THERE was a moment early in St Kilda's win over Port Adelaide last week where ruck recruit Paddy Ryder leaped all over Peter Ladhams in the centre and tapped the Sherrin into open space. 

Another new Saint, Zak Jones, was the first to react.

Jones quickly put a metre between him and his opponent, Dan Houston, picked the ball up on the run, wore Darcy Byrne-Jones' contact and flicked a neat handball to Jack Sinclair.

It all seems simple enough but ex-Power big man Ryder, one of the AFL's best tap ruckmen, and former Swan Jones have helped transform St Kilda's suddenly well-balanced midfield.

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They were two of the best players afield – Jones arguably the best – as the Saints posted a statement victory last Saturday night.

"Zak's got the balance of everything we want," the Saints' midfield coach Adam Skrobalak told AFL.com.au, ahead of Jones facing his old side for the first time.

"Often you'll get a midfielder who's got pace but he's not as good inside, or someone who's really good inside but doesn't have pace.

"Zak's hard at the footy, really quick as well and he's got a pretty good tank, so he's got everything we need – and he's now using the ball in a way that suits the way we play." 

St Kilda's unlikely surge into the top four owes to many factors but possibly none more than its willingness to shake things up.

Saints dasher Zak Jones on the burst against Port Adelaide. Picture: AFL Photos

The Saints moved on from Alan Richardson and gave Brett Ratten a second chance as coach, then completed one of the more audacious Trade Period raids of recent years. 

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They traded for Jones, Ryder, Brad Hill, Dougal Howard and Dan Butler and also pinched back-up big man Ryan Abbott from under Geelong noses, with the Cats hoping to re-draft him as a rookie. 

It was shortly after Ratten's appointment in early September that he was involved in St Kilda's final two pitches to Jones, the first of them at club president Andrew Bassat's home.

Zak's hard at the footy, really quick as well and he's got a pretty good tank, so he's got everything we need

- Midfield coach Adam Skrobalak

Bassat's guests included Ratten, list manager James Gallagher and chief operating officer Simon Lethlean, as well as Jones and his high-profile agent, Tom Petroro.

The Saints detailed their trade plans but made it clear throughout the season that Jones – younger brother of former Melbourne captain Nathan – was a priority.

In fact, they'd long coveted Jones, even before Gallagher came on board in August 2018.

The second meeting was between just Jones and Ratten, which proved integral to the former's decision.

Those who know Jones well say he is a player who thrives on having his coach's backing and the specifics on what's required of him. Ratten provided all of that, and continues to.

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The 25-year-old appealed to St Kilda for various reasons, from his rare combination of speed, power and hardness, him fitting the Saints' age demographics and the fact he grew up in the Mornington Peninsula region, not that far from Moorabbin.

They eventually sealed his path from Sydney to St Kilda on the last day of the Telstra AFL Trade Period, with a second-round pick the key return for the Swans.

And for all Jones wanted from the Saints, he's giving plenty back.

Skrobalak raves about Jones' competitiveness – it's clearly a Jones family trait – attitude and mentoring. He's taken young midfielders Ryan Byrnes and Jack Bytel under his wing. 

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"Obviously, we knew a little about the way he played and we thought he could play midfield for us but his attitude with the group is what's surprised me most," Skrobalak said.

"His input in meetings is very, very good, he's well-liked by the boys as well and the way he prepares and wants to learn and improve his game is a real standout.

"He's starting to drag others along with him."

The likes of Jack Steele, Jack Billings and Jade Gresham are benefiting from Jones' presence, too. Hill and Butler have been handy in this sense as well.

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Steele can be more offensive, while Billings and Gresham are getting more centre-bounce chances. Steele and Gresham led the AFL in centre clearances between rounds five and eight.

Three of the recruits – Butler, Hill and Jones – also headline St Kilda's handball metres gained this year, while Jones is No.1 at the club for total metres gained per game (among those who've played more than once).

The Saints unleashing him as an onballer is a long time coming, after he thrived in the first six rounds last year as a Swan in a similar role before reverting to playing wing and defence.

Zak Jones' positional transformation

Season

Defence

Wing

Midfield

Forward

2018

80%

9%

7%

4%

2019

13%

45%

29%

13%

2020

2%

17%

76%

5%

 
"His good's been really good, and he's worked really hard on his game," Skrobalak said. 

"He gives us energy around the ball. He's got a lot of pace but he's also hard at the contest and his offensive spread is really good.

"The key for me is he's really working hard on his game and trying to get to a really high level, and that's put him in a good spot to have some really good performances."