ST KILDA returned to Moorabbin last Friday after a five-day break from the club with a healthy list causing a handful of headaches – the good kind – for Brett Ratten and the match committee inside RSEA Park.
The Saints are 8-3 as they turn for home after defeating Geelong, Adelaide and North Melbourne ahead of the mid-season bye, but now have a tough run ahead with a trip to the Gabba this weekend followed by one to the SCG before the end of June.
The match committee inside RSEA Park will spend plenty of time inside the Allan Jeans room on the top floor of St Kilda's Linton Street headquarters this week, debating the names on the fringes of selection ahead of the most highly anticipated clash against Brisbane since the night Nick Riewoldt broke his collarbone in the opening round of 2005.
With Nick Coffield and Jack Hayes sidelined for the season following knee reconstructions, and the return of luckless midfielder Dan Hannebery still anything but clear, Jack Steele is the only other player unavailable at the moment due to injury.
Now they need to work out if they can squeeze some highly rated names into the 22 for the clash against the Lions this Saturday night without upsetting team balance.
Hunter Clark and Jack Higgins were in the conversation to return against the Kangaroos in round 11, but were ruled out due to entering the AFL's health and safety protocols before the team was named.
Clark is yet to feature at AFL level in 2022 after undergoing shoulder surgery on the eve of the season following a collision in the AAMI Community Series at the start of March, missing the first 10 weeks of the season.
But after two games at Sandringham in the past four weeks, the 2017 top-10 pick is ready to go again, following a 31-disposal, seven-clearance effort against Carlton's reserves a fortnight ago, where he rediscovered his ability to get in and out of traffic and slow the game down around him.
It is understood that Clark would have played against North Melbourne, but after an interrupted run – he has played two games in three months, May 7 and 22 – the Dandenong Stingrays product may need another run under his belt in the VFL.
Higgins has now missed a month due to a second concussion of 2022 but is on track to face the Lions after exiting concussion protocols later than first planned due to contracting COVID-19.
The 23-year-old put his name in All-Australian contention across the first six rounds by kicking 14 goals in four weeks, but after training strongly over the weekend and on Monday – where he participated in a boxing session with the rest of the playing list – he looks set to return to the 22 for the intriguing clash against Chris Fagan's side.
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Dan Butler also presents a headache for the match committee. The former Tiger hasn't played in the senior side since being substituted out of the round eight clash against Melbourne due to Achilles soreness – a problem that caused him grief in the early part of the season.
The 26-year-old, who finished runner-up behind Jack Steele in the 2020 Trevor Barker Award after being named in the Therabody AFL All-Australian squad following his move from Punt Road, didn't impact the scoreboard in the first two months of the season, kicking 5.3 from eight appearances. Butler kicked five goals for the Zebras against North Melbourne just before the bye to put his hand up for a recall.
The Saints have gone taller in the absence of Butler and Higgins, using Cooper Sharman in attack alongside Max King and Tim Membrey with the Victorian providing another target, but not the same level of pressure at ground level as the two who once wore yellow and black.
Jack Billings was the other high-profile Saint to play at Trevor Barker Oval on the final Sunday of May after Ratten left him out of the senior side in round 11, two weeks after returning from hamstring problems that had delayed his start to 2022.
The axing caught some by surprise, but with Nasiah Wanganeen-Milera – pick No. 11 from last November – returning in round 10, it is understood the Saints coaching department felt the balance wasn't right on the wings against the Crows, with Daniel McKenzie and Mason Wood both exceeding expectations in the absence of Billings to maintain their spots.
The 26-year-old will be considered for the clash against Brisbane after producing a strong response in the VFL, finishing with 25 disposals and focusing on his transition running. It might take another performance at Sandringham to demand a recall, but there is still a belief Billings can play a key role in the road to September.
Ryan Byrnes has been the unused medi-sub four times this season, including the past two games, but continues to be right on the edge of selection following sustained excellence under Jake Batchelor at VFL level. Jarrod Lienert and Tom Highmore couldn't have done much more to earn another shot at senior football.
The Saints expect to have at least three more games without two-time All-Australian and dual Trevor Barker Award winner Steele at this stage, which could see the inside bull miss a total of five games after hurting his shoulder against Geelong in round nine.
It will be an interesting week at selection for Ratten and those inside St Kilda.