On Friday October 6 midfielder Seb Ross in his sixth AFL season won St Kilda’s 2017 Trevor Barker Award in convincing fashion, polling 159 votes, to finish 35 votes ahead of rebounding defender Dylan Roberton with Saints captain Jarryn Geary a further three votes adrift on 121 votes. In his first four seasons with St Kilda Ross didn’t record any top 10 finishes in the Saints b & f, however over the past two seasons he has improved significantly, following up his sixth place best and fairest finish in 2016 by winning the award for the first time in 2017, he also ranked ninth in the AFL this season for disposals per game and was one of two Saints selected in the initial 40 man All-Australian squad along with Roberton.
During his first four seasons at St Kilda from 2012 to 2015 Ross was a fringe player at St Kilda, splitting his time between playing for the Saints in the AFL and representing their VFL affiliate club Sandringham. Ross played a total of 37 AFL games during his first four seasons with his most games in a season being 13 in each of the 2013 and 2014 seasons. A severe hamstring injury suffered during the 2015 pre-season had a detrimental effect on Ross’ 2015 season, however after being dropped in Round 16 he returned to AFL level in Round 19 and has gone on to play 49 consecutive games for St Kilda from that point onwards. In his first 37 games until the end of 2015 Ross had more than 25 disposals in a game once, however over the past two seasons he has elevated his game to another stratosphere, being a model of consistency to have at least 26 disposals in a game 30 times and has also been able to nullify the influence of his direct opponent.
During 2017 Ross played all 22 games for St Kilda, averaging 83% game-time, 14.5 kicks, 15.4 handballs, 3.6 marks, 4.3 tackles, and 4.0 inside 50s per game with a disposal efficiency of 72.8%. Ross led the Saints for total disposals, handballs, clearances, inside 50s, contested possessions and uncontested possessions, he ranked second for kicks and tackles, and equal fourth for goal assists. Ross set new career-highs in 2017 for kicks per game, handballs, rebound 50s, clearances, contested possessions and uncontested possessions.
After winning the 2017 Trevor Barker Award Ross was asked in an interview with saints.com.au “Nick’s obviously won a bag (six), Jack’s (Steven) got three, your name is now on that award forever, that must be pretty humbling.” Seb responded “It might sound silly but I can’t really believe that I am among those names, Robert Harvey, Lenny Hayes, these are the guys that I came in as a young fella and was looking up to, these guys are legends, these guys are who I watched as a young fella, if I could ever be half as good as those guys, to be amongst those names is really humbling, I am probably not worthy of being there yet.”
Three experienced players from St Kilda’s 2016 leadership group in Nick Riewoldt, Leigh Montagna and Sean Dempster stood down from the leadership group in 2017, believing younger players were ready to drive the leadership of the St Kilda Football Club. Ross was one of three new additions to the Saints 2017 leadership group along with Dylan Roberton and Josh Bruce. This trio joined five members of the 2016 leadership group – Geary, David Armitage, Steven, Mav Weller and Jack Newnes to form an eight man leadership group for the 2017 season, with Geary being appointed captain. With only 59 games AFL experience and having only cemented his position in St Kilda’s best 22 during 2016 Seb Ross was considered a surprise inclusion in St Kilda’s leadership group by several outsiders. In the ‘2016 Season Review: Seb Ross’ on saints.com.au the club’s head coach Alan Richardson commented on Seb “He’s a strong up and coming leader. Because he has such high standards himself he challenges others in that space. And I’m talking about the way he trains and the way he prepares. He knows the game really well so he’s able to direct others, particularly at stoppage because that’s where he is often and more often or not he gets that right and he does the right thing the way he plays for the team so he’s earnt the right to challenge others. He’s also a very strong trainer so he sets the right example on the track, which is important. The way he will come back at the end of pre-season will be as good as anyone. He has real potential in the leadership space. We need him to go into the leadership group and have influence on others sooner rather than later.”1
After starting the 2017 season slowly with 16 disposals against Melbourne in Round 1 Ross had at least 20 disposals in his next 21 games, including 14 games with more than 29 disposals. Ross polled votes in St Kilda’s best and fairest in 20 of a possible 22 games, with the exceptions being Round 1, and Round 17 against Essendon, Ross polled more than 12 votes in a game five times.
