Seb Ross wins St Kilda’s best and fairest for the second time in three seasons

Midfielder Seb Ross won his second Trevor Barker Award in three seasons last month, finishing the 2019 count with 170 votes, 18 votes ahead of ruckman Rowan Marshall with fellow midfielder Jack Steele a further vote behind in third place on 151 votes. In his first four seasons with St Kilda Ross didn’t record any top 10 finishes in the Saints b & f, he broke through for a sixth placed finish in 2016. In the past three seasons Ross has developed into St Kilda’s most consistent player, winning the Trevor Barker Award in 2017 and 2019 whilst finishing runner-up to fellow midfielder Jack Steven in 2018. Ross is the sixth St Kilda player after 1980 to win two Saints best and fairest awards in three seasons, joining the following players in this category – Greg Burns, Robert Harvey, Nick Riewoldt, Lenny Hayes and Jack Steven.

During his first four seasons at St Kilda from 2012 to 2015 Ross was a fringe player, 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 92 of a possible 93 games for St Kilda from that point onwards.

During 2019 left-footer Ross played all 22 games for St Kilda, averaging 85.5% game-time, 14.7 kicks, 11.3 handballs, 3.8 marks, 4.1 tackles, and 4.5 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.

In his acceptance speech for winning the 2019 Trevor Barker Award Seb said “I sort of expected to be standing behind the big fella (Rowan Marshall) tonight so I haven’t got a whole lot to say but I’d like to start by thanking my beautiful fiancé Marnie and daughter Charlotte. It’s probably been the best year of my life to date off the field, welcoming my daughter in December and the support they’ve been able to give me and Marnie putting the hard yards in at home to allow me to get to training early and prepare for games each week, I love her dearly and love the support she gives me.” Later in his acceptance speech Ross said “A fella who is not here tonight but been the coach for the majority of my career, Richo had a massive influence on me as a young fella and I’d like to thank him for everything he gave to myself and gave to all the young fella’s and the footy club as a whole. He is a great man and I wish him well even though he has gone to Melbourne. Following on from that Ratts, well done on the gig mate. We sent a text when we heard the news and the boys are pumped. Already we love playing under you and we really look forward to what you are going to bring for the next three years. Fitness staff, played 22 games this year, couldn’t do it without your help and the high performance team being able to fit in around my schedule with a young family and get me on the massage table.”

During 2018, Alan Richardson’s fifth season as St Kilda’s coach the club finished 16th on the ladder with four wins, one draw and 17 losses, a dramatic fall from 2016-2017 when the Saints had a winning record with 23 wins and 21 losses. In October 2018 Brett Ratten was recruited as a senior assistant coach at St Kilda, having previously been head coach at Carlton for five seasons from 2008 to 2012, having won the job after spending the last six games of the 2007 season as Carlton’s caretaker coach. Richardson and Ratten had worked closely together previously, in 2011 and 2012 the roles had been reversed with Richardson being a senior assistant to Ratten at Carlton.

Ross was added to the St Kilda leadership group in 2017 and he was given a taste of captaining St Kilda for two games in 2018 when Geary missed due to a calf injury in Rounds 12 and 13. St Kilda named a five-man leadership group for 2019 with Geary to captain the Saints for the third season, Ross was promoted to the role of vice-captain and rebounding defender Roberton, key forward Tim Membrey and off-season recruit Dan Hannebery completed the leadership group. On 14th February 2019 Ross spoke to afl.com.au about the change to appoint an official vice-captain and the prospect of being the Saints next captain saying “I think that might have come more from ‘Gears’, just to have someone in an official role, so there’s no real umming and ahhing if he wasn’t able to play or able to fulfil his role, there was no real question about who was able to step into that role. It’s not something I put too much time into thinking about but probably a bit like Gears, it would be a huge honour. It’s not something I’m really striving for, I’m just really enjoying playing footy with the boys.”1

Four players on St Kilda’s 2019 list had been named in at least one All-Australian squad of 40 players – Ross (2017), Steven (2013 & 2016), Dylan Roberton (2017) and off-season recruit Dan Hannebery (2013, 2015 and 2016). Ross and Steven were the only members of this quartet named in St Kilda’s side for Round 1, Hannebery was on the sidelines due to soft-tissue injuries and Roberton had already been ruled out for the entire 2019 season due to a heart condition which had also forced him to miss most of the 2018 season. Whilst Steven was named for Round 1, he was underdone after having a break from the club late in the pre-season to deal with a mental health issue. Due to these matters Ross was required to take on additional responsibility from a playing and leadership perspective in 2019.

St Kilda commenced their season with a nail-biting one point victory against Gold Coast at Marvel Stadium. Ross had 16 kicks, 11 handballs, four marks, seven inside 50’s, one goal assist 22 uncontested possessions and five bounces to set game-highs in the latter two categories and polled two Brownlow Medal votes.

Ross was added to the St Kilda leadership in 2017 and in 2018 he was promoted to vice-captain with Jarryn Geary entering his second season as captain. Geary played 20 games during 2018 which resulted in Ross captaining St Kilda in the two games Geary missed due to a calf injury in Rounds 12 and 13. In Round 4, 2019 Geary was a late withdrawal due to illness which resulted in Ross captaining the club for their Round 4 game against Hawthorn at Marvel Stadium.  Ross played an exceptional captain’s game against the Hawks, amassing a game-high 39 disposals comprised of a team-high 21 kicks, 18 handballs, two marks, an equal team-high six inside 50’s, six clearances, 13 contested possessions, a game-high 27 uncontested possessions, took four bounces and kicked a goal on his preferred left-foot from 50 metres out after receiving a handball from Jack Steele and taking five steps, the goal at the eight minute mark of the second quarter give St Kilda a five point lead. St Kilda trailed Hawthorn by 24 points at the 16 minute mark of the third quarter but then responded brilliantly to kick the last four goals of the game to record a thrilling five point victory. For his exceptional game in the victory against Hawthorn Ross won the Silk-Miller Memorial Medal and received three votes in the Brownlow Medal.

Ross thought that he would hand the captaincy back to Geary the following week and spend very  little time for the remainder of 2019 as the Saints match-day captain and whilst Geary did indeed return to captain St Kilda against round 5 he endured a nightmare season from that point on, being restricted to one more game due to two separate leg injuries, in round 5 he suffered from compartment syndrome as a result of a severely corked quad that required an emergency operation and three separate surgeries and in his comeback from injury in Round 11 against Port Adelaide in Shanghai Geary broke his fibula. Geary missed the remainder of 2019, playing a total of five games which resulted in Ross being the St Kilda captain for 17 games this season.

St Kilda were in a precarious position trailing by 28 points five minutes into the second quarter of their Round 13 game against Gold Coast at Townsville but were able to fight back to win by four points with Ross playing a key role in the resurgence with his hard two-way running and work at the clearances. Seb finished the game with 14 kicks, a team-high 17 handballs, four inside 50’s, a team-high five rebound 50’s, a game-high 10 clearances – five more than the second ranked Saint, an equal game-high 14 contested possessions and 19 uncontested possessions.

The Saints started 2019 strongly with four wins from their first five games but won only two of their next 11 games. On 15th July, two days after St Kilda’s Round 17 loss to Geelong Alan Richardson stood down as St Kilda’s head coach, realising that he wouldn’t be coaching St Kilda in 2020. Richardson commented “It’s time to get some clear air for the group to end the year strongly. The club needs some time to now look for a new coach. They’re going to be heavily involved in trying to trade.” Brett Ratten was appointed as the Saints caretaker head coach, having impressed with his ability to build relationships with players and staff during his time as an assistant coach and caretaker coach at St Kilda and also having the experience of more than 100 games as a head coach at AFL level with Carlton.

During a 19 point victory against Melbourne at Marvel Stadium in Round 19 Ross had 14 kicks, an equal game-high 17 kicks, seven marks, nine tackles, a game-high nine inside 50’s, six clearances, an equal game-high 15 contested possessions, a game-high 18 contested possessions and kicked an equal season-high two goals. With a strong finish to the season Ross polled six Brownlow Medal votes in the final five rounds commencing with three votes against Melbourne.

In a thrilling three point victory against Fremantle at Marvel Stadium in Round 21 Ross polled one Brownlow Medal vote for a performance in which he had 13 kicks, a game-high 15 handballs, a team-high nine tackles, an equal team-high five inside 50’s, four clearances, an equal team-high 13 contested possessions, 16 uncontested possessions and a goal assist.

