With percentage the only thing standing between Benalla and finals last year, the Saints are making subtle and sweeping changes at Benalla Showgrounds in a bid to return to the top six.
After missing finals for the first time in six years, the Saints are better positioned to push back up the ladder after retaining most of their senior squad and strengthening it by bringing in new faces.
A change in leadership sees 2015 premiership Saint Jake Pallpratt return to the club as coach and player, and with him, he brings a slightly new game plan.
“We’ve been working on a simple but effective game style,” Pallpratt said.
“We’ve kept it pretty similar (to 2019), but we’ll be more structured with the way we play and set up.
“These days teams want to play similar football. But if you know what you’re doing, as a team, as a collective, you’re going to be better off.”
Bitterly missing finals following a round-18 defeat, Pallpratt granted his squad a longer pre-season break, which saw “guys come back fit and eager to play again”, while the introduction of new talent has made it more competitive for spots.
Targeting must-need players, Pallpratt said the club was direct with who they approached and signed, with three names set to make an immediate impact at GVL level.
“Callum Crisp is an A-grade ruckman and quality player from South Bendigo,” Pallpratt said.
“Jackson Heagney-Steart is a big strong type. He’s played a bit of VFL and SANFL.
“And Sam Harris played a bit of Ovens and Murray with Lavington and is a best and fairest (winner) at Holbrook. He’s a quality ball user wherever he plays.
“Those three will shore us up and give us a bit of structure in the spine.”
But the biggest change to the new coach’s starting line-up will be Nick Warnock’s return to attack after a stint down back, meaning Brody Webster is also likely to shift back to his own traditional defensive post.
“Nick has proven himself as a key forward over the years,” Pallpratt said.
“He’s kicked 70-80 goals a season as a key forward. I think you’d be mad to play him in the back.
“And Brody won a best and fairest playing across half back, so I think they pick the positions themselves.”
Other players set for big years are a fit-and-firing Will Martiniello and Jordan Wolff as well as talented junior, James Davies, who has put on plenty of size as he adjusts to full-time senior football duties.
In his second year at GVL level, Riley Moran is expected to step up further, while Steve Murray should have a greater impact after returning to full fitness following his shoulder injury.
JOINED LEAGUE: 1896 TO 1946, 1998 TO PRESENT
GROUND: BENALLA SHOWGROUNDS
COACH: JAKE PALLPRATT
PRESIDENT: LLOYD JOHNSON
PREMIERSHIPS: 1940, 2015
MORRISON MEDALLISTS: T. PASQUALI (1999), R. PRIEST (2008 JOINT), L. MORGAN (2013), W. MARTINIELLO (2014), S. MARTYN (2018 JOINT)
2019 FINISH: SEVENTH (9-9)
2019 BEST-AND-FAIREST: WILL MARTINIELLO
2019 LEADING GOAL-KICKER: BRODY WEBSTER (45)
IN: Jack Doidge, Zac Amarant (Benalla All Blacks), Sam Harris (Holbrook), Jake Pallpratt (Sandhurst), Callum Crisp (South Bendigo), Mark Athanitis (Strathfieldsaye), Dale Martin (Wangaratta), Jackson Heagney-Steart (Wodonga), Reed Bonat (Yarrawonga)
OUT: Mitch Exton, Ben Kunkel (Barnawartha)
FINISHING RANGE: 2ND – 6TH
Keeping its core group together and bringing new faces in on a must-need basis will no doubt strengthen Benalla’s line up.
When the Saints are switched on, they are finals ready, but inconsistency in form was their downfall last year. Another season under the belt of their lesser experienced players will benefit the team and see the Saints return to finals and in contention for a third premiership.
GAME CHANGER – Callum Crisp
Fielding a strong midfield nucleus, led by Martiniello, but lacking a dominant ruckman last season, Benalla’s limited silver service around the contest was perhaps its weakest link.
Bringing in Crisp will hopefully be the answer the club is looking for, and if he performs, it would yield the most reward for a team looking to compete with the best.