Ambitions for change: St Kilda coach Scott Watters is keen to take the club to new heights. Photo: Pat Scala
THE clean slate that St Kilda craved and Scott Watters has vowed to deliver is a step closer to fruition.
Tomorrow the players will deliver to the new coach their verdict on the club's captain, towards the end of an intensive three-day camp at a golf resort on the Mornington Peninsula, and also put forward their version of the Saints' new leadership group.
While Watters indicated early on in his new senior role that he supported Nick Riewoldt, and Riewoldt has stated that he wants to keep the job, the fact that the coach has instructed the club to re-examine what has in recent years been a foregone conclusion indicates the extent of his ambitions for change.
Watters insists the job remains open. ''New coach, new direction,'' he said. ''The question of our culture is a fair question to ask and the playing group have spent time on this. They know what they want their club to look like. I want the whole leadership model to be reassessed and that includes who our captain is and what our leadership is.
''The by-product is to send a clear message to the group that everyone's accountable and the slate is clean. I have my thoughts on who it [the captain] should be, but the players will have their say this weekend. If you want the process to have integrity there's a risk they might have different ideas.''
In a sense, the leadership camp, which began yesterday and was to include an address from chief executive Michael Nettlefold regarding the cash-starved Saints' corporate vision, is a culmination of what Watters and his largely unrecognisable new coaching and welfare team have been working on since November.
This time last year, the club was reeling from yet another nocturnal nightmare - this time in New Zealand and involving a cocktail of alcohol, pills and young players. St Kilda's attitude to its footballers' welfare was heavily scrutinised but once the 2011 season began, the layers of the bubble that seemed to isolate the players from the real world multiplied. Watters would not analyse or criticise the club's response to its recent string of scandals in an extensive conversation with The Saturday Age this week, but it is clear that despite the team's impressive recent on-field record, the coach has worked to ensure key elements of the St Kilda philosophy would change.
Those working around him say the bubble had to burst or the club would continue to lose touch with its community, and sponsors would continue to stay away. Ross Lyon's ''us against them'' mentality worked for a while but the new view is that the Saints must invest heavily in other areas outside the quest for a premiership.
Watters said: ''There is no rear-vision mirror but we can't have the blinkers on from where we have been. By their own admission the pre-season they had last year did not set them up to play their best football. This group is pretty self-aware and they'll remain accountable for mistakes made along the way.''
While the 43-year-old rookie coach was not prepared to declare the 2012 pre-season a success in a behavioural sense, he was equally insistent that he would not view any potential transgressions as a failure for the club's new direction.
''Leadership and welfare has been an increased process this year,'' said Watters, ''and the work we've done should mean that the values of this club should be in the forefront of the players' minds the minute they walk in the door.
''I'm a coach and any coach will tell you they'd rather their players have no social life and no IT contact but the reality is they just need to have an understanding of what their actions mean to their fans and to the media.''
Matti Clements, a senior psychologist who has moved from the Australian Institute of Sport to the AFL Players' Association, has worked closely with the Saints over the leadership camp as well as over the pre-season. While former AFLPA executive Pippa Grange consults to the club's off-field team, Grange has also provided a mentor to work with Watters on a weekly basis.
''Without going into too much detail, she's an outstanding leadership-style psychologist who challenges me without having the distraction of being involved with the club,'' said Watters, who singled out former West Coast teammate Guy McKenna as the on-field leader who most inspired him.
''He helped you become a better player,'' said Watters. ''He led by action. I used to really enjoy playing with him and as a leader he was multi-dimensional.''
When asked to define his ideal captain, Watters said: ''It's more than on-field. It's servitude, it's having an effect on the players around you while making an impact yourself. It's looking out more than looking in and knowing when to speak up and knowing when to be quiet. It's making good leaders out of your seventh-, eighth- and ninth-best player and, in a sense, making yourself redundant.''
With Clements, the players' say in the new direction of St Kilda - a club whose football operation seemed to increasingly resemble a revolving door after Lyon's stunning departure last year - will become clearer when they complete this long weekend's group therapy, role-playing and educational sessions.
During the course of last season, Watters emerged as a potential senior coach after four years in the WAFL system coaching his own team and then two years as Mick Malthouse's assistant at Collingwood. During that time he also managed and successfully sold his own business and previously worked with juvenile offenders for three years in a WA detention centre. His golf handicap was once one but now it is four and these days Watters rarely has time to indulge in his other sporting love of surfing, saying his three young boys under the age of eight keep him fit.
As Watters made it clear to friends and family he would look at a senior position, the man about to become his head coach, Nathan Buckley, made it clear he did not want to lose him, having admired Watters' innovative approach to training and the game itself. Buckley would have worked hard to retain Watters should he have looked at another assistant's role elsewhere.
But back then no one predicted he would finish up at St Kilda, working hand in hand with Hawthorn's then recruiting guru Chris Pelchen and his teammate from the early 1990s Dean Laidley, who, like Watters, narrowly missed selection in the Eagles' 1992 premiership team and promptly left the club.
The Saints remain in the bottom four clubs in terms of football budgets while their administration sits in the bottom two. For Watters and new football boss Pelchen, however, the rebuilding of the club's coaching structure has come with the acceptance a stand-alone reserves team is a long way off and the relatively isolated new Linen House Centre at Seaford, despite the disenchantment of coaches and players last year, must be embraced.
''I think for some players there was a settling-in period,'' admitted Watters. ''But if I was an 18-year-old walking into Linen House I would be blown away by the facilities we have here.''
The new coach did not deny the emotional damage still lingering for some senior players from the 2009-2010 grand finals. ''You always carry a proportion of your experiences with you,'' he said. ''You carry your successes and you carry your failures. I'm sure there will be some who always carry the sting of defeat as well as being energetic enough to shoulder it.''
Watters, too, bears his football crosses. It took him close to five years to follow the fortunes of Fremantle after that club closed the door on his AFL career in 1996. The message, significantly, was not delivered by then coach Gerard Neesham and Watters said this week he hoped to end his own senior coaching career having always been the one who took on the game's most miserable task.
Putting aside his ambitious plans to redefine the club's culture, Watters' short-term direction will be defined by not only his game style but by the players he selects come the season proper. ''I'm not going to get caught up in a pre-season status report,'' he insisted, ''as to where we sit because it really leads nowhere. I have a vision but it's private.
''I will say that I really admired this group from an opposition's point of view and I haven't been disappointed. I've found them very coachable, very committed and very driven. Also as a group I believe they have a lot of upside.''
More tellingly, Watters loosely divided his players into three categories. ''There's the really strong established group,'' he began. ''Some of those who set really high standards for themselves and some didn't reach those standards last year.
''Then there's the middle group who see an opportunity to redefine the way they've been judged and gain more exposure. For them, it was like going back to school on the first day. And then the younger group coming through, some who've been on the list and some new arrivals.
''I'm loath to individualise but the job [recruitment manager] Tony Elshaug has done has been excellent. He's changed our age demographic and I'd love to be in the position to name one or two debutants in round one.''