This evening against Port Adelaide at Adelaide Oval hard-running St Kilda midfielder Leigh Montagna will become the 12th player in St Kilda’s history to reach 250 VFL/AFL games, joining current team-mate and captain Nick Riewoldt, and seven former team-mates, Robert Harvey, Nathan Burke, Stewart Loewe, Lenny Hayes, Stephen Milne, Nick Dal Santo and Justin Peckett. The remaining three members of St Kilda’s 250 game club all completed their careers before Montagna was born in 1983, being Barry Breen, Gary Colling and Kevin ‘Cowboy’ Neale.
Early in March 2016 Montagna signed a one-year contract extension to remain with the Saints until the end of the 2017 season which will be his 16th season with the club. After 32 year-old Montagna had signed the contract extension St Kilda head coach Alan Richardson commented on radio station SEN about Montagna’s ability to teach the younger players “He’s a person that I admired his footy from afar before joining the footy club, but didn’t really (have a) level of understanding of the ability to teach others, to understand the game and be able to impart that knowledge on his teammates. He’s not the biggest guy, but he’s been able to forge a brilliant career. The way he teaches his younger teammates is pretty special, so we’re rapt that he’s on board again.”1
Montagna started his AFL career as a small forward before developing into a great midfielder, with his strengths being his hard and explosive running, ability to accumulate possessions and damaging ball use. From 2008 to 2011 St Kilda made four consecutive finals campaigns, Montagna played a pivotal role in the Saints being one of the best teams in the AFL during this period and his brilliant performances resulted in back to back All-Australian selections in 2009 and 2010, in both seasons St Kilda made the Grand Final.
Leigh Montagna’s superb career is comprehensively covered below, from the slow start from 2002 to Round 17 2005 when he only played 23 of a possible 86 games for St Kilda, to cementing a position in the St Kilda side during 2006, through to becoming St Kilda’s most consistent player from 2009 onwards and the only Saint to finish in the top four of the best and fairest in all seven seasons from 2009 to 2015. The second ranked Saint, Sean Dempster had four top four finishes during this time and only three other Saints have recorded three top four finishes during this seven season period, Riewoldt, Hayes and Brendon Goddard.
For just over a decade from Round 18 2005 until the end of the 2015 season Leigh Montagna has been St Kilda’s most durable and most consistent player, amassing 226 of a possible 241 AFL games, equating to 93.8% of St Kilda’s games during this period. During 10 consecutive seasons from 2006 to 2015 Montagna is the only St Kilda player to finish in the top 10 of St Kilda’s best and fairest in every season, in each of the past nine seasons he has finished in the top six, including five top three finishes.
Speaking to Saints.com.au in the week of his 250th AFL game Montagna commented “It was difficult early in my career. Grant Thomas was my coach and rode me pretty hard. At the time it’s always frustrating, but looking back 15 years later it was probably a blessing in disguise – it made me a better player, it made me more resilient. I had a few little injuries as well, but only played 20 odd games in my first four years. And then got through that period and since then I have been pretty lucky with a pretty good run.”2
At the time of being drafted in 2001 a few weeks after turning 18 Leigh Montagna was 178 centimetres and 72 kilograms, having been recruited from his suburban club Balwyn, and playing in the TAC Cup under 18s for the Northern Knights. At the 2001 Australian under 18 championships Montagna represented Victoria Metro. The profile for Montagna in ‘AFL 2002 the Official statistical history of the AFL’ said “Extremely quick and talented wingman who reads the play well and has great vision. A superb raking kick for goal on the run in the Peter Matera mould, Montagna has immense potential and is touted as a 100 game player.”3
St Kilda used their fifth selection at the 2001 AFL National Draft, selection 37 to pick Leigh Montagna after earlier that day drafting Luke Ball (pick 2), Xavier Clarke (5), Nick Dal Santo (13), and Matt Maguire (21). The Saints had rated Montagna as a second round selection so were delighted when he was still available at the beginning of the third round. St Kilda considered Montagna’s strengths to be his hard running, kicking, tackling ability and leadership. Montagna was the last of the five 2001 draftees to cement a position in the St Kilda side and didn’t play his 50th AFL game until late in his fifth season, Round 21 2006, more than a year after fellow 2001 St Kilda draftees Clarke (Round 15 2004), Dal Santo (2004 semi-final), Maguire (Round 4 2005) and Ball (Round 9 2005). On the eve of Leigh’s 200th AFL game his dad Ralph said the turning point in Leigh making it to the AFL was in 2001 when he “played for Vic Metro against South Australia down at Geelong, it was the day Chris Judd got injured, Leigh was just on the fringe of the squad but came on at half-time on a wing, he had a lot of possessions and kicked a few goals, that’s when I thought gee he’s a real chance to make it (to the AFL). Up until then we never thought that he was, we always thought that he was too small and wasn’t going to make AFL football, but from that day on we were confident that he would get drafted and hopefully make a career of AFL.”
St Kilda’s head recruiter in 2001, John Beveridge spoke to Saints.com.au a couple of days before Montagna’s 250th game, saying “I saw him one day when he wasn’t playing and he was with a group and he was clearly the leader of the group in a very good way, it was obvious, he just commanded attention, so from then there was just a lot to like about him. We knew that he was a talented player, we saw that. We learned that he was of good character, that he was a strong leader and would put his nose to the wheel with his work. That’s all standard stuff I suppose that a recruiting bloke want to hear, that’s the good stuff that you want to hear of course. And ‘Joey’ ticked all those boxes.” Beveridge went on to say “I didn’t even do a home visit with ‘Joey’. I didn’t do any interviews with him prior to the draft because we knew we liked him at No. 37 if he was still there, but we had picks two, five, 13, 21 and 37 that year so it wasn’t cut and dried who was going to get picked where. So I didn’t do a family visit and I really didn’t get to know him much at all, except other people’s opinions about him prior to the draft, which I knew a lot about. In those days you kept your cards pretty close to your chest. If another club thought or heard that we were pretty keen on ‘Joey’ Montagna at pick No. 37, then they might have taken him earlier. People would look back and say, pick No. 37, that’s a steal. Like Nick Riewoldt, you couldn’t anticipate that he was going to play as many games as he has and do as well as he has and be an important person in the club’s history.”4
Montagna commenced the 2002 season in the VFL and after being named as an emergency for St Kilda in Rounds 4 and 5 he made his AFL debut in Round 6 against Collingwood at Etihad Stadium on 3 May 2002, having three kicks, one handball and three marks. Montagna was back playing for Springvale in the VFL the following week and three weeks after making his AFL debut he broke his ankle whilst playing in the VFL and joined St Kilda’s ever mounting injury list. The injury kept Leigh on the sidelines for the remainder of the 2002 season.
