At the end of last season, St Kilda believed it was not far away from an elusive second AFL/VFL premiership.
But that optimism has dissipated this year after Sunday night's crushing loss to Port Adelaide left the Saints teetering in 16th spot.
On the back of a successful 2020, the Saints have a much tougher draw and started the season with a gutsy win on the road against the Giants. But uncompetitive performances against Essendon and Richmond, with an unlikely come-from-behind win against West Coast sandwiched in between, have cast serious doubts on the club's credentials.
In the past three years, St Kilda has embarked on an aggressive recruitment approach. As a result the Saints have the oldest list in the competition this season with an average age of 25 years and 127 days, making them 20 days older than Geelong.
St Kilda has lured experienced players from other clubs, but there are questions about the value of several key signings, notably Bradley Hill and Dan Hannebery.
At his best Hill is a damaging winger who has elite running power and is an excellent distributor of the ball, but the former Hawthorn triple premiership player struggled in his first season last year and his form has been disappointing this season.
Hannebery, 30, has played only 13 games since arriving at RSEA Park at the end of 2018. A hamstring problem restricted him to eight games last season and he has not played this year because of a calf problem.
Paddy Ryder, another of those seasoned recruits, made a huge impact in his first season with the Saints and his absence for personal reasons has left a massive hole.
Ryder, 33, was instrumental in the elimination final victory over the Western Bulldogs and was sadly missed the following week against Richmond, with their inefficiency proving costly against the eventual premier.
Ryder's unavailability has been compounded by a foot injury to Rowan Marshall, leaving St Kilda badly exposed in the ruck until his welcome return against the Power.
Apart from Marshall, injuries have hit the Saints hard. The season-ending achilles problem to star playmaker Jade Gresham is a big blow with his midfield creativity, while their defence is vulnerable in the absence of co-captain Jarryn Geary, the underrated Ben Paton and another big-name recruit James Frawley.
Under coach Brett Ratten, the Saints play an attractive and attacking brand and they possess talented younger players such as key forward Max King, the in-form Jack Billings, the versatile Hunter Clark and defender Nick Coffield.
While Geary's on-field leadership has been sadly missed, co-captain Jack Steele has stepped up and provided inspiration in the midfield. But at 2-4 and a poor percentage of 67, the Saints face an uphill battle to make the finals.
DEES ARE IN GRAND FORM
If there were any doubts about Melbourne's claims as a genuine contender, they were dispelled in a powerful demolition of last year's premier Richmond on Saturday night.
The Demons celebrated veteran midfielder Nathan Jones' 300th game in style with their best start to a season since 1965, below the Western Bulldogs on percentage as the only two unbeaten teams.
On the back of a breakout 2020 season, Christian Petracca's reputation as a game-changing midfielder/forward has been enhanced this year.
Petracca can do it all and he is a key member of a crack midfield unit including vice-captain Jack Viney and Clayton Oliver, who attack the contest with uncompromising ferocity.
It is hard to spot any glaring weaknesses. The defence is built around the trio of Steven May, Jake Lever and Adam Tomlinson, all recruited from other clubs, while left-footer Christian Salem is in career-best form off half-back with his penetrating, accurate kicking.
Lever marshals the troops and is an ideal intercept defender. May, who returned from a nasty injury against the Tigers, is rarely beaten and the versatile Tomlinson is capable of handling various opposition forwards.
Skipper Max Gawn provides excellent leadership in the ruck and youngster Luke Jackson is making giant strides as a key forward who can also assist Gawn.
In attack, there are plenty of scoring options and the Demons have the luxury of trying to fit in key forwards Sam Weideman and Ben Brown, who are returning from injury and showing good form in the VFL.
Dashing duo Ed Langdon and Jayden Hunt run the lines and carry the ball well.
Off the field, Melbourne has backed coach Simon Goodwin with an improved structure and the addition of experienced duo Mark Williams and Adem Yze appears to be inspired.
BANNERS ADD COLOUR, EXCITEMENT
It was great to see the return of banners last weekend - cheer squads spend many hours on making them throughout the week and they add colour and excitement to the build-up when teams make their entrance on to the ground.
Big MCG turnouts at the Melbourne-Richmond (56,418) and Collingwood-Essendon games (78,113) were also encouraging. Finally after more than a year of dealing with restrictions brought about by the pandemic, life appears to be returning to a sense of normality again.
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- This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas