Midfielder Jack Steele’s journey to become a St Kilda co-captain and an All-Australian

St Kilda midfielder Jack Steele utilised in a more attacking role took his game to another stratosphere in 2020 and was rewarded for his phenomenal season with selection in the AFL All-Australian team for the first time. In 2020 Steele also finished in the top five of the Brownlow Medal, the AFL Players’ Association Most Valuable Player (MVP) Award and the AFL Coaches Association Champion Player Award.

At a press conference on 25 September 2020, the day after being named in the 2020 All-Australian team Steele commented. “I suppose going back three years if you had of told me that I was going to be in the All-Australian side I probably wouldn’t have believed you, yeah, I am extremely honoured.”

Steele grew up in Canberra, played Australian Rules football for the Belconnen Magpies and represented the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) in under-age teams from the under 12’s onwards.

The Greater Western Sydney Giants joined the Australian Football League (AFL) as the 18th team, entering the competition in 2012. “In late 2009, the AFL commission approved a set of list concession rules that gave the GIANTS zoned access to AFL players from NSW and the ACT. The Academy was born to provide an improved development pathway for young players within the vast region.”1 Steele became an early member of the Giants Academy.

In May 2013 Steele dislocated his knee a week before the 2013 Under 18 National Championships, the injury forced him to miss the carnival and although he was eligible for selection at the the 2013 AFL Draft he didn’t get drafted. 

The following year Steele made the most of his opportunity, excelling at the 2014 Under 18 National Championships, playing as a midfielder/forward Steele averaged 20.7 disposals and 2.0 goals per game for New South Wales/ACT, was selected in the Under 18 All-Australian team and received his state’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) Award.

At the 2014 NAB AFL Draft Steele became the first GWS Giants Academy member drafted by the club, being recruited in the second round with pick 24. At 19 years of age Steele made his AFL debut in Round 12, 2015 and impressed on debut with 17 disposals and 10 tackles. Steele played six consecutive AFL games from Round 12 to Round 18, however in two seasons with the GWS Giants he was unable to cement a position in the senior team. From 2015-2016 Steele played 17 AFL games, was named an emergency 14 times and dominated at State League Level when he played in the North East Australian Football League (NEAFL).

Wanting to increase the likelihood of cementing his spot in an AFL team Steele was traded by the GWS Giants to the St Kilda Football Club during the 2016 trade period in exchange for the Saints 2017 2nd round selection.

Steele has been extremely durable at St Kilda, playing 84 of a possible 89 AFL games in four and a bit seasons at the club from 2017 onwards, only missing two games due to injury, both with a knee injury in 2019. Steele was dropped from the Saints AFL team twice before he had played 25 games for the club, being omitted for two weeks in the middle of the 2017 season and for one week early in 2018.

Mid-way through the 2018 season Steele was assigned a run-with role opposed to the opposition’s best midfielder. On the role change Steele commented to saints.com.au in mid-July 2018 “(My role) allows me to just get to work and try and stop them from getting the ball, but if it’s there to be won, just go and get it myself.”2

Playing as a run-with midfielder Steele flourished, negating the impact of his opponent whilst also making a valuable contribution offensively. Steele ranked sixth in the AFL for tackles in 2018 and led the league in this category in 2019, he recorded back to back third placed finishes in St Kilda’s best and fairest in 2018 and 2019.

During 2020 Steele was unleased from his run-with role and played a more attacking game to great effect, he developed into one of the best midfielders in the competition and finished third in the Brownlow Medal. During the 2020 home and away season Steele ranked second in the AFL for tackles and in the top 10 for score assists, clearances and contested possessions. Steele was a convincing winner of St Kilda’s 2020 best and fairest and played a pivotal role in the Saints making the finals for the first time since 2011 and winning a final for the first time since 2010.

In February this year 25 year-old Steele was appointed St Kilda co-captain alongside Jarryn Geary who made his AFL debut in 2008, has been the Saints captain from 2017 onwards and is the only player on  St Kilda’s 2021 list that has played over 200 games (204) for the club. On his appointment Steele commented to saints.com.au “I’m really grateful to have been given this honour, it’s a true privilege. When you walk through the Hall of Fame at RSEA Park and see names like Frawley, Harvey, Barker and Baldock, it’s really humbling to now be continuing their legacy. To have Gears alongside me is also really special. He’s really taken me under his wing, and I’ve learned so much from him since joining the club. His leadership is second to none, not just his voice on-field, but also how he rallies the group off it.”3 

Early in his seventh AFL season Steele played his 100th AFL game in Round 3, 2021 against Essendon at Marvel Stadium and amassed an equal career-high 35 disposals in his milestone game.