Leigh was named an emergency for the first two rounds of 2003, in Round 3 he played for St Kilda against West Coast and after coming off the interchange bench he was in St Kilda’s best players with 12 kicks, an equal game-high nine marks, five handballs and two goals. In his next three matches Montagna had a total of only four disposals, averaging only 23% game-time and in Round 7 was dropped to the VFL where he spent the next eight weeks.
Upon being recalled to the St Kilda side in Round 15 Montaga had at least 10 disposals in his next four games and kicked a total of six goals during this time. Montagna retained his position for the rest of the season to play eight consecutive games for the Saints.
Throughout 2003 Montagna played mainly as a forward and twice kicked three goals in a game, against the Kangaroos in the five point Round 16 victory and against Carlton at Optus Oval in Round 20 when he had 11 kicks and eight handballs to receive a Rising Star nomination and his first Brownlow Medal vote. Montagna was the third Saint to receive a Rising Star nomination in 2003 following Luke Ball in Round 2 and Brendon Goddard in Round 7. Later in the decade Montagna, Goddard and Ball would all play over 100 games for St Kilda and would be selected in at least one All-Australian team each.
Joey was very accurate around goal, kicking 12 goals, three behinds, and he also averaged just over a score assist per game. Due to his light build Montagna only averaged 78 minutes per game during the 2003 season. Even though Montagna was not able to establish himself permanently in the St Kilda side it was apparent that he had explosive speed, was highly skilled and just needed to develop physically to become a permanent fixture in the Saints best 22.
During 2003 Montagna was the ‘fringe player’ personified, playing 12 AFL games and was named an emergency for the remaining 10, he averaged 6.1 kicks, 4.3 handballs and 2.5 marks per game with a disposal efficiency of 77.6%. In four games during 2003 Leigh had at least 17 disposals, he also made an impact on the scoreboard, kicking a total of 10 goals during these four matches with multiple goals on each occasion. In his eight other games for the season he was restricted to a total of only two goals. Consistency was an issue for Montagna, and whilst he was named in St Kilda’s best players several times during 2003, he made little impact in several other games, five times having less than eight disposals.
Off-field issues had a detrimental impact on 20 year old Montagna’s performances early in the 2004 season. Leigh played in the Saints pre-season Premiership side, however he struggled to break into the St Kilda side during the home and away season, only playing two matches in the first 15 rounds, both times as a late replacement for the injured Xavier Clarke. Montagna played six straight games from Round 16 to Round 21, but was dropped for Round 22 only to again be a late replacement, this time for Robert Harvey who had a light hamstring strain. It was to be Montagna’s last match for the year as he missed the Saints three finals due to an injured hamstring.
In back to back games in Rounds 17 and 18 Montagna kicked three goals in each game against Geelong and Essendon. Predominantly playing as a half-forward Montagna had a very similar output to the previous season, in his nine games during 2004 he averaged 82 minutes, 6.4 kicks, 4.8 handballs and 3.1 marks per game with a disposal efficiency of 80.2%. Montagna almost doubled his tackling, from 1.5 per game in 2003 to 2.8 per game in 2004, whilst he played nine matches and kick nine goals as a small forward he had been unable to improve on his performances from the 2003 season.
Hamstring issues hampered Montagna again at the start of the 2005 season and it wasn’t until Round 6 that he played his first VFL match of the season. After five matches in the VFL Montagna made his first 2005 appearance for St Kilda in Round 13 against Essendon but was quite, with only five disposals and he returned to VFL affiliate Springvale the following week.
After three matches at VFL level Montagna was on the cusp of senior selection, being named an emergency for Rounds 17 and 18. He came into the Round 18 side against Melbourne as a late replacement for Cain Ackland who missed with a knee injury. Montagna made the most of his call-up having 12 kicks, five marks, five handballs, five inside 50s and kicked three goals in the 88 point win against Melbourne.
After playing only one match in the first 17 rounds Montagna kept his position in the St Kilda side for the last seven games of 2005 including both finals, playing mainly as a wingman he elevated his game to a new level, having more than 10 possessions in each of his last seven matches including four games with at least 17 disposals. In Round 21 against Fremantle at Subiaco Montagna played his best game of the season, having 16 kicks, six handballs, eight marks and laid four tackles to receive one Brownlow Medal vote.
Montagna played eight matches in 2005, averaging 93 minutes, 9.8 kicks, 5.4 handballs and 4.4 marks per game with a disposal efficiency of 81.0%. Montagna increased his average possessions per game by 36% from 11.2 in 2004 to 15.2 in 2005, in his fourth season of AFL football he had increased his body strength and was better conditioned to the rigours of AFL football, enabling him to average 93 minutes per game in 2005, up from 82 minutes in 2004.
In his first three seasons at St Kilda from 2002 to 2004 Montagna wore jumper number 28 in his 22 AFL games. Montagna was given the number 11 jumper at the start of the 2005 season and has worn this number ever since. Previous St Kilda players to have worn number 28 include Wels Eicke and centreman Greg Burns who held the record for most games played by a St Kilda player in number 11 of 168 games from 1979 to 1989 before it was broken by Montagna.
Montagna had a breakout season in 2006, not only did he firmly establish himself in St Kilda’s best 22, but after being an emergency for Round 1 he played all remaining 22 games and finished ninth in St Kilda’s best and fairest. Even though 2006 was Montagna’s first full season in the midfield he became a very important part of it, especially with Lenny Hayes seriously injuring his knee in Round 9 and missed the rest of the season.