In the 19 point Round 2 loss to the West Coast Eagles at Domain Stadium left-footer Ross earnt an equal season-high 15 votes in St Kilda’s best and fairest for a performance in which he had 19 kicks, 10 handballs, five tackles, five clearances and a goal assist.
Ross was a stand-out for the Saints in the 14 point Round 4 victory against Collingwood at Etihad Stadium, earning 13 votes in St Kilda’s b & f and two Brownlow Medal votes. After St Kilda led by six points at half-time Ross had 12 disposals in the third quarter to play a pivotal role in the Saints extending their lead to 22 points at three-quarter time. Seb finished the game with 19 kicks, a team-high 17 handballs, seven marks, a game-high seven inside 50s, team-high five clearances, and team-high 12 contested possessions.
After Round 6 defender Dylan Roberton led St Kilda’s best and fairest on 53 votes ahead of Ross on 47, followed by Jimmy Webster in third place on 46. St Kilda played their first Friday night game in more than two years against GWS in Round 7 at Etihad Stadium. St Kilda entered the game with a record of three wins and three losses whereas GWS had a record of five wins and one loss. The Saints gave a brilliant team performance of intense skilful football to defeat GWS by 23 points. Ross polled an equal season-high 15 votes in the Saints best and fairest for a performance in which he had 14 kicks, a team-high 17 handballs, a game-high nine clearances, and one goal assist. As well as winning a game-high 17 contested possessions Ross was also influential with the run he provided St Kilda, particularly in the last quarter when the Saints kicked six goals to one to turn a seven point three-quarter time deficit into a 23 point victory.
In the 19 point Round 8 victory against Carlton at Etihad Stadium Ross had 11 kicks, 20 handballs, six marks, six clearances, kicked two goals straight to be the equal second highest goal-kicker for the game behind Jack Billings with five goals, Ross also used the ball superbly to have a disposal efficiency of 83.1%. Ross polled eight votes to Roberton’s five in Round 8 to move into the outright lead of St Kilda’s best and fairest.
Ross earned three Brownlow Medal votes during the Saints 17 point Round 13 victory against North Melbourne at Etihad Stadium and also received 13 votes in St Kilda’s best and fairest. Ross had 13 kicks, a team-high 19 handballs, six tackles, four inside 50s, an equal team-high five clearances, four one percenters – ranked second for the Saints, a goal assist and remained poised with ball in hand to have a disposal efficiency of 75%. After Round 13 of St Kilda’s best and fairest Ross had polled 102 votes to lead from Roberton on 81 votes, Geary on 79 and Jimmy Webster on 67.
In Maddie’s match 2017 St Kilda played their best football of the season to defeat Richmond by 67 points in their Round 16 game. The Saints led by four goals at quarter-time and put the result beyond doubt with nine goals to none in the second quarter to lead by 82 points at half-time. Ross shut-down the best player of 2017 – Richmond midfielder Dustin Martin, restricting him to 19 disposals, the second and last time of 2017 that Martin had less than 20 disposals in a game. Ross still had a significant impact offensively, having an equal game-high 18 kicks, 15 handballs, four marks, eight tackles, five inside 50s, five clearances, two goal assists, 10 score involvements and kicked a goal. The umpires awarded Ross the three Brownlow Medal votes for being best afield and the coaches agreed with this assessment awarding him the maximum 10 votes in the AFL Coaches Association Player of the Year Award.
Following the 67 point victory against Richmond in Round 16 St Kilda had a record of nine wins and six losses to be seventh on the ladder, however the Saints won only two of their last seven games of the season to fade and finish with a record of 11 wins and 11 losses in 11th position.
Although Ross won St Kilda’s best and fairest in commanding fashion with a lead of more than 25% over runner-up Roberton, very little separated the top six with only a gap of 16 votes from the runner-up to three-time Trevor Barker Award winner Jack Steven on 108 votes. In between them were small defender Geary on 121, key defender Jake Carlisle on 119 and medium forward Jack Billings in fifth place on 110 votes.
