Coach Brett Ratten has put St Kilda on high alert for a fierce challenge from North Melbourne in Sunday’s AFL clash at Marvel Stadium.
The Saints start strong favourites especially given the Kangaroos’ well-documented woes.
There was fresh crisis at North this week when three members of their recruiting staff quit and club legend Wayne Carey bemoaned them as a broken club.
But Ratten said even without these latest problems, there are several signs Sunday will be a lot tighter than form suggests.
North captain Jack Ziebell will play his 250th game, the Kangaroos challenged top side Melbourne last week and St Kilda were below-par before they managed to overcome a strong challenge from Adelaide.
“Let’s take out the media conversation – when you have a player of Jack Ziebell’s quality, captain of their footy club, 250 games, you’re going to get a big spike just even around that,” Ratten said.
“It’s going to be a hot game. Their form last week against Melbourne, halfway through the third quarter, it’s six points the difference – it’s game-on.
“They showed some really good signs in the way they moved the ball, the way they performed against the best in the competition.
“We have to be ready for the fight.”
After two games back, Saints star Jack Billings was dropped for Sunday and Mitch Owens will take his place.
Hunter Clark would have been the inclusion, but he is unavailable because of COVID-19.
“We thought we had the mix wrong last week – we had players who played more forward or outside and we were probably short a midfielder,” Ratten said.
“Mitch has been in very good form, so we wanted to bring in a midfielder and Mitch can go forward as well.
“They’re hard conversations – Jack’s a good player who’s building this year.
“It’s not like a year (when) he’s had a lot of continuity in his pre-season and all that.”
Ratten added he did not expect Billings to need much time in the VFL to regain form.
“Two weeks back and it’s like, which way do we go? We had a few down players last week and it was a good chat, but we’ve had players who have had multiple weeks at senior level and played well and last week they had a down week,” he said.
“So it would be pretty hard to take them out of the team – Jack’s had two weeks back.
“I know he’ll be back, whether it’s next week or the week after, he’ll be back pretty soon.”
Meanwhile, injury-plagued midfielder Dan Hannebery has returned from a trip to Europe for treatment on his troublesome calves and should be running soon.
“He’s going well. He’ll start running pretty soon and I think he’ll progress pretty quickly – to what level, I’m not completely sure,” Ratten said.
“It will be week-by-week, session-by-session.”