In Round 21 2006 at 22 years of age Montagna played his 50th AFL game against the Western Bulldogs, he had 15 kicks, 13 handballs, five marks, laid an equal game-high five tackles had an equal team-high six inside 50s and received a Brownlow vote. It was one of three matches in 2006 that Montagna had at least 24 disposals and received a Brownlow vote, the other matches were Round 2 vs Brisbane (24 disposals) and Round 17 vs Richmond (34 disposals), St Kilda won each of these games. In the 103 point victory against Richmond in Round 17 Montagna kicked a then equal career-best three goals and set new career best’s for disposals, kicks (23), uncontested possessions (24), bounces (17) and inside 50s (9) as well as equal career-bests for contested possession (9) and goal assists (2).
During 2006 Montagna played 22 matches, averaging 104 minutes, 12.3 kicks, 6.9 handballs and 4.8 marks a game with a disposal efficiency of 73.9%. Montagna led St Kilda for inside 50s with 110, 23 ahead of Jason Gram, ranked second. Montagna was also ranked third at St Kilda for tackles and hard-ball gets, being behind Nick Dal Santo and Luke Ball in both categories.
Each of the first five times that Montagna polled at the Brownlow Medal he received one vote, a trend he broke receiving three votes for with a brilliant start to the 2007 season in a 31 point Round 1 victory against Melbourne, having a game-high 17 kicks, seven handballs, 24 disposals, five marks and laid a game-high seven tackles, had seven inside 50s, nine contested possessions, and nine bounces to set game-highs in five of these eight categories, with the exceptions being marks, handballs and inside 50s.
Throughout 2007 Montagna was very effective in the St Kilda side on a wing, using his pace and skills to damaging effect. After suffering a broken jaw in Round 8 against Hawthorn Leigh amazingly missed only one game in Round 9 before returning to the Saints side. Montagna’s average game time reduced slightly from 104 minutes in 2006 to 101 minutes in 2007, however this was largely due to clubs across the AFL increasing their rotations, particularly of midfielders.
Mid-season in 2007 Montagna gave football fans a taste of what to expect in future years as “between Rounds 10-16 there weren’t too many better midfielders in the competition than Montagana. He ranked No. 1 in AFL kicks and effective kicks, second in uncontested possessions and third in disposals during that seven-week period.”5 Leigh polled five Brownlow Medal votes during this time, receiving three votes for a game-high 35 disposals, five marks, a team-high five rebound 50s, an equal game-high 11 contested possessions and a goal against Richmond in Round 13 and two votes for a game-high 33 disposals, nine marks and a team-high five rebound 50s against the Kangaroos in Round 11. Montagna finished the season with nine Brownlow votes, ranked third at St Kilda behind Nick Dal Santo and Nick Riewoldt who polled 16 and 14 votes respectively.
During 2007 Montagna continued his significant improvement, finishing third in the Saints best and fairest behind key forward Nick Riewoldt and defender Sam Fisher. Montagna was the highest placed midfielder, finishing ahead of more experience teammates Nick Dal Santo (4th), Lenny Hayes (5th) and Robert Harvey (7th). In 2007 Montagna played 21 games, averaging 101 minutes, 16.1 kicks, 7.8 handballs and 5.1 marks per game with a disposal efficiency of 76.7%. Despite being mainly considered as an outside midfielder Montagna was ranked third at St Kilda for hard-ball gets in 2007 with 51, behind Hayes with 64 and Dal Santo with 63. Montagna led St Kilda for inside 50s with 94, five ahead of centre half-forward Nick Riewoldt, and was ranked second for loose-ball gets with 69, 14 behind Dal Santo.
On all five occasions that Montagna had at least 28 possessions in 2008 he featured in the Brownlow Medal votes including a best afield performance in Round 17 against Port Adelaide with a game-high 22 kicks, six handballs, six marks, five tackles, an equal game-high two goal assists and a team-high 10 inside 50s, five more than the second ranked Saint during the eight point victory at the Telstra Dome.
The profile for Montagna in the AFL Prospectus 2009 said “he gained the most metres with his kicks of any player in the competition last year and also ranked No. 1 in the AFL in long kicks as well as inside 50s and rebound 50s combined.”6 For the second straight year Montagna received nine Brownlow Medal votes to be the third highest polling Saint behind Hayes (15 votes) and Riewoldt (12 votes).
During a 2008 season in which Montagna finished sixth in St Kilda’s best and fairest he played all 25 games, averaging 98 minutes, 15.5 kicks, 7.2 handballs and 4.7 marks per game with a disposal efficiency of 73.2%. In 2008 Montagna led the AFL in kicks and was ranked third at St Kilda for hard-ball gets and tackles, and first for inside 50s. For the first time in his career Montagana did not miss a game all season, playing all 25 including three finals and kicked 12 goals to equal his career best.
After cementing his position in the St Kilda team during 2006 Montagna had two consecutive finishes in the top six at the club’s best and fairest in 2007 (third) and 2008 (sixth). In 2009 he elevated his game to another level, becoming one of the elite midfielders of the AFL to earn the first of two consecutive All-Australian selections.
Montagna’s best performance for the 2009 season was during the 20 point win at Subiaco Oval against West Coast in Round 15 when he had 23 kicks and a career best 20 handballs and 43 disposals as well as 12 inside 50s, 10 clearances, 13 contested possessions, 30 uncontested possessions and seven marks to receive 3 Brownlow Medal votes. Montagna polled votes in six other games during the season, highlighting his domination of the Round 15 game against West Coast Montagna set game-high in seven of the eight categories named above with marks being the only exception, setting outright game-highs in six categories and the equal game-high for contested possessions with 2014 Brownlow Medallist Matt Priddis. During the game Leigh also set new career-highs for disposals, handballs, inside 50s, clearances and uncontested possessions.
Montagna polled two Brownlow Medal votes in a game four times during 2009 including Round 10 against Melbourne at Carrara with the midfielder having 16 kicks, 15 handballs, five marks, a game-high 13 tackles, six more than the second ranked player for the game and a game-high two goal assists. Montgana set a new career-best for tackles which still stands today, surpassing 12 tackles earlier in the 2009 season in Round 2 against Adelaide.