In 2017 24 year-old Ross ranked equal first at St Kilda for votes polled at the 2017 Brownlow Medal with 14 along with fellow midfielder Jack Steven, ahead of forward Jack Billings with nine votes, Ross finished equal 13th in the Brownlow Medal. During 2017 Ross developed to have one of the most balanced games of midfielders in the AFL, he has been effective offensively whilst also able to perform a run-with role in the midfield, can win the contested ball and also runs hard and effectively to win uncontested possessions. Ross finished equal eighth in the AFL Coaches Association Player of the Year award with 68 votes, 2017 Brownlow Medalist Dustin Martin won the award with 122 votes ahead of 2016 Brownlow Medalist Patrick Dangerfield on 118 votes and a large gap to Rory Sloane in third position on 78 votes.
Alan Richardson commented on Ross’ 2017 season “In many ways, it was a real breakout season for Seb, but he also been building for a few years now. His form this season was no surprise given how hard he works on his game, both physically and mentally. Seb’s improvement is a by-product of combining talent with elite preparation. We’re really excited by Seb’s year but probably more excited by where we think Seb will get to as a player. He has a very good balance between supporting and challenging his teammates, and an ability to make those around him better. With so many experienced leaders leaving the club this year, we’re going to need more players like Seb to continue to develop their leadership. I’ve got no doubt Seb will play a key part in the direction of our footy club.”2
At the start of 2017 only three players on St Kilda’s list had played more than 200 AFL games, being Nick Riewoldt, Leigh Montagna and Sean Dempster, their departure increases the level of responsibility on players such as Ross. Another 200 game player, defender Sam Fisher retired at the end of the 2016 season. In his acceptance speech after winning the 2017 Trevor Barker Award Ross made special mention of these four players and the impression they made on him, commenting “Rooey, Joey, Shinna and Chips, the legacy you left on me, you taught me how to work as a young kid. It probably took me three or four years to figure it out and those three or four years watching you guys each day in your home life, you just put your head down and your bums up and you worked hard, you’re as loyal as they come, you’re some of the greatest mentors I’ve ever had, some of the greatest blokes I’ve ever met and I just wish you guys well in the future.” During his acceptance speech Seb also thanked the coaches as well as the partner and parents of the players, saying “Coaches, obviously Richo, the head cocko has instilled great faith in me, has helped me believe in myself and become the player that I’ve always wanted to become. Turtle (Adam Kingsley), the midfield coach, I’ve never seen anyone work as hard as Turtle does, he’ll be a senior coach one day for sure. On behalf of the players I’d like to thank the partners of the players and the parents, you guys ride the highs and the lows with us. We have to make sacrifices but more importantly you guys make the more important sacrifice, allowing us guys to be who we want to be and become the best version of ourselves, so I’d just like to thank all the player’s parents and partners for that.”
Career before 2017
Sebastian Ross was born on 7 May, 1993 and grew up in Horsham, a Victorian country town located approximately 300 kilometres north-west of Melbourne. After making his debut in 2010 and playing 13 games for North Ballarat in the TAC Cup under 18’s as a bottom-age player, inside midfielder Ross played 12 games for the Rebels during 2011, averaging 24.8 disposals, 4.6 marks, 4.3 clearances, 4.1 inside 50s and 3.4 tackles per game and had a disposal efficiency of 63.4%. Ross’ impressive form for North Ballarat earnt him selection in the Vic Country squad for the 2011 NAB AFL Under-18 Championships. Playing four games for his state side Ross averaged 14.5 disposals, 4.0 tackles, 3.5 inside 50s, 2.3 clearances and despite 56.9% of his possessions being contested he used the ball well to have a disposal efficiency of 70.7%. In 2011 Ross was given a taste at senior level, playing one game for North Ballarat in the VFL.
Ross was a member of the North Ballarat Rebels leadership group in 2011, in the lead up to the draft he commented “Throughout the year I did boxing sessions and extra sessions and in the lead-up to the draft camp we got pretty strict on the training regime and I tried to get as fit as I could. I was happy with my result in the beep test, which was 14.8.”3 On playing at the Under-18 National Championships Ross commented “I was pretty happy with anything in the national championships because I thought I was pretty lucky to get a gig. I wasn’t outstanding but I guess I contributed. It’s the highest possible level you can play at for your age group so I guess you’re playing against the best in Australia. You learn what it takes to be as good as them.”4
Seb Ross was selected by St Kilda with pick 25 at the 2011 National Draft, having been recruited from the Horsham Demons and TAC Cup club the North Ballarat under 18s. At the time of being recruited by St Kilda at 18 years of age Ross was 187 centimetres tall and weighed 83 kilograms. The profile for Ross in AFL Record Season Guide 2012 said “A hard-working midfielder, Ross stood out for Vic Country at the NAB AFL Under-18 Championships for his ability to win contested possessions and his clean disposal.”5
St Kilda finished sixth on the ladder at the end of the 2011 home and away season with a record of 12 wins, one draw and nine losses, and were defeated by 25 points in an elimination final against Sydney at Etihad Stadium. This game is the most recent final St Kilda have played in and the only final the Saints have played at the current home ground – Etihad Stadium. Due to expansion club GWS Giants entering the competition in 2012 they were provided with draft concessions which resulted in the new club having 11 of the first 14 picks at the 2011 National Draft. This pushed every other club’s draft selections down the order, the Saints in a trade with GWS Giants moved their first pick slightly down the order from 20 to 25 and acquired Ahmed Saad and Terry Milera. The 2011 National Draft has proven to be a successful one for the Saints with three of their selections having reached 50 AFL games by the end of 2016 and entrenched themselves in the Saints best 22, with Ross being joined by Jack Newnes (selection 37) and Jimmy Webster (selection 42) in this category, this trio all finished in the top 10 of the Saints 2017 best and fairest and are well placed to play over 600 games for the St Kilda Football Club between them.
After being recruited by St Kilda at the 2011 National Draft Seb was able to seek advice from two of his relatives that had extensive VFL/AFL experience with the Essendon Football Club in his uncle Tim Watson and cousin Jobe. Tim & Jobe are one of the most accomplished father-son duo’s in the league’s history with both Watson’s winning the Crichton Medal as Essendon best and fairest multiple times and captaining the club. In an interview with saints.com.au during his first AFL pre-season Seb commented on the advice he had received from his cousin “Jobe told me I’d be surprised how it becomes your absolute priority … how everything you do revolves around your job.”6 After joining the Saints Ross moved from Horsham to be closer to St Kilda’s training base – the Linen House Centre in Seaford and moved in with a couple of Saints team-mates in Jamie Cripps and Warwick Andreoli. On his debut season with an AFL club Ross said “I’ll try to keep working hard and challenge for a position in the AFL squad and if not I’ll play my best footy for Sandringham.” He went on to comment on his first pre-season with St Kilda “We have access to the best facilities and you are training with some of the game’s best and they teach you. Lenny Hayes and Nick Dal Santo come any time you need help and always have a spare moment. I guess it’s a whole new learning curve from TAC Cup to the AFL. There’s a lot you have to learn; it’s like going to school. I’ve learnt the importance of playing your role and how you fit into the team structure. I was surprised how much you have to know.”7
After playing 16 games in the VFL during 2012 Ross was given a late-season taste at AFL level, making his AFL debut in Round 22, 2012 against GWS at 19 years of age. After starting the game as the substitute Ross played 40% game-time, having five kicks, three handballs, four tackles, an equal team-high five clearances, seven contested possessions and a goal assist. St Kilda dominated to defeat the Giants by 128 points, the third greatest winning margin in the club’s history. Ross was named an emergency for St Kilda’s Round 23 game against Carlton.
Ross played the first two games of 2013 in the VFL before being promoted to the AFL, playing 10 consecutive games from Round 4 to Round 14. Ross had at least 17 disposals four times, however after a quiet game in Round 14 with only nine disposals he was dropped to the VFL. Ross was named an AFL emergency for six consecutive games before being recalled to St Kilda’s side for the last three games of the season. Ross had an equal-season high 22 disposals in the final round against Fremantle and also kicked a goal. Ross ranked 10th at St Kilda for tackles. During July 2013 Seb signed a two-year contract extension with St Kilda.