Jack Steele’s brilliant Australian Rules football career at junior level with NSW/ACT as well as the first 101 AFL games of his career with the GWS Giants and St Kilda is covered in more detail below:

Early life and junior career

Jack Steele was born on 13 December 1995, his parents are dad Stuart and mum Jo. Jack’s dad Stuart played Rugby League at club level in country New South Wales and several of Jack’s uncles also played Rugby League. Jack’s older sister Sophie represented the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) in basketball as a junior. Growing up in Canberra Jack played several sports and influenced by dad Stuart commenced his Australian Rules football pathway by playing Auskick at an early age. Steele played junior football for the Belconnen Magpies and also represented the ACT in under-age teams commencing in the Under 12’s. 

Steele played on the same junior basketball team as Nick Kyrgios who has gone on to have a career in tennis and has a career-high ranking of number 13 in the world. During the 10 July 2019 episode of the Saints Insider podcast, host Clair White asked Steele “When did footy become your main focus?” Steele responded “Probably when I was about 15, 16, when I sort of just needed to pick a sport. I played a lot of cricket and basketball as well. All my mates played footy with me and they did the same, they dropped everything else and really started to focus on footy.”

On his junior football career and being a member of the GWS Giants Academy Steele told ‘Saints Insider’ “I was a part of the Giants Academy from when I was about 13. At the time that they made the academy it was still GWS, I think it was called that until they decided the name for the team. Eventually just worked my way up the ranks year by year and got to under 16’s, made the 16’s state team, had a bad year in my under 18’s top-age year and hurt my knee. So then I came back the next year in the under 18’s Rams and played well enough to get drafted.”

A week before the 2013 NAB AFL Under 18 National Championships Steele dislocated his knee whilst changing direction on the basketball court at the New South Wales/Australian Capital Territory team’s training camp in Coffs Harbour. On the injury Steele told afl.com.au “Within two minutes the dislocation was sorted but I had an operation two weeks later. Straight away I thought the year was over and it was time to focus on the next year and get my body right so I do have a good year. As soon as I had the operation I was pretty determined to get that right, which I think I’ve done pretty well.”4

Steele was eligible to be drafted at the 2013 AFL National Draft but was overlooked by all 18 clubs. In 2012 Steele had a taste of football at senior level, playing six games for the University of Western Sydney (UWS) Giants in the NEAFL. In 2013 and 2014 as well as playing junior football Steele played games at senior level in the NEAFL for both Belconnen and UWS Giants.

For the 2014 season the NSW/ACT Rams were re-established as a TAC Cup Club and whilst the Rams played seven games not the full 17 games that the Victorian TAC Cup Clubs played, it provided another opportunity for the best NSW/ACT juniors including Steele to play against quality opposition. Steele impressed in six games playing for the Rams in the 2014 TAC Cup, averaging 24.7 disposals, 6.8 marks, 6.7 tackles, 12.0 contested possessions and 1.0 goals per game.

At the 2014 Under 18 National Championships Steele was phenomenal in his three games for New South Wales/ACT, averaging 13.0 kicks, 7.7 handballs, 5.7 marks, 3.0 tackles, 11.7 contested possessions and 2.0 goals per game.

Steele was named in NSW/ACT’s best players in all three games at the Championships and in two games was his side’s outright leading goalkicker. Steele was selected on the interchange in the 2014 Under 18 All-Australian team and was joined in the team by NSW/ACT teammates Isaac Heeney and Callum Mills who were selected in the midfield and forward line respectively.

New South Wales/Australian Capital Territory won the Division two title, winning all three games against in chronological order Northern Territory (won by 81 points), Tasmania (9 points) and Queensland (13 points) and Steele was named NSW/ACT’s Most Valuable Player (MVP).

At the 2014 Under 18 National Championships Steele led the NSW/ACT Rams for marks, effective kicks, contested possessions, hard ball gets, goals, goal assists and score assists. On his performance at the National Championships and being selected in the 2014 Under 18 All-Australian team Steele commented to gws.giants.com.au “I didn’t really expect to have such a great year and I’m pretty proud to make that team. In most games I’ve started forward and worked into the midfield and I think I’ve been able to show I can play in both positions.”5