In 24 games during 2009 Montagna averaged 16.6 kicks, 11.3 handballs and 5.1 marks per game with a disposal efficiency of 70.9%. Montagna almost doubled his tackling from 3.3 per game in 2008 to 6.3 per game in 2009 and he averaged the second most contested possessions per game at St Kilda with 8.3, behind Lenny Hayes with 8.9. Montagna was ranked third in the AFL for total kick metres gained. For the second straight season Montgana had 20 goal assists and at least 34 score assists. During 2009 Montagna averaged 27.9 disposals per game an increase of 23% on his 2008 average of 22.7 disposals per game.
Montagna was rewarded for an outstanding 2009 season with third place in the St Kilda best and fairest behind Riewoldt and Brendon Goddard, he also received 13 Brownlow Medal votes to finish equal 14th overall. Leigh’s speed, hard-running and ball-winning ability well and truly placed him in the AFLs elite, earning him a position in his first All-Australian team on a wing. During 2009 St Kilda had one of the most dominant home and away seasons in VFL/AFL history, recording 20 wins and just two losses, four of Montagna’s teammates joined him in the All-Australian team with Lenny Hayes being named centre, Nick Riewoldt was selected as centre-half forward and Brendon Goddard and Nick Dal Santo were both named on the interchange bench.
There is more to being a midfielder then just racking up possessions and during the 2009 home and away season Montagna also used the football very effectively to be “ranked equal No. 1 in the competition for effective kicks, second in loose-ball gets, fourth in kicks, fifth in tackles and inside 50s, eighth in disposals and equal eighth in score assists.”7
For the second time in his career Montagna was one of four Saints along with Jason Blake, Sam Gilbert and James Gwilt to play every match in 2010. It was the second time in three seasons that Montagna had played every game and during that period he missed only one of St Kilda’s 76 games, Round 19 2009 against Hawthorn at Launceston.
Against Adelaide at Etihad Stadium in Round 10 2010 Montagna played the greatest game of his career to date, dominating proceedings to have 20 kicks, 18 handballs, five clearances, seven inside 50s, two score assists and kicking a career best five goals. Such was Montagna’s influence in the 47 point victory that by the time he was resting on the bench at the 15 minute mark of the first quarter he had already kicked three goals, with two of them being from long range. Such was the magnitude of Joey’s performance that he also received a very rare perfect 10 votes in the Age Football of the Year award. Leigh received 3 Brownlow Medal votes for the first of three times in 2010, the later times being Round 15 vs Brisbane and Round 21 vs Richmond.
Leigh’s speed and hard running stood out against Melbourne in Round 14 as he had 15 kicks, a game-high 20 handballs, took seven marks, had a game-high seven inside 50s, three more than the second player for the game, 10 contested possessions and kicked two goals in another dominant midfield display at Etihad Stadium to earn 2 Brownlow Medal votes.
In Round 15 vs Brisbane Montagna had a game-high 19 kicks, 14 handballs, five marks, five clearances, two more than the second ranked Saint, laid a team-high seven tackles, kicked a goal and had a goal assist. One of Montagna’s greatest strengths is his hard-running ability, particularly late in games. Montagna is able to run at the same intensity in the last quarter as the first, and his 20 possessions in the second half against Brisbane were critical to St Kilda gaining the ascendancy on their way to a 14 point victory after trailing by 16 points at half-time.
During the first quarter against Richmond in Round 21 Montagna had the ball on a string to have 16 possessions, the most of any AFL player in a quarter during the 2010 season. By the final siren Montagna had notched up 27 kicks, and 15 handballs, setting game-highs in both categories, he also had seven marks, four inside 50s, and a goal. Montagna won an equal game-high 14 contested possessions, a then career-high 11 clearances and was also able to find space with his reading of the play, endurance and speed.
In the Preliminary Final against the Western Bulldogs Montagna had 18 kicks and 15 handballs, setting team-highs in both categories. With St Kilda trailing the Bulldogs by six points at half-time Montagna played a critical role in the Saints gaining the ascendancy during the third quarter with 12 disposals for the term, the Saints played scintillating football to outscore the Western Bulldogs seven goals, four behinds to one goal, three behinds in the third stanza. Montagna had a then career-high 17 contested possessions, five more than the Saints ranked second for the game and laid five tackles in the Saints 24 point victory.
In the drawn Grand Final against Collingwood Montagna had 11 kicks, 12 handballs, seven clearances, an equal game-high 14 contested possessions and laid 11 tackles, ranked second on the ground behind Hayes with 12.
During 2010 Montagna played all 26 games for St Kilda, averaging 102 minutes, 16.5 kicks, 12.2 handballs and 4.3 marks a game with a disposal efficiency of 70.3%. Montagna was runner-up in St Kilda’s best and fairest and polled 16 Brownlow Medal votes to finish equal ninth overall and be the second ranked Saint, behind 2010 best and fairest winner Lenny Hayes who polled 19 votes. Montagna led St Kilda for kicks, handballs received, inside 50s, hard-ball gets and loose ball gets and was ranked third for handballs and tackles, sixth for goals with 18, the highest tally of his career, his previous best was 12 goals in 2003, 2006 and 2008.
Montagna was rewarded for his outstanding season with selection in his second straight All-Australian team being named on a wing, Brendon Goddard was the only other Saint selected in the team after Lenny Hayes was controversially overlooked. During the 2010 home and away season Joey was ranked second in the AFL for kicks, first for inside 50s and third for disposals.
The profile for Montagna in the AFL Record Season Guide 2011 said “Montagna sits comfortably alongside the AFL’s elite midfielder after another stellar season. Sets an example for his teammates with his work rate, running himself to the point of exhaustion”8
Against Brisbane in Round 5 2011 Montagna provided drive with his hard running and penetrating kicking to have a game-high 22 kicks, 11 handballs, a team-high eight marks. Leigh was outstanding with the ball in dispute, having a team-high 10 clearances, five more than the second ranked Saint and won a game-high 15 contested possessions to receive 2 Brownlow Medal votes.
Montagna received a one match suspension for his bump on Carlton’s Ed Curnow who had injured his shoulder earlier in the Round 7 game at Etihad Stadium. Montagna had been St Kilda’s best player in the three point loss, receiving two Brownlow Medal votes for a performance in which he had 18 kicks, seven inside 50s, two goal-assists, seven handballs and five marks, setting team-highs in the first three categories.