During his third AFL season in 2014 Ross was on the fringe, starting the season in the VFL, he was given some opportunities in the AFL but twice got dropped back to the VFL, he finished the season playing four games for St Kilda in the AFL to play a total of 13 AFL games in 2014. At the end of the 2014 season three-time Trevor Barker Award winner Lenny Hayes retired, which created more opportunities for younger midfielders on St Kilda’s list including Ross. In February 2015 St Kilda head coach Alan Richardson commented to AFL.com.au “With Lenny moving on, Seb will get much more opportunity where he’s at his best and that is on the inside. For all the understandable reasons, he hasn’t quite imposed himself on games, but last year when he went back to the VFL he dominated. He’d made that step to being an AFL player playing in the VFL and you’d walk away from games and say, ‘He’s just too good for this now’. At times he had to play half-forward and while he has to grow that part of his game, that doesn’t really suit him. He’s an inside player and his pre-season has been very strong.”8
Ross impressed during the 2015 pre-season and was playing well during St Kilda’s JLT game against Essendon at Morwell Recreation Reserve on 7 March however he suffered a setback when he injured his hamstring half-way through the third quarter. In the post-game press conference Alan Richardson commented “We still need to get scans but that looks like it’s reasonably serious given he couldn’t run off the ground. We’ll wait and scan that and hopefully it’s good news. It was a fairly unique one really in that, not unlike [Carlton captain Chris] Judd last year, he was kicking and got pushed in the back. [He] ended up with limited range and a lot of strain going through it. It’s disappointing.”
The initial prognosis that Ross’ injury was more serious than a typical hamstring injury proved to be correct and he missed the first seven rounds of the 2015 season due to the injury. On his return from the injury Ross had 23 disposals for Sandringham in the VFL, after a second game in the VFL he was selected to make his AFL return. Ross played five consecutive AFL games for the Saints from Round 10 to Round 15 with his best game during this time being in Round 14, he had 25 disposals, 12 contested possessions and spent some time opposed to his cousin – Essendon captain Jobe Watson. Ross was dropped to the VFL and played three games for Sandringham at this level before returning to the Saints line-up to play the last five games of 2015. Before his recall Ross had played 32 AFL games and had recorded at least 19 disposals in a game nine times, but had never achieved this feat in back to back games. In five consecutive games from Round 19 to Round 23 Ross elevated his game to another level to average 21.2 disposals and 5.2 tackles per game, he had at least 19 disposals in all five games. In three of his last four games of 2015 Ross scored at least 90 supercoach points.
The improvement Ross showed in the closing stages of 2015 continued in 2016 with the midfielder taking his game to a new stratosphere, having at least 28 disposals in four of his first five games of the season. Ross played his 50th AFL game at 23 years of age in Round 14, 2016 against Geelong at Etihad Stadium and was able to celebrate his milestone in fine style with St Kilda recording an upset three point victory and Ross playing a pivotal role in the victory despite playing opposed to the most dominant player of 2016 and eventual Brownlow Medallist Patrick Dangerfield. Ross had a game-high 33 disposals and a team-high 12 contested possessions whilst still performing well defensively on Dangerfield. Whilst Dangerfield had 29 disposals only 12 of these were kicks and he wasn’t as damaging as usual. Ross was rewarded for his exceptional game with three Brownlow Medal votes, the first time in his career that the umpires had judged him best afield, the respective club captains joined him in the votes with St Kilda captain Nick Riewoldt getting two votes and Geelong captain Joel Selwood receiving one vote.
Ross had received the first Brownlow Medal vote of his career in Round 1, 2016, having had 30 disposals, six tackles and six inside 50s against Port Adelaide at Adelaide Oval. Ross polled Brownlow Medal votes five times in 2016, twice earning the three votes with the second occasion being against Richmond in Round 22 when he had 17 kicks, a game-high 17 handballs, seven marks, six tackles, an equal team-high six inside 50s and a game-high six clearances, he was also awarded the Ian Stewart medal for being best afield in this game. Ross polled 10 Brownlow Medal votes in 2016, ranked third at St Kilda behind Nick Riewoldt and Jack Steven with 19 votes and 16 votes respectively.
His profile in AFL Prospectus 2017 said “Ross had the fifth-biggest rise in AFL Player Rating points between 2015 and 2016 of any player to play at least 10 games in both seasons. Drafted as an inside ball winner, he has won more outside ball in every season, averaging an elite 19 uncontested possessions per game last season. While he only kicked one goal, he ranked third at St Kilda for score assists and his delivery into the forward-line went from poor in 2015 to elite last season.”9 The biggest improvement in Ross’ game during 2016 was the ability to spread from the contest and win uncontested possessions. During 2016 Ross won 62% more uncontested possessions per game than he had in 2015, rising from 11.7 per game in 2015 to 18.9 per game in 2016.
