust in the former pair to play more direct roles. Once one, or both of those lockdown options were unavailable, St Kilda started to lose organisation behind the ball and could not focus as much on rebounding the ball out, instead playing desperate defensive roles. 

More generally, simply winning possession of the ball proved a hard task for St Kilda, averaging 190.5 disposals – the fourth lowest across the competition – and using it at just 58.4 per cent efficiency. It struggled to win the ball, and then when it did, it regularly turned it over. Winning it at the contest was especially difficult, averaging just 94.1 contested possessions per game, the fifth lowest in the competition. 

Bec Ott in action during St Kilda's clash against Carlton in round seven, S7, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

Off-season focus 

Improving the depth and diversity of their midfield group will be really valuable for the Saints' evolution in seasons to come. The return of Tyanna Smith will be a key part of this, after missing the last two seasons with a knee injury. 

Finding both the personnel and method to reliably win the hard ball will be key. Winning more disposal, which can then allow the Saints to enjoy more control in games, should be a key off-season focus.