ST KILDA'S off-season in 2019 is most remembered for its trade haul, a shopping spree that saw the Saints bring in Bradley Hill, Paddy Ryder, Dougal Howard, Dan Butler and Zak Jones. 

But with their hand of early draft picks wiped, recruiting manager Chris Liberatore and his team mined the back end of the crop searching for options. This season, the fruits of that digging have come to the surface. 

Ryan Byrnes (No.52) was the Saints' first selection at that year's NAB AFL Draft, closely followed by Leo Connolly (No.64). And in the club's late-season surge into finals contention, both have been bright sparks for Brett Ratten's side.

"It's been pretty special," Byrnes told AFL.com.au this week.

"We were two of the later picks in the draft and to his credit he's really taken that as 'It doesn't matter what pick you are, you're in the door now and the hard work you do will get you there'. 

"We've both taken that mentality of trying to work hard and earn it. It's special to be playing footy with him now because obviously we had to fight for a spot and now we're reaping some reward and it's been really fun."

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Byrnes' banana makes it four Saints goals in a row

Ryan Byrnes has put this goal through to make it four goals in a row for the Saints

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While Connolly's composure and foot skills have taken the eye since his debut in round 15, Byrnes, who played one game last year in his debut season, has been putting strong performances on the board since round seven when he broke into the Saints' line-up.

The 20-year-old has played the past 11 games for the Saints and averaged 16 disposals, bringing some speed and dash. 

"I felt like last year I limited myself to just an inside mid role and to break into the side this year I had to change my positioning and be a bit more comfortable playing out on the wing or forward," Byrnes said.

"So that was a huge focus for me over the off-season. Also just running and strength has been huge. As a young player you can't do enough of that so I was just getting more of that under my belt."

It wasn't without a setback, though, with Byrnes requiring surgery in February after tearing his hamstring tendon in the Saints' first intraclub match. 

"I was going around in the first quarter and went to handball and got pushed a little bit and felt it go and knew straight away it was a little bit more serious than just a strain which I had had previously in my top-age year of under-18s. It was certainly frustrating and I was straight into surgery," he said. 

It made for a later start to the season than he had hoped, but he was intent on coming in and making a splash, with his 24-disposal game against the Western Bulldogs in round 10 (an 111-point defeat for St Kilda) a key moment in his passage into being a regular.

Ryan Byrnes of the Saints is tackled by Jack Macrae of the Bulldogs during round 10, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

Coach Brett Ratten, too, has seen Byrnes' belief grow since then and encourages him to play to his strengths, with a NAB AFL Rising Star nomination looming in the last month of the season. 

"I've taken a bit of confidence out of that [game against the Bulldogs] and it's helped me continue a bit of form," Byrnes said.

"It's playing on my own instinct. I think one of my biggest strengths is my footy brain and he's (Ratten) identified that and kept encouraging me to invest in that side of footy. 

"It's all little things – I look at vision and the way I stand when I'm receiving the footy or patterns and things like that he's been hard on me to keep focusing on that and how much of an impact those little things can have on your game."

The mature Byrnes, nicknamed 'Ronnie' at the Saints after former Geelong and Adelaide star Ronnie Burns, has felt the benefits of more game-time off the field too, finding his voice around the club and in team meetings as his second season as wore on.

And just as he has felt more at home in the Saints' midfield, Byrnes has done it from home. Growing up in Bentleigh in Melbourne's south-eastern suburbs, Byrnes lives just minutes from St Kilda's Moorabbin headquarters, giving his rise a local feel. 

"It's pretty funny. I was interviewed by 16 out of the 18 teams and could be going anywhere and any of the different states and I end up two minutes from home," he said.

"It's pretty handy in terms of being able to stay at home and not having to wake up too early and track across the city. It's genuinely a two-minute drive. It's very, very handy and I got a bit lucky there."