At the 2019 Brownlow Medal Ross led St Kilda with 12 votes ahead of Jack Billings with 11, the third time in the last four years that he reached double figures following 10 votes in 2016 and 14 votes in 2017. St Kilda won nine games in 2019 including four games by less than a goal and it was in these close victories with the game in the balance that Ross was at his best polling Brownlow Medal votes in all four thrilling victories. During 2019 Ross had at least 27 disposals in 11 games, including four times in his last five games. During the five game period from Round 19 onwards Ross averaged a goal a game and polled six of his 12 Brownlow Medal votes for the season.

At St Kilda’s 2019 best and fairest on 11th September at the Palladium in Crown Seb was in third position after Round 10, with Shane Savage leading and Jade Gresham in second place. With his strong finish to the season Ross won the 2019 Trevor Barker Award on 170 votes, ahead of ruckman Marshall on 152 votes and midfielder Jack Steele on 151 votes. It was a meteoric rise from Marshall to finish on the podium, cementing himself as St Kilda’s number 1 ruckman after not even being in the Saints Round 1 side. Before the 2019 season commenced 23 year-old Marshall had only played a total of 13 AFL games mainly as a key forward. It was the second year in a row that Steele had finished third in St Kilda’s best and fairest, playing a role as a two-way midfielder who can win the ball himself but also curtail his direct opponent. The top six in the Saints b & f was completed by wingman Jack Billings (140 votes), forward Tim Membrey (136) and midfielder Jade Gresham (131) who missed the last three games of the season due to a small fracture to his left eye socket in the Round 20 game against Adelaide.

St Kilda head coach Brett Ratten commented on 26 year-old Ross winning the 2019 best and fairest “It’s really great to see Seb honoured with his second Trevor Barker Award. He’s shouldered a lot this season, standing in for Jarryn as acting captain for most of the year, but took it all in his stride. He’s a consummate professional and is always the first to lend a hand to his teammates. Seb’s a pillar of our group and thoroughly deserves this accolade.” The average age of the top 10 players in St Kilda’s best and fairest was 24.5 years and at best fairest St Kilda head coach Brett Ratten commented “Looking at the top ten is really encouraging. The average games played of that list is just under 92 games. We know we have areas to work on over summer and we can’t wait to get to work.”

At the end of his acceptance speech at the St Kilda best and fairest Ross said “To everyone that’s hear tonight, the fans that keep turning up, it’s been a tough few years. I said to Newnesy before there is a bit of an alignment, the team hasn’t played finals for eight years and Newnesy and I have been here for eight years so I don’t know if its us or what it is but hopefully we can turn that around next year. The support you guys have given us over the eight years has been awesome and we look forward to you guys rocking up next year because I think it is going to be really exciting, we’re this close, no-one expected us to win nine games this year off four last year. I reckon with being under Ratts’ wing we’re going on to bigger and better things so thank you.”

Career before 2019

Sebastian Ross was born on 7th 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 Ross was included in the North Ballarat Rebels’ leadership group for the 2011 season. 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, and 2.3 clearances. In 2011 Ross was given a taste at senior level, playing one game for North Ballarat in the VFL.

With pick 25 at the 2011 National Draft St Kilda selected Ross, 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.”2

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.”3

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.

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.

Ross impressed during the 2015 pre-season and was playing well during St Kilda’s JLT game against Essendon at Morwell Recreation Reserve on 7th March however he suffered a setback when he injured his hamstring half-way through the third quarter. Ross’ injury was more serious than a typical hamstring injury 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. Two weeks later 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.

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 Docklands 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 being 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 who had 29 disposal, however 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.

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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. At the 2016 best and fairest Ross recorded his first top 10 finish, polling 122 votes to finish sixth, just five votes behind Leigh Montagna in fourth place. 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.”4 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. In the 2016 home and away season Ross ranked sixth in the AFL for uncontested possessions and ninth for handballs received.