At the 2014 AFL Draft combine Steele performed well, having three top 10 results – finishing equal ninth in the kicking test, 3km time-trial and beep test. Steele’s profile in the 2015 AFL Prospectus said “A goal kicking midfielder, he averaged 151 Champion Data Ranking points at the 2014 NAB AFL Under-18 Championships – ranked No. 1 for his side, No 1. of all midfielders and fourth in the competition. He ranked No. 1 of any midfielder for score involvements per match and second for assists per game. His kick rating was elite and the third-highest of any player in the competition of any player in the competition who averaged at least 20 disposals per game.”6

2015 and 2016 AFL seasons with the GWS Giants

On the first day of the 2014 AFL trade period in early October a meeting was held at Docklands Stadium for AFL clubs to place bids on father-son and academy players. North Melbourne bid pick 15 for Giants Academy player Steele, the GWS Giants matched North Melbourne’s bid and drafted Steele with their next selection, pick 24, which resulted in Steele being the first Giants Academy member drafted by the club. Steele was the first AFL player recruited from Canberra in five years, with his predecessor being Jason Tutt who was recruited by the Western Bulldogs.

Making 2014 draft night even sweeter Steele wasn’t the only player from Canberra drafted, with his best mate and fellow Belconnen Magpie Logan Austin being selected by Port Adelaide late in the draft. Only three players recruited from the Belconnen Football Club had played in the AFL previously – Brett Allison (228 AFL games comprised of 219 for North Melbourne and nine for Sydney), Don Pyke (132 AFL games for the West Coast Eagles) and Matthew Lokan (46 AFL games for Collingwood), so the odds of two team-mates from the club being drafted in the same year and going on to play AFL football was massive.

After being drafted by GWS and joining the club Steele commented to gwsgiants.com.au in mid-November 2014 “The move was pretty hard, moving away from my family and friends but I think I’m settled in now. I’m pretty close with my family and especially my friends so it was definitely one of the hardest things to do. It didn’t really hit me for a while, up until probably when I moved here is when I really felt it. It’s still pretty surreal I guess. I just sort of played footy with my mates just to have fun. But now that it is my career it’s unreal to think that I can make a living off it and really get something out of it. It’s my dream so now that I’m finally here, I’ve got the opportunity, I’ve just got to make the most of it.”7

The GWS Giants joined the AFL as the 18th team in the league and second team from Sydney in 2012. The Giants finished bottom of the ladder in 2012 and 2013 and in 16th position in 2014, however they had an abundance of talented young players on their list and were expected to rise up the ladder in 2015 and beyond.

The profile for Steele in AFL Record Season Guide 2015 said “Strong and powerful midfielder/forward who can create something out of nothing. Shows excellent poise and balance when in possession and is a clever user by hand or foot.”8 At the 2014 AFL Draft Steele was the last of the GWS Giants five top 25 selections, joining Jarrod Pickett (pick 4), Caleb Marchbank (6), Paul Ahern (7) and Pat McKenna (23).

Players in the GWS midfield included co-captain Callan Ward, Stephen Coniglio, Dylan Shiel, Adam Treloar, Ryan Griffen, Josh Kelly, Lachie Whitfield and Tom Scully whilst Toby Greene and Devon Smith played as forwards/midfielders which made it difficult for Steele and other new draftees to get a regular game at AFL level. In the 2015 pre-season Steele played two of the Giants three NAB Challenge games, in their second game he had 11 disposals and kicked two goals against Essendon at Spotless Stadium.  

Steele commenced the 2015 home and away season playing for the Giants in the NEAFL rotating between the midfield and forward line and was named an AFL emergency in five consecutive games from Round 6 to Round 10. Steele made his AFL debut at 19 years of age in Round 12 against North Melbourne at the Sydney Showgrounds. Steele and defender Marchbank who also made his debut in the same game were the first Giants players to make their AFL debuts in 2015. After it had been announced that Steele would be making his AFL debut GWS Giants head coach Leon Cameron commented Jack will probably play forward and midfield as well, he’s been playing that role at NEAFL level. He’s been playing some tough on-ball footy for probably six or eight weeks now. He’s a real competitor so really wherever he lines up, it doesn’t matter, you know he’s going to put his head over the footy and tackle really hard and that’s what we want to be known for.”9

In his AFL debut against North Melbourne Steele was opposed to former St Kilda player and three-time All-Australian Nick Dal Santo at the first bounce. On debut Steele had six kicks, 11 handballs, three marks, three clearances and laid 10 tackles – ranked second for the game behind teammate Adam Treloar with 11.

From Round 12 to Round 17 Steele played five consecutive games for the GWS Giants in the AFL, he had at least 16 disposals in four games and laid at least fives tackles in every game. Against St Kilda in Round 15 Steele played in his first AFL victory and opposed to Jarryn Geary took a contested mark in the second quarter, with the set shot 20 metres out on a slight angle Steele kicked his first AFL goal. After Steele had been appointed St Kilda co-captain alongside Geary in February this year Geary wrote an article for Saints.com.au titled ‘Jarryn Geary: The Jack Steele I know’ and recalled “I’ll never forget the first time I met Jack Steele.It was Round 15, 2015, and I was playing on this kid wearing No. 38 for GWS in just his third game. We had a contest in the forward pocket, I went up to spoil and felt like I got a good piece of it. Job done, I thought. But Steeley floated across in front and pulled down this huge contested mark on me, went back and slotted his first goal in footy. So, he owes me a bit.”10

In the Giants 35 point victory against the Saints at the Sydney Showgrounds Steele had six kicks, 14 handballs, three marks, five clearances, laid six tackles and 16 contested possessions – ranked second for the game behind Giants co-captain Callan Ward with 17. 

In Steele’s last two senior appearances for the season in Round 18 and Round 20 he was the starting substitute. Steele was demoted to the NEAFL in Round 21 and was named an AFL emergency for the seventh and final time of the 2015 season in Round 23. In his 12 NEAFL games for the UWS Giants in 2015 Steele was named in his team’s best players eight times. During 2015 Steele played seven AFL games for the Giants and was named an emergency seven times. 

In his second AFL season at the Giants Steele commenced 2016 in the seniors and had 11 disposals and kicked one goal against Melbourne in Round 1. Steele was omitted for Round 2 but his time in the NEAFL was short-lived, being recalled to the senior side in Round 4. In five AFL games from Round 4 to Round 8 rotating between the midfield and the forward line Steele averaged 18 disposals and a goal per game with the Giants recording five consecutive victories.

There was strong competition for spots in the Giants AFL team which contributed to Steele only playing four AFL games from Round 9 to Round 17. After playing consecutive AFL games in Round 16 and Round 17 Steele missed Rounds 18 and 19 with a hand injury and was unable to regain his place in the Giants AFL team.

In a NEAFL preliminary final victory against Sydney University Steele had 41 possessions in the UWS victory which secured them a Grand Final berth. Days later Steele fractured a metatarsal in his left foot whilst training at the Giants training base at Olympic Park which caused him to miss the rest of the season.  

Throughout 2016 Steele was on the fringe of the Giants AFL team, playing 10 games in the AFL and was named an emergency seven times. Steele was dominant at State League level in 2016, in 10 games for the GWS Giants in the NEAFL he averaged 36 disposals, eight marks, eight tackles, seven inside 50’s and 1.5 goals per game.

From 2015 to 2016 Steele played 17 AFL games for the GWS Giants and was named an emergency 14 times, he averaged 6.5 kicks, 8.4 handballs, 3.4 marks, 4.8 tackles, 6.2 contested possessions and 0.5 goals per game.

2017 AFL season with St Kilda

Steele decided to leave the GWS Giants and in the 2016 trade period he was traded to the St Kilda Football Club for a future second round draft pick. On recruiting Steele, St Kilda’s then chief operating officer Ameet Bains commented “We’re thrilled to have Jack join the Saints and with his ability to play both in the midfield and forward, we think he’ll strongly complement our young, emerging list while filling a key need. Jack’s had some strong performances and at only 20-years-old we think he has a lot of potential to continue to develop and be a quality player for the club.”11

On the decision to leave the GWS Giants and join St Kilda Steele told Saints Insider in July 2019 “I really wanted to be playing consistent AFL footy, and at the Giants and with their list and the players they had it was just too hard to crack, if you did play one bad game I suppose you felt like your spot was in a bit of jeopardy, I didn’t really want that stress. I did want to stay there and be a one club player and try and win a premiership with that team but at the end of the day I wasn’t playing AFL footy so I think coming to St Kilda was the best thing I have done.” On choosing the Saints Steele commented “I thought the Saints at the time were a young team, they were an upcoming team, they didn’t have as much depth as the Giants I thought and I just thought it was a perfect team for a fresh start and I am glad I am here now.” 

St Kilda had finished the 2016 season in ninth position with 12 wins and 10 losses, percentage behind North Melbourne who finished eighth, it was the fifth season in a row that the Saints had missed the finals, the club’s previous final was the 2011 elimination final loss to Sydney. St Kilda  finished ninth in 2012, 16th in 2013, last out of 18 clubs in 2014 and 14th in 2015. Alan Richardson was heading into his fourth season as the Saints head coach in 2017, having commenced the role in 2014.

