Illustration: Mick Connolly
Every week, a group of St Kilda officials gather in a windowless room in the football department that has become known to all as "The War Room". There, they discuss one of the most difficult and defining decisions the club confronts.
On the walls of recruiting manager Tony Elshaug's office, there's a heap of written material and a large number of names, including those of Christian Petracca, Paddy McCartin, Angus Brayshaw and Peter Wright.
In late November, one of that quartet will become a St Kilda player. At this moment, it is unclear which of them will be called out by Elshaug, who is usually joined in the war room by Ameet Bains, the list and legal manager who has ascended to chief operating officer, and full-time scouts Mark Barnard and Chris Liberatore.
Assuming that Adelaide defeats them on Sunday afternoon, the Saints will have an unfettered choice of those four names. It is a decision in which they cannot afford to go awry, as did the Demons in 2008 and 2009, when Jack Watts was called out one year, Tom Scully and Jack Trengove the next. If these selections were considered safe calls by the industry, they proved otherwise.
Under a new management team, the Saints are attempting to achieve several objectives - to go back to the Junction Oval, to become a sexy place where people want to play and work and to be a club that can thrive without massive AFL assistance. Equalisation won't solve mostof their financial issues, which have been exacerbated by a poor stadium deal, the team's crash to the bottom, the isolation of its Seaford base and a rolling series of player scandals.
Under the late Jim Stynes, Melbourne wiped off its debt, forged a new partnership with the MCC, moved into a fancy new headquarters near the MCG and rallied its fans to enlist in a crusade. But the financial model, unfortunately, still rested upon on-field performance, which Melbourne couldn't get right. In large part, the Demons didn't call out the right names. Not often enough.
St Kilda faces a similar challenge. Gillon McLachlan has come to the party. He has engineered the Junction Oval deal with cricket and he helped talk Matt Finnis, the ex-players association boss, into accepting the challenge of running the Saints by pledging AFL support. But as McLachlan has noted, "These teams (on the bottom) have to get those picks right."
For all the strategic planning, corporate dealing and government funding, for all the poker machines and "fan engagement," the fortunes of clubs still hinge, to a frightening degree, on whether a bunch of sweaty blokes in a room can find Mr Right - not necessarily Wright - from a list of names of 18 year olds on a whiteboard.
St Kilda's war room choice will be between those four players, unless it strikes a deal with Greater Western Sydney or another club, and moves down the batting order to pick three or whatever, gaining either another pick or a player in return.
Teams once tanked to have St Kilda's pick. Today, the choice is seen as unenviable because there is no clear-cut number one - not in the eyes of St Kilda's rivals. Petracca, perhaps, has the most admirers, but McCartin, Wright and Brayshaw, the son of ex-North player and current director Mark Brayshaw, all have their supporters from the wider recruiting fraternity.
If the draft order is not yet confirmed, we can safely say that the Saints, Demons and Giants will have the first three picks. It is possible, though far from certain, that Melbourne could receive an extra compensation pick inside the top four if James Frawley departs as a free agent at the right price.
St Kilda has a goal of three selections inside the top 20 this year, as it did in 2013 when it landed Jack Billings, Luke Dunstan and Blake Acres. The Saints were widely - and wrongly - criticised for trading Ben McEvoy to Hawthorn. As it stands today, they had the better of the deal.
Dunstan, taken with the pick Hawthorn handed them, shapes as a long-term player and leader, while McEvoy - whose courage and football smarts are offset by athletic limitations - isn't necessarily in Hawthorn's best 22. The Saints also had Shane Savage thrown in as a pair of steak knives.
Before settling on its choice, St Kilda has to establish a philosophical position on whether it wants to pick "best available" or fill its most pressing need, which is for a key forward. Petracca and Brayshaw are midfielders, McCartin and "Two Metre Peter" Wright are key forwards.
McCartin, at 193cm, is a tad small for a key forward, but has a sturdy frame. Wright is of a height where recruiters wonder if the player can be a key forward, or primarily a ruckman.
Typically, clubs say they take the best available. They don't overlook Michael Voss for, say, Sav Rocca.
Yet history also strongly suggests that if you don't pick a key forward inside the top five - or receive a father-son gift (Tom Hawkins, Travis Cloke, Joe Daniher) - you will struggle to find one. The Bulldogs haven't been able to draft a competent key forward since Chris Grant in 1988.
St Kilda has indicated a willingness to trade pick No. 1 if it can get multiple picks. The obvious play for the Saints is to trade pick No. 1 to GWS for pick No. 3, and then receive the Giants' end-of-first-round compensation pick (maybe 20 or 21), in return for giving up Petracca. He is presumed to be the GWS player of choice, given that it has Jeremy Cameron, Jonathon Patton and Tom Boyd on its books.
In this scenario, the Saints would either "get shorty" McCartin or the giant Mr Wright at pick No. 3, plus a later pick that fulfills their three-selection heaven. The Giants would gain the certainty of the player they rate best and address their needs.
Alternatively, it's possible that the Giants don't trade, gambling on St Kilda picking a tall at No. 1, with the Dees opting for Brayshaw over Petracca.
Whatever other clubs decide, the Saints have more hanging on their first choice than anyone - Carlton included. In the war room, they simply can't afford to miss.