St Kilda started the 2011 season very slowly and after eight rounds languished in 15th position with one win, a draw and five losses. The Saints had made the finals in six of the previous seven years however many football observers had grave doubts that the Saints would be able to bounce back to make the 2011 finals.
In his return from suspension in Round 9 against Melbourne Montagna was brilliant, with a highlight being a well judged contested mark against Jordan Gysberts 50 metres out from goal and quickly playing on to kick a goal on the run at a critical stage in the third quarter to extend St Kilda’s lead to 10 points. Montagna gave a consistent performance, having at least eight possessions in every quarter and finished the match with a game-high 22 kicks, 16 handballs, six marks and two goals. Montagna had a disposal efficiency of 82% against Melbourne, a team-high nine inside 50s, five more than the second ranked Saint and laid an equal team-high six tackles.
In St Kilda’s first two victories of the 2011 season, Round 5 vs Brisbane and Round 9 against Melbourne Leigh Montagna received two Brownlow Medal votes in each game.
During Round 11 against Collingwood Montagna injured his knee which forced him to miss Round 12 against the Western Bulldogs. Leigh returned to the Saints line-up in Round 13 against Geelong but was substituted off the ground in the third quarter. The Saints Round 14 bye came at the ideal time for Montagna to regain fitness and contribute to St Kilda’s surge up the ladder in the second half of the season.
In the 21 point Round 17 victory against West Coast at Etihad Stadium Montagna was back to his best amassing 17 opening term possessions to set a St Kilda record for the most disposals in a first quarter. In a best afield performance Montagna finished the match with 19 kicks, 15 handballs and four goal assists to be a standout in this category as no other Saint had more than one goal assist. Leigh also kicked a set-shot goal himself from a tight angle during time-on of the last quarter to extend St Kilda’s lead to 10 points.
With classy finishing against Collingwood in Round 21 Montagna kicked a game-high three goals, two were on the run from outside 40 metres and he kicked a first quarter goal from a 45 metres set-shot on a tight angle. Montagna had a team-high 19 kicks, five handballs, seven marks, laid six tackles and had four clearances in a complete all round game playing in the midfield. Despite being under intense pressure from Collingwood Montagna retained his composure to have an 83% disposal efficiency and didn’t commit any clangers, he also had a game-high 10 inside 50s and one goal assist.
St Kilda finished the home and away season strongly to end the season in sixth position and host a final against Sydney at Etihad Stadium, however Sydney were too strong and defeated the Saints by 25 points.
In 2011 Montagna played 21 games, averaging 101 minutes, 16.0 kicks, 8.1 handballs and 4.2 marks per game with a disposal efficiency of 68.6%. Montangna was ranked second at St Kilda for kicks and hard-ball gets, first for inside 50s, fourth for tackles, equal sixth for goals and fifth for loose-ball gets. Montagna finished fourth in St Kilda’s best and fairest on 487 votes, three votes behind Sean Dempster in third place, he polled 10 Brownlow votes ranked second at St Kilda behind Nick Dal Santo.
Montagna polled Brownlow Medal votes in three games during 2012 commencing with 2 votes against the Western Bulldogs at Etihad Stadium. In St Kilda’s 60 point win Leigh had an equal team-high 19 kicks, eight handballs, seven marks and a team-high seven inside 50s.
During a superb performance in St Kilda’s 128 point Round 22 win against Greater Western Sydney at Etihad Stadium Montagna had 16 kicks, 12 handballs, nine marks, laid five tackles and kicked two goals to receive 3 Brownlow votes. The win was the third largest in St Kilda’s history, only 11 points less than the greatest win in Round 22 2005 against Brisbane at Etihad Stadium. Montanga is one of only six Saints along with Nick Dal Santo, Brendon Goddard, James Gwilt, Lenny Hayes and Stephen Milne to play in the matches in which St Kilda recorded their greatest and third greatest winning margins in history.
In 19 of his 22 matches during 2012 Montagna had at least 20 disposals, the exceptions being the opening round against Port Adelaide, Round 5 against Hawthorn and the final round against Carlton when he restricted Marc Murphy to 19 possessions.
The AFL Prospectus 2013 wrote “Montagna became more of an inside midfielder in 2012 and in fact was given some run-with roles. As the season progressed he played more in the centre of the ground, ranking sixth for centre-bounce attendances from Rounds 1-15 before attending the second-most behind Lenny Hayes from Rounds 16-23.”9
In 2012 Montagna played all 22 matches, averaging 105 minutes, 14.7 kicks, 8.8 handballs and 4.5 marks a game with a disposal efficiency of 68.3%. During 2012 Leigh led St Kilda in kicks and inside 50s, was ranked second for score assists, third for handballs, loose-ball gets, and tackles, fourth for marks and hard-ball gets. Throughout 2012 Montagna focused more on the defensive side of his game performed defensive roles on players such as Joel Selwood, Brent Stanton and Marc Murphy, which meant that he wasn’t as eye-catching as in previous seasons and he only polled six Brownlow votes, ranked fifth at St Kilda. The St Kilda match committee rated Montagna’s performances in several different roles during the season highly and he polled 121 votes in the best and fairest to be the runners-up, just three votes behind Lenny Hayes who won his third Trevor Barker Award.
Early in 2012 Montagna was inducted as a St Kilda life member and later that year he signed a two- year contract to remain at St Kilda for the 2013 and 2014 seasons. After signing the contract with St Kilda Montagna said “I’m excited and relieved that’s it’s all done. The club’s been good to me and I never wanted to go anywhere else. I’m proud of where, not only myself, but the group of us that got drafted together have been able to take the club.”10
Due to suspension Montagna missed the opening round of the 2013 season, he played all remaining 21 games for the season. Against Adelaide in Round 8 Montagna received 1 Brownlow Medal vote for a performance in which he had a game-high 21 kicks, an equal team-high 13 handballs, nine marks and an equal game-high four clearances.
