OPINION

Just a form slump or is it game over for the Saints?

LOSS: Jack Steele and his Saints teammates look dejected after losing against Essendon. Photo: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images
LOSS: Jack Steele and his Saints teammates look dejected after losing against Essendon. Photo: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

How do you really know the moment when a team's hiccup becomes a slump, which then becomes a crisis, which quickly enough means, in terms of an AFL season, game over?

If you're on the outside and, to coin a favourite club cliché of the modern era, not "within the four walls" of a senior AFL playing list, there are important bits of the puzzle to which you can never be privy.

In reality, like opponents, fans and media, all you really have are the results. And the ramifications even of those black-and-white numbers can be overplayed by a fourth estate ravenous to be able to say: "We tipped this!"

Dire predictions these days don't necessarily even have to be predicated on a string of losses. By the same token, to downplay poor form is to potentially waste valuable weeks during which things could have been turned around.

So how does St Kilda coach Brett Ratten react to his side's current predicament, with his team still in respectable territory at 1-2? It's that very response which, in the end, these days, given equal fitness, tactical awareness and decent playing stocks, probably separates the best coaches from the rank and file.

The old "things are never as good or bad as they seem" line loved by playing and coaching legend Leigh Matthews and the host of his disciples working in AFL ranks might be particularly handy for Ratten now.

Because there are numbers and observations about St Kilda at the moment which can be used either to prick inflated egos or, alternately, to reaffirm wavering self-belief that the Saints are much, much better than they've shown so far in 2021.

The easier, and no doubt more seemingly obvious road for the coach after the Saints' dismal 75-point thumping at the hands of Essendon would be to crack the whip in the team meeting room and on the training track, reminding every player on the list that no one is simply entitled to a senior game, and offering up perhaps even a couple of "examples" at selection.

Some would argue, and with merit, that Ratten has little choice this week given the Saints were disappointing enough in their round two defeat to Melbourne, a game supposedly to honour the memory of a club legend in the late Danny Frawley, and then even worse in the follow-up against the Bombers after we'd all been told to expect a stern response.

But maybe the aftermath of the still relatively narrow 18-point defeat to the Demons in round two was when the bigger stick needed to be wielded? Perhaps applied now it might further dent the Saints' confidence to a point where it becomes that much harder to retrieve?

Superficially, there's a number of indicators to suggest St Kilda needs some "tough love". Former Saints champion turned media commentator Nick Riewoldt certainly didn't hold back on Fox Footy's "On The Couch" on Monday evening.

"It was an immature performance, and it lacked effort. Sometimes it's that simple," Riewoldt offered of his old side.

He had the statistics to back him up, too. St Kilda's negative pressure differential against Essendon was the worst recorded for four seasons.

Its tackle efficiency was just 50 per cent - the third-worst the Saints have recorded. It allowed the opposition to score from 59 per cent of its inside 50 entries, the highest it had let through since 2018. And it conceded a whopping 106 points from turnovers, St Kilda's worst record since 2008. As Riewoldt noted, those were all "effort stats".

As much as red-white-and-black runs through his veins, however, even Riewoldt himself might not have the full picture on the Saints' current psychological state, now with at least some distance between himself and his former teammates.

Yes, "effort" seems pretty self-explanatory. You don't need to be at the peak of your powers or form to be able to run, chase, tackle, work. But is it always necessarily as simple as "not trying hard enough"?

Diminished confidence might well have the same impact on perceived effort. Players begin to second-guess themselves in terms of positioning and decision-making. The increased focus on their own frailties leaves less head room for others, and the sort of disciplined unselfishness to help teammates, which is instinctive when everything is ticking over nicely, suddenly becomes an afterthought.

Perhaps significantly, while St Kilda might have played in and even won finals last year, its legion of imports from elsewhere still makes it a list not necessarily seasoned in terms of playing with each other, and which hasn't yet had to pull through any sort of protracted slump.

Hence the possibility that Ratten might, in fact, this week be more inclined to "build up" rather than "tear down".

It's an intriguing poser for the second-time-around St Kilda coach, and you've only got to look at the Saints' fixture over the next few weeks to know how critical it is that the coach gets the motivational method right.

If West Coast this week (even in Melbourne) isn't a big enough challenge, St Kilda then takes on in successive weeks reigning premier Richmond, and 2021 preliminary finalist Port Adelaide.

There's a very real danger that a still-manageable 1-2 win-loss record becomes 1-5 given the quality of those opponents.

But this is a sport often played very much above the shoulders. And the quality of the St Kilda coach's response this week will be just as, if not more important than his players' response in determining whether for the Saints, this is indeed a glitch, a slump or it's effectively game over.