St Kilda icons Nick Riewoldt, Lenny Hayes and Brendan Goddard are nearing the twilight of their careers. Photo: Paul Rovere
EIGHT-AND-A-HALF years ago, some young Cats and Saints were considered the up-and-comers of the AFL. They played off in the grand final of the pre-season competition.
The Grant Thomas-coached Saints beat the Cats in front of 50,000 and captain Lenny Hayes held the premiership cup aloft. But a sour-faced Thomas and tight-lipped Hayes didn't get overexcited. They sent a message to the footy world that they had bigger fish to fry.
On the list were seven Saints who were to become the faces of the club over the next decade: Hayes, Nick Riewoldt, Stephen Milne, Brendon Goddard, Nick Dal Santo, Leigh Montagna and Sam Fisher.
Eight years on, the Saints still haven't cracked it for a smile, and their big names are destined to have unfulfilled careers. Meanwhile, Matthew Scarlett, Jimmy Bartel, Corey Enright, Paul Chapman and co proudly look at their three premiership medallions and know that they can rest easy in retirement.
Three years ago it could have been different when these two teams played off in one of the closest and toughest grand finals. St Kilda led narrowly at quarter-time, but couldn't kick a goal in the final term. The Cats kicked three to take the glory. Among St Kilda's best that day were Hayes, Goddard and Montagna. A year later, the Saints played in two more grand finals - the draw with Collingwood and then the loss. The best players in that finals series were again Hayes, Goddard and Montagna, along with Riewoldt, Fisher and Dal Santo.
Tonight, the Cats and Saints meet again.
But you just have to wonder if the dream has gone now for the Saints, and in particular the seven stalwarts who have given so much but are now coming to the end of distinguished careers. Just what do these seven Saints stars have left in the tank?
The captain now plays on wonky knees and is forced to play closer to goal. That's OK, and, after two ordinary seasons, he is having a good one in 2012. He may well give up the captaincy at the end of this season and enjoy his last couple of years.
NICK DAL SANTO
Now into his 11th season and with 235 games the durable midfielder has missed just one game in the past three seasons and is on track for another top-five finish in the club best and fairest. Should play four more seasons and pass the 300-game milestone.
The little man with the big mouth is the Saints' most disliked player by those outside of the club but one of the most valued within. He plays in one of the hardest spots on the ground - small permanent forward. His 255 games have delivered 536 goals, a terrific return but, in his 16 finals games, not once is he mentioned in St Kilda's best players. At 32, another two years, at most, will see him out.
Of the seven topliners, Goddard has the most football left. A good five years will get him to 32 and 300-plus games. He made a real name for himself with quality performances in St Kilda's three grand finals in 2009-10. He dropped away last year to finish ninth in club voting after being top three in the previous two years. He was a bad bounce away from being a St Kilda hero for life after his spectacular mark and goal late in the 2010 grand final. Now, he has to decide whether to stay a Saint forever or take the money and run.
The 30-year-old has won two of the past four club best-and-fairest awards. His ability to read the play to take intercept marks makes him the team's best defender. The other defenders rely heavily on him to present in the right spots to help them run the ball out of defence. Most teams don't let him run free, and his career will be cut short if he has to play on ''monsters'' such as Travis Cloke or Tom Hawkins, so it's imperative the Saints find some big defenders to protect him. Two or three more years will see him out.
The small man will be 29 next year when he enters his 12th season. He rarely misses a game and will notch his 200th game in 2013. He is the only Saint to finish top six in the best and fairest in each of the past five seasons, so he continually gives quality output. Once again, he is having a fine season. Could play on for four more years.
I, along with all other football followers, hope that the 32-year-old champion plays on next year, as he has said he wants to. After a year out with injury, Hayes has returned to play hard, effective football once again. He leads the way in so many areas: No. 1 for disposals, clearances, tackles, inside-50s and contested possessions. You would like to see the 2010 Norm Smith medallist go out a premiership player, but the reality is that's unlikely to happen. He will, however, have the respect of all the football world, and very few can boast that.