Montagna played his 200th AFL game in Round 10 2013 on 2 June 2013 against North Melbourne at 29 years of age. In the days before Montagna’s 200th match several of his St Kilda team-mates congratulated him in video messages on Saints.com.au, Lenny Hayes said to Joey “You had to do it the hard way… You became an All-Australian midfielder just through hard work (and) perseverance. You turned yourself into a real leader of this football club and it’s been a pleasure to play alongside you.” Having been drafted on the same day and sharing the highs and lows at St Kilda for over a decade Montagna and Dal Santo share a close bond as expressed by Nick in saying “When I look back on my football career you’ll be front and centre of the things I cherish and really appreciated over a life span at St Kilda so I do appreciate everything you’ve done for me as a player and a person off the field. I’m so glad that you’ve made 200, you’ve had to work for it and you deserve everything that you get. Congratulations and all the best for the weekend.”
Montagna had a team-high 17 kicks, six handballs and five tackles in his milestone game, however the Saints were easily beaten, losing by 68 points. It was the first time St Kilda had lost one of Montagna’s milestone games with the club registering wins in his 50th and 100th games and having a draw in his 150th game against Richmond in Round 2, 2011.
In Round 13 against Melbourne at the MCG, three St Kilda players reached milestones of 150 games or more, with Riewoldt and Dal Santo both playing their 250th games and Sean Dempster playing his 150th game. St Kilda celebrated the milestone in style, recording a 35 point win with Montagna leading from the front, receiving 3 Brownlow Medal votes for a performance in which he had a game-high 20 kicks, 15 handballs, nine marks, seven inside 50s, seven clearances, laid an equal team-high five tackles, kicked a goal and had a game-high 15 contested possessions which at that stage of his career was the equal fourth most contested possessions he had recorded in a game.
Montagna finished the 2013 season in scintillating form, averaging 34.9 disposals per game during his last seven games of the season and receiving nine Brownlow Medal votes during this period. The purple patch commenced with a best afield performance in a five point loss against Port Adelaide in Round 17 at Docklands. Montagna had a game-high 24 kicks, 11 handballs, seven marks, six tackles, two goal assists and set game-highs for both rebound 50s and inside 50s, having six and seven respectively.
In their first 20 games of the 2013 season the Saints had three wins and 17 losses, however they finished the season with back to back wins, starting with a 46 point win against Gold Coast at the Docklands. Montagna received three Brownlow Medal votes for a performance in which he had 18 kicks, a team-high 15 handballs, kicked three goals which was ranked equal third for the game behind team-mates Milne and Riewoldt, had five inside 50s, six bounces and one goal assist.
In the final round of 2013 two St Kilda players, Justin Koschitzke and Adam Schneider played their 200th AFL game, it was also the final AFL game for Koschitzke and two players who were already members of the 200 game club, small forward Stephen Milne (275 games) and defender Jason Blake (219 games). The Saints provided a fitting send-off, playing their best football for the season to defeat Fremantle who finished the season third on the ladder by 71 points at Etihad Stadium. On the eve of the finals Fremantle took the opportunity to rest many of their star players. Montagna and fellow midfielder Jack Steven had a field-day, using their hard-running to full effect to amass 47 disposals each to set a new St Kilda record for disposals in a game, surpassing 45 disposals by two-time Brownlow Medallist Robert Harvey in Round 19, 1999 against the Western Bulldogs. Montagna had 34 kicks, an amazing 15 more than the second ranked player on the ground, and ranked equal second on St Kilda’s all-time list with Paul Callary, two kicks behind Ross Smith’s 36 kicks against Essendon in Round 6 1971. Leigh also had 13 handballs, an equal team-high 12 marks, a team-high 12 inside 50s, five more than the second ranked player for the game, two goal assists and received two Brownlow Medal votes with Steven receiving the three votes.
During 2013 Montagna played 21 games, averaging 100 minutes, 18.8 kicks, 10.8 handballs and 4.8 marks a game with a disposal efficiency of 71.7. During 2013 Montagna led St Kilda in kicks, uncontested possessions and inside 50s, ranked second for rebound 50s, equal second for clearances and goal assists, third for handballs and tackles, fourth for contested possessions and equal fifth for goals. Montagna had more than 26 disposals 16 times, an equal career-best with his 2010 season, and averaged a career-best 29.6 disposals per game, surpassing his previous best of 28.7 disposals per game in 2010.
Montagna’s profile in the 2014 AFL Prospectus said “He ranked second in the competition for metres gained per game, recording the eighth highest retention rate of the top 20. His delivery into the forward 50 was also a highlight, as his kicks were marked by a teammate 52% of the time – the ninth-highest percentage of the 50 players for kicks into the forward 50.”11
Montagna polled an equal career-high 16 Brownlow Medal votes to finish equal 11th overall, 12 votes behind winner, Gold Coast Captain Gary Ablett who won the second Brownlow of his career, having previously won the medal in 2009 playing for Geelong. Montagna polled votes in eight games including three best-afield performances and finished eight votes ahead of the second ranked Saint, fellow midfielder Jack Steven. There was a high correlation between Montagna being one of the best two players on the ground and the Saints winning games in 2013. St Kilda only won five games for the season, with Montagna polling votes in four of these games comprised of two 3’s and two 2’s.
On 1 February 2014 Montagna married his girlfriend of four years Erinn Bryne, however they had to change their plans at the last minute as the venue they were going to use, the St Kilda’s Stokehouse burned down a fortnight before their wedding. Between the Stokehouse burning down and the wedding Leigh commented to AFL.com.au “It’s thrown a spanner in the works. We haven’t got a venue as yet. We spent the weekend brainstorming and my fiancé has taken a couple of days off work so she’ll get onto it today. We’re looking at it as a positive; the pressure’s off now, no one can bag our wedding when we tell them we had two weeks to organise it, so it’s a no-lose situation and we’ll be right.”12
For the second season in a row Montagna missed the opening game of 2014 due to suspension, however when he returned to the Saints team in Round 2 he was able to maintain his strong form from the latter stages of 2013, having at least 25 disposals in five of his first six games of the season, and in all six games he had at least nine contested possessions including a career-high 20 contested possessions against Hawthorn in Round 7. Montagna received a total of six Brownlow Medal votes during this period including a best afield performance against Brisbane in Round 6 at Westpec Stadium in Wellington, New Zealand with 21 kicks, 16 handballs, six inside 50s, eight clearances, 14 contested possessions and two goals, setting a game-high or equal game-high in all six categories, he also had six tackles and five rebound 50s. In St Kilda’s second game in Wellington Montagna received the Anzac Day medal for being best afield.
