While St Kilda has been struggling with a mass injury crisis in the forward half, a polar opposite situation continues to play out down the other end of the field.
The key defensive pillars remain well placed in Dougal Howard and Callum Wilkie, while the half back flank positions are set to be contested heavily in the lead up to round 1 and beyond.
As many as seven players on the current list have rotated through the position in the last two seasons, with only Jack Sinclair locking down the position full-time and being awarded an All-Australian blazer and a Trevor Barker Medal last season for his efforts.
Coach Ross Lyon has begun experimenting with his squad and finding new homes for some potentially out of favour defenders, with Friday afternoon’s informal practice match against the Demons seeing a number of these players thrown around the ground.
Saints defensive coach Corey Enright spoke on his sides selection dilemma post-match, saying “It sort of tends to happen in preseason. One end of your ground gets hit with some injuries and the other you’re pretty safe.”
“We do have a lot of players that can roll through there… Obviously (we focus on) finding them another role as well.
Throughout the match, the Saints half-back line was primarily occupied by Sinclair, utility Josh Battle and emerging star Nasiah Wanganeen-Milera, with all three players producing solid first outings for the season.
The performances of the trio and particularly Sinclair and Wanganeen-Milera will leave those behind in the pecking order with a lot of work to do to make their way into the best 22.
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While the number of options St Kilda have does provide cover for injuries and suspensions long-term, Lyon and Enright looked to get the youngest members of this group significant time on the field, even if that meant away from their preferred position.
One such player is Hunter Clark, who has been cursed with injuries in his five year career. Clark featured prominently in the match-up against the Dees, as he looks to retain his place in the Saints line-up.
Clark attended 29.2 per cent of centre bounces in the first four periods of the seven-period match-up, with Enright indicating a potential move to the midfield could be on the cards for the 68-gamer.
“He’s had a really good summer,” Enright said.
“He’s worked really closely with the midfield group… We just want Hunter to get a good look at playing some games.
“We know what his history is like with some injuries.
“Hopefully that’s past him and we can see the best of Hunter Clark.”
On the subject of his other defenders, Enright was pleased with how they adapted to their changing roles.
“We saw Benny Paton on a wing today, we saw Jack Sinclair go through the midfield,” Enright said.
“We do have options, we do have flexibility there.
“I’m just looking out now (at the VFL contest), we’ve got Nick Coffield running around so it will be good to see him back out there as well.”
Coffield’s return in the VFL portion of the match-up marks a return from a year long absence after injuring his ACL in February of last year.
Before his injury, Coffield played 34 of a possible 42 games in the two years prior and was a regular fixture in the Saints backline.
His injury last year opened the door for the likes of Wanganeen-Milera to claim a place in the starting 22 and force competition to play at the highest level.
Other players that have gone through the position over time such as Brad Hill, Jimmy Webster and Tom Highmore were also relegated to supporting or outside roles in the first four periods.
Hill played a significant amount of time early in the game on the wing, where it has been hinted he will play throughout the season under his former coach.
Webster had limited time on the field throughout the first four periods, with Lyon opting to go for younger options throughout the rest of the defence, such as new recruit Liam Stocker and Ben Paton.
Highmore on the other hand has been marked as a potential option up forward, with much of his time split in between the two ends of the field.
He didn’t feature in the first four periods of the contest, before appearing for the VFL contingent.
Elsewhere around the ground on Friday, top draft pick Matthaes Phillipou was impressive in his first game for the Saints, kicking two goals and taking strong marks in the forward half. In what was an exceptionally young forward line for the contest, Phillipou lead from the front and excited his newest fans in attendance.
Enright spoke on Phillipou’s impact, saying “It’s obviously pleasing for him.”
“A young kid has come into our system and has worked really hard at his game.
“He’s such a great kid and wants to learn a lot. He’s always around I suppose our senior players, asking questions.
“It was encouraging for us and for him.
“He played pretty well and showed some glimpses of what he can do, we’re obviously excited for the future but it’s long term for him.”
Mitch Owens primarily played as the last forward throughout the game before attending the centre bounce as a second ruck behind Rowan Marshall, with his match-up being one of the toughest assignments in the game in Max Gawn.
The 191cm forward played seven games in his debut season, struggling to find the level of consistency that his fellow draftees Wanganeen-Milera and Marcus Windhager found in their respective first seasons.
The Saints will have another chance to trial their defensive structure when they take on the Bombers on Friday night in an official preseason game at RSEA Park.
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