In 2017 Ross elevated his game to an even higher level to convincingly win the Trevor Barker Award as St Kilda best and fairest, 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. During 2017 Ross developed to have one of the most balanced games of the midfielders in the AFL, he was effective offensively whilst also able to perform a run-with role in the midfield, could win the contested ball and also ran 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 Medallist Dustin Martin won the award with 122 votes ahead of 2016 Brownlow Medallist Patrick Dangerfield on 118 votes and a large gap to Rory Sloane in third position on 78 votes.

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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. Ross was one of two St Kilda players selected in the 2017 All-Australian squad of 40 players, being joined by defender Roberton.

With St Kilda captain Jarryn Geary missing the club’s Round 12, 2018 game against Sydney at Docklands Ross captained the Saints in a home and away game for the first time. On why Ross had been chosen to captain the club in Geary’s absence St Kilda head coach Alan Richardon commented “This opportunity allowed us to have the discussion as to who should lead the team and why. The why for Seb are pretty simple. His ability to both challenge and support his teammates is really high and they have great respect for the way he goes about his football. He hasn’t captained the team in a home-and-away season match before, so it’s a great chance for him to develop his leadership.”5

In his 99th AFL game against the Western Bulldogs in Round 20, 2018 Ross had 40 disposals and kicked three goals to set new career-highs in both categories. Seb finished the game with a game-high 22 kicks, a team-high 18 handballs, nine marks, five inside 50’s, three clearances, an equal team-high 10 contested possessions, a team-high 26 contested possessions and kicked a team-high three goals. The following week Ross played his 100th AFL game at 25 years of age against Essendon in a Friday night game at Docklands. Ross had at least 36 disposals in a game six times in 2018 including the last four games of the season. Ross finished second in St Kilda’s best and fairest with 175 votes, 16 votes behind fellow midfielder Jack Steven who won his fourth Trevor Barker Award, Jack Steele finished third with 134 votes. During 2018 Ross played 21 games for St Kilda, averaging 16.1 kicks, 14.1 handballs, 5.4 marks, 4.0 tackles, and 4.7 inside 50s per game with a disposal efficiency of 72.8%. In 2018 Ross led St Kilda for total disposals, kicks, handballs, uncontested possessions, ranked second for clearances, tackles and inside 50’s and third for marks and contested possessions.

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Epilogue

In his career to date Ross has averaged 12.6 kicks, 11.9 handballs, 3.8 marks, 4.0 tackles, 3.8 clearances and 3.5 inside 50s per game. Four seasons and 37 games into his AFL career Ross averaged 16 disposals per game, four seasons later he has increased his average during his career by just over 50% to 24.5 disposals per game.

Ross has played 124 games for St Kilda, ranked fifth for the players on St Kilda’s 2019 list behind captain Jarryn Geary (188 games), four-time best and fairest winner Jack Steven (183), David Armitage (169) and Jack Newnes (155).

As Ross mentioned in his acceptance speech for the 2019 Trevor Barker Award St Kilda haven’t made the finals in his time at the club, since 2012 the Saints have won at least 11 games in a season three times – 12 wins in 2012 for a ninth placed finish, 12 wins in 2016 for a ninth placed finish and 11 wins in 2017 for an 11th placed finish. St Kilda finished 14th in 2019 with nine wins, three games outside the eight. Given the age-profile of the top 10 in St Kilda’s best and fairest in 2019 together with scope for improvement in the future and the number of players nominating St Kilda as their preferred club during the trade period there is cause for optimism in the future, however improvement will be required to develop into a finals side.

Although it may have taken Seb Ross longer than he would have liked to cement his place in the St Kilda side due to injuries his hard-work and resilience has paid off with him developing into St Kilda’s most consistent player in the past four seasons from 2016 to 2019. Ross was a deserving winner of St Kilda’s 2019 Trevor Barker Award with his strengths being leadership, ability to win the ball, hard two-way running, durability, consistency and ability to influence close games.

By Dean Andrews

Twitter – @DeanAndrews7777

1 https://www.afl.com.au/news/2019-02-14/two-exswans-in-fiveman-saints-leadership-group

2 AFL, AFL Record Season Guide 2012, page 286

3 http://www.saints.com.au/news/2012-01-27/rosss-family-ties

4 Champion Data, AFL Prospectus – the essential number-cruncher for season 2017, 12th Edition, page 324

5 http://www.saints.com.au/news/2018-06-07/ross-to-captain-saints

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