The previous week Montagna received 2 Brownlow Medal votes, playing a critical role in St Kilda’s upset 16 point Round 5 win against Essendon at Etihad Stadium. Montagna had a team-high 23 kicks, eight handballs, six marks, seven tackles, an equal game-high five rebound 50s, eight clearances and 13 contested possessions, setting game-highs in the latter two categories.
In 2014 Montagna played 20 games, averaging 100 minutes, 15.5 kicks, 8.0 handballs and 4.0 marks a game with a disposal efficiency of 68.7%. Montagna led St Kilda for kicks and handballs received, ranked second for inside 50’s, rebound 50’s, loose-ball gets and hard-ball gets, third for tackles and fifth for handballs. Montagna finished fourth in St Kilda’s best and fairest behind Riewoldt, Hayes and Dempster and polled seven Brownlow Medal votes to be the second ranked Saint, four votes behind Riewoldt.
After being extremely durable from 2006 to 2014 Montagna was restricted to just two of St Kilda’s first seven games in 2015, missing four games with a knee injury from Round 2 to Round 5 and being a late withdrawal due to a hamstring injury in Round 7. Montagna returned to the St Kilda line-up in Round 8 and played the remaining 15 games of the season, he had 27 or more disposals 12 times for the season including nine consecutive games from Round 6 to Round 16.
In Round 11 2015 against Melbourne Montagna received three Brownlow Medal votes, having a brilliant all-round game with a game-high 21 kicks, seven handballs, five marks, a game-high 10 tackles an equal team-high six clearances, a goal assist and a team-high 12 contested possessions. The scores were tied at 75 points apiece at three quarter time, in a scrappy final quarter St Kilda had outscored Melbourne four points to two when Jeremy Howe kicked a goal at the 25 minute mark to give Melbourne a four point lead. At the 26 minute mark of the last quarter Steven kicked the ball deep into St Kilda’s forward line, with hard running Montagna was able to gather the ball unopposed in the goal square and kicked the winning goal for St Kilda with 19 seconds remaining. It was Montagna’s second time in a row playing against the Demons that he had best afield, having also received three votes in Round 12 2013, Montagna missed the encounter between the two clubs in Round 1 2014 due to suspension. Montagna has polled more Brownlow Medal votes against Melbourne than any other club, receiving 15 votes, followed by 11 votes against Brisbane and eight votes against Richmond and Carlton.
During 2015 Montagna played 17 games, averaging 103 minutes, 16.3 kicks, 12.3 handballs and 5.0 marks a game with a retention rate of 72.4%. Despite missing five games Montagna ranked second at St Kilda for inside 50s, third for disposals, handballs, clearances, contested possessions and uncontested possessions, fourth for kicks and score involvements and fifth for score assists and tackles. Montagna finished fourth in St Kilda’s best and fairest with 143 votes, behind Jack Steven (175), David Armitage (159) and Sean Dempster (149) but averaged the most votes per game, 8.41 to Steven’s 7.95.
Montagna’s profile in AFL Prospectus 2016 said “Montagna’s ability to win the ball on the outside and push forward of centre ranks alongside the game’s best midfielders. He rated elite for disposals and won the sixth-most uncontested possessions per game of any player in the AFL. He used the space he was given effectively, gaining 512 metres per game – ranked second in the competition.”13
After playing a total of only 30 games from a possible 93 for St Kilda in his first four AFL seasons from 2002 to 2005 Montagna became a permanent member of the Saints best 22 during 2006 and hasn’t looked back since then to be remarkably durable, representing St Kilda in 219 of their 234 matches from 2006 onwards. For the first time since 2005 Montagna played less than 90 per cent of the Saints games for the season in 2015, missing five games due to injury. In nine seasons from 2006 to 2014 Montagna missed no more than two games in any season and on the rare occasions that he was out of the St Kilda side he missed only one game.
The talent available in the 2001 draft was of the highest calibre and it didn’t take long for people to begin referring to it as a ‘super draft’, 14 years later it is considered the best National Draft class in AFL history. Looking back now, drafting Montagna with selection 37 was an absolute bargain for St Kilda, he is one of 13 players from the 2001 draft to be selected in an All-Australian team with two of the others being fellow St Kilda draftees Nick Dal Santo and Luke Ball. The other 2001 draftees to make an All-Australian team are Luke Hodge (selection 1), Chris Judd (3), Jimmy Bartel (8), James Kelly (17), Steve Johnson (24), Sam Mitchell (36), Gary Ablett (40 as a father-son selection), Paul Medhurst (56), Dane Swan (58) and Brian Lake (71). This evening Montagna will become the 11th player selected at the 2001 National Draft to play 250 AFL games, the two All-Australians from the 2001 National Draft that haven’t reached this milestone and have both retired are Ball (223 games) and Medhurst (168 games).
St Kilda did a magnificent job with their first five selections from the 2001 National Draft in selecting three players that would become All-Australians, all five played over 100 AFL games, although three of these players left St Kilda at the end of the 2009 season with Matt Maguire and Xavier Clarke going to Brisbane and Luke Ball being drafted by Collingwood. At the end of the 2013 season Dal Santo joined North Melbourne after playing 260 games for St Kilda leaving Montagna as the only one of St Kilda’s five selections at the 2001 National Draft that remains at the club 14 seasons later. In the 2015 preliminary final against West Coast Dal Santo became the first player initially drafted at the 2001 National Draft to reach 300 AFL games.
In the past four or five seasons Montagna has increased the amount of media work he has done, primarily with television network channel 7, doing some commentary work and being a regular panellist on AFL Game Day. Montagna has at least two more seasons left playing for St Kilda but he is well placed to expand his media commitments when he retires.