During 2016 Ross played all 22 games for St Kilda, averaging 98 minutes, 13.6 kicks, 12.9 handballs, 4.3 marks, 4.4 tackles, and 4.6 inside 50s per game with a disposal efficiency of 71.4%. Ross ranked third at St Kilda for total disposals behind Steven and Montagna, he ranked fifth for kicks, second for handballs and uncontested possessions, third for contested possessions, clearances, tackles, inside 50s and score assists. Ross recorded the first top 10 finish in St Kilda’s best and fairest of his career, finishing in sixth place on 122 votes, only five votes behind Montagna in fourth place and three votes behind Jack Newnes in fifth position. Alan Richardson commented on Ross’ 2016 season and his significant improvement “We saw it coming last year, his pre-season in 2015 was very promising. His early form in our internal trial games was impressive before he got injured. So we knew he wasn’t far away, so it wasn’t a surprise for us. He’s a very driven person; he’s quite an intense young man. He wants to be a really good player and he leaves no stone unturned to be that player. He’s got a really good balance as a midfielder. He has got both inside and outside capabilities. He’s able to win his own ball, he’s able to give us really good spread on the outside both offensively and defensively. He moves the ball quickly when he gets the ball, he doesn’t run and carry a lot, but he can do that. He’s also able to defend players too when needed, like [Patrick] Dangerfield, like Dustin Martin and Nathan Jones. He’s able to quell the opposition’s best and stay involved. He’s a really positive contributor for our team.”10 During the 2016 home and away season Ross ranked sixth in the AFL for uncontested possessions and ninth for handballs received.
In his first 81 AFL games for St Kilda Ross has averaged 11.1 kicks, 11.5 handballs, 3.3 marks, 4.0 tackles, 3.6 clearances and 3.3 inside 50s per game. Seb has played all 44 games for St Kilda in 2016 & 2017, increasing his consecutive games sequence to 49 games from Round 19, 2015 onwards.
Ross has polled a total of 24 Brownlow Medal votes in his career with all of these votes having been polled across the 2016 and 2017 seasons. Ross has been best afield four times and has thrived when given a run-with role that involved him on reducing the damage that the best opposition midfielder had whilst still making a strong contribution offensively himself. In each of the past two seasons Seb has had a game where he has been opposed to that season’s most dominant player and eventual Brownlow Medallist, and has beaten them to receive the three Brownlow Medal votes and the maximum 10 votes in the AFL Coaches Association Player of the Year award, Seb achieved this feat playing on Geelong midfielder Patrick Dangerfield in Round 14, 2016 and Richmond midfielder Dustin Martin in Round 16, 2017. Highlighting how difficult it was to stop Dangerfield and Martin in their Brownlow Medal winning seasons Dangerfield set a new record for most Brownlow Medal votes polled in a season with 35 votes, which Martin then broke this season by polling 36 votes. During the 2016 and 2017 Grand Final weeks articles were published on Milestone and Misses celebrating Patrick Dangerfield and Dustin Martin winning that seasons Brownlow Medal. Links to these articles are provided below:
Like his cousin Jobe Watson, it took time for Seb to establish himself at AFL level, whilst Seb has considerable work to do to match Jobe’s effort of winning three best and fairest awards Seb has won his first b & f earlier in his career than Jobe who won Essendon’s 2009 best and fairest during his seventh season in the AFL.
After playing only 37 of a possible 83 AFL games for St Kilda from Round 1 2012 to Round 18 2015 Ross has been a permanent fixture in St Kilda’s team from Round 19, 2015 onwards, playing all 49 games and has consistently performed the role asked of him, both offensively and defensively. Seb Ross capped a meteoric rise over the past two seasons by winning St Kilda’s 2017 Trevor Barker Award in convincing fashion and thoroughly deserved this award with his strengths in 2017 being his ability to win the ball, whilst still nullifying his direct opponent, consistency, provide hard running and leadership and win clearances and contested possessions.
By Dean Andrews
Twitter – @DeanAndrews7777
5 AFL, AFL Record Season Guide 2012, page 286
9 Champion Data, AFL Prospectus – the essential number-cruncher for season 2017, 12th Edition, page 324