In his first season at the club in 2002 St Kilda finished second last in a 16 club league, followed by 10 consecutive seasons with at least 11 wins from 2003 to 2012, during this period St Kilda made the finals seven times, including finishing in the top four at the end of the home and away season and playing in a preliminary final five times, 2004, 2005, 2008, 2009 and 2010. During the past three seasons from 2013 to 2015 the Saints have finished 16th, last and 14th. Speaking to AFL.com.au on Tuesday morning Montagna commented “I’ve said in the past that [Hawthorn’s] Shane Crawford is the inspiration. It was his last year in 2008 and he was able to hang on and have the young guys come through and carry him to a flag. I have it in the back of my mind that hopefully these young guys, if they continue to improve, they might be able to carry Nick [Riewoldt] and I to a flag one day. It’s certainly possible. How realistic it is, that’s anyone’s guess. As long as the coaches want me, my form’s there and my body’s feels healthy [I’ll keep playing].”14
Throughout his 249 game AFL career Leigh Montagna has averaged 14.8 kicks, 8.8 handballs, 4.5 marks, 0.59 goals and 0.41 Brownlow votes per game. Since 1965 the AFL have kept records of disposals per game, during this 50-year plus period Montagna’s career average of 23.52 disposals per game ranks second at St Kilda behind two-time Brownlow Medallist Robert Harvey with 25.21, the players ranked third to seventh on the list are Ian Stewart (23.02), Ross Smith (22.88), Lenny Hayes (22.52), Nick Dal Santo (22.51) and Jack Steven (22.46).
During his 14 season AFL career Montagna has polled 96 Brownlow Medal votes, including 10 votes or more in a season four times. Montagna needs four more votes to join six players who have polled 100 votes playing for St Kilda, being Harvey (215), Riewoldt (130), Hayes (129), Dal Santo (127), Stewart Loewe (126) and Harold Bray (106). The first four players named above were all team-mates of Montagna’s for an extended period of time including current team-mate Riewoldt who was selected with the number 1 pick at the 2000 draft, a year before Montagna joined St Kilda. Whilst Stewart Loewe’s last season, 2002 was Montagna’s first, and he played 17 games in his final season he did not play in Montagna’s only AFL game for 2002 in Round 6, missing due to a knee injury. Bray played 156 games for St Kilda from 1941 to 1952, predominantly playing as a centreman. During 2015 Montagna overtook former team-mate Nathan Burke who polled 95 votes in his career. Two players that between them won four Brownlow Medals polled over 100 votes during their career but received some of these votes after they left St Kilda and joined another club. Three-time Brownlow Medallist Ian Stewart polled 139 votes during his career, comprised of 94 votes for St Kilda and 45 votes for Richmond. Stewart won two Brownlow Medals playing for St Kilda in 1965 and the club’s premiership year of 1966, and also won the 1971 medal playing for Richmond. 1987 Brownlow Medallist, full-forward Tony Locket polled 128 votes comprised of 85 votes for St Kilda and 43 for Sydney.
In the week before playing his 250th AFL game in Round 1 2016 against Port Adelaide Montagna spoke to Saints.com.au about his career highlights, commenting “Certainly playing in the Grand Finals is something you’re very proud of and winning the preliminary finals to get there. The first preliminary final win against the Bulldogs was a nail-biting win. That feeling when the siren went to know you’re in your first Grand Final is something pretty special.”15
When asked ‘you played a variety of roles last season, where can we expect you to play this year?’ Montagna told Saints.com.au “Yeah, I think that will continue, I just have to continue to play different roles and do whatever suits the team best, we need to keep blooding some young midfielders, I might try and help out down back a little bit this year, and can still play forward, so it is just wherever the team needs me really and keep on developing these other guys.”
Several AFL captains provided their thoughts on Montagna reaching 250 AFL games, with Geelong captain Joel Selwood said “Well it’s funny with Joey that he’s able to push out 250 in these small little legs, to just run up and down the wing all day.’’ Western Bulldogs captain Robert Murphy said “He has had a high standard for a such long period so I can’t see him slowing down any time soon.” Hawthorn captain Luke Hodge commented “Last year I was on international duties with him, and just to see the kind of person he is off-field, you can understand why the younger Saints guys enjoy their time there, because they have got two older blokes that will do anything for them and are great to learn off.”
Young players drafted into AFL clubs develop at very different rates, and football observers can be too quick to make judgements on players within the first few years of their careers. After not being able to cement a position in the St Kilda side during his first four seasons in the AFL few would have predicted the great heights that Leigh Montagna would reach later in his career.
Injuries held Montagna back early in his career and during 2004 and 2005 St Kilda were a top four side making it difficult for young players to break into the team and retain their position. Mindful of Montagna’s light frame early on during his career he was played as a small forward and his game time was closely monitored. Once he had built up his body strength and adapted to the rigours of AFL football Montagna made the transition from small forward to midfielder late in the 2005 season and he has prospered ever since.
Hard work and perseverance has paid off for Montagna, and whilst it took just under five seasons to play his 50th game late in the 2006 season the progression from 50 to 250 games has been smooth, taking just over nine seasons to play 200 games. Since establishing himself in the St Kilda side Montagna has been one of St Kilda’s best and most consistent players not just week to week, but also season to season. Underlining this, he is the only player to finish in the top 10 of St Kilda’s best and fairest in every season from 2006 to 2015, and has had a club best eight top four finishes in this time. With his hard and explosive running, ball winning and carrying ability and damaging disposal along with his leadership and contribution to the St Kilda Football Club on an off the field during 14 years at the club, today Montagna deservedly joins the 250 game club alongside other all-time greats of the St Kilda Football Club.
By Dean Andrews
Twitter – @DeanAndrews7777
3 AFL, AFL 2002 The official statistical history of the AFL, page 258
5 Champion Data, AFL Prospectus – the essential number-cruncher for season 2008, 3rd Edition, page 273
6 Champion Data, AFL Prospectus – the essential number-cruncher for season 2009, 4th Edition, page 250
7 Champion Data, AFL Prospectus – the essential number-cruncher for season 2010, 5th Edition, page 7
8 AFL, AFL Record Season Guide 2011, page 283
9 Champion Data, AFL Prospectus – the essential number-cruncher for season 2013, 8th Edition, page 295
10 Triplem.com.au, St Kilda re-signs four big guns, but Brendon Goddard is not one of them by Triple M Footy, 29 August 2012
11 Champion Data, AFL Prospectus – the essential number-cruncher for season 2014, 9th Edition, page 315
13 Champion Data, AFL Prospectus – the essential number-cruncher for season 2016, 11th Edition, page 319