Due to his left foot injury Steele wasn’t able to start running in pre-season training with St Kilda until December. In Round 1, 2017 Steele made his club debut for St Kilda against Melbourne and set a new personal best of 23 disposals in a game comprised of eight kicks and 15 handballs, he also had 12 contested possessions and took seven marks.

In Round 8 against Carlton at the Docklands Steele had seven kicks, 22 handballs, seven clearances, laid seven tackles, had a team-high 17 contested possessions and kicked a goal in the 19 point victory. Steele played 11 consecutive AFL games for St Kilda in the first half of the 2017 season, he had more than 17 disposals nine times and laid at least eight tackles in a game eight times during this period.

St Kilda omitted Steele for their Round 13 game against North Melbourne which surprised many people in the football community but not Steele himself. In the match before he was omitted Steele had 15 disposals and laid four tackles against Adelaide in Round 12 at the Adelaide Oval. In November 2017 Steele commented to afl.com.au about being omitted in the middle of the season, saying “I didn’t have a very good game against Adelaide, so I did see it coming. Richo (coach Alan Richardson) told me what it was about. I knew exactly what it was. I just wasn’t as there as I was earlier in the season, like my pressure and tackling wasn’t quite there.”12

After two weeks in the VFL playing for the Sandringham Zebras including having 36 disposals in his second game Steele was recalled to the Saints side in Round 15 against Fremantle and played the last nine games of the season at AFL level, he had more than 21 disposals in seven games during this time.

In his return to the Saints team in Round 15, 2017 against Fremantle at Subiaco Oval Steele had 15 disposals, kicked a goal and laid 17 tackles to equal the Saints club record for most tackles in a game set by David Armitage and one of his tackles changed the momentum of the game. Fremantle were leading by five points with just over a minute remaining in the third quarter and looked certain to extend the lead when Brennan Cox received a handball in space 40 metres out from goal, however as Cox steadied Steele who had chased hard to make up ground made a lunging tackle which brought Cox to ground, prevented him from kicking what looked like a certain goal and earned Steele a free kick. St Kilda overran Fremantle in the last quarter, kicking four goals to two to win by nine points.

Against the West Coast Eagles in Round 20 at Marvel Stadium Steele polled the first Brownlow Medal votes of his career in his 34th AFL game, receiving the three votes for being best afield for a performance in which he set game-highs or equal game-highs for handballs (17), tackles (12), clearances (10) and contested possessions (20). In the eight point St Kilda victory Steele also had nine kicks and kicked an equal team-high two goals.

During 2017 Steele played 20 of a possible 22 AFL games, led the Saints in total tackles, ranked second for handballs and contested possessions and third for clearances. Steele ranked third in the AFL with 158 tackles during the home and away season, behind Rory Sloane (176) and Brad Ebert (165), he laid 64 more tackles than the second ranked Saint – fellow midfielder Seb Ross (94).

Despite ranking in the top five for the Saints in a few important stats and easily leading the club for tackles Steele didn’t finish in the top 10 at  the 2017 Trevor Barker Award in October, he was actually a long way off it, finishing 18th. In February 2018 Steele commented to ‘The Age’ on his low best and fairest finish, saying “It did annoy me a little bit. It was disappointing but I guess it just means there’s more to work on so I’m just looking to build on last season and hopefully crack top 10 or even get higher than that so the sky’s the limit, really. Anything could happen so it’s definitely motivation for me. It just means they think I’ve got more to prove, I guess. That’s what I’ve got to do – try to prove myself even more.”13

2018 AFL season with St Kilda

In the 2017 trade period Steele’s former Belconnen Magpies teammate, defender Logan Austin was traded to St Kilda from Port Adelaide for St Kilda’s 2018 third Round selection. Austin made his AFL debut for Port Adelaide in 2016 and played seven games for the club. In 2018 Steele and Austin, having grown up together got to live out a boyhood dream and played seven AFL games for St Kilda as teammates. Austin spent two more years on St Kilda’s list but was unable to add to his AFL games tally and was delisted at the end of 2020.   

Steele started the 2018 season at AFL level with St Kilda but after having 18 disposals against Brisbane in Round 1 and 14 disposals against North Melbourne in Round 2 he was dropped to the VFL for the second time in his first 25 games with the Saints.

After spending one week in the VFL with the Sandringham Zebras and missing the Saints Round 3 game against Adelaide Steele was recalled back to AFL level for St Kilda’s round 4 away game against Geelong and retained his position in the seniors for the remainder of the season. After Round 12 Steele had polled only 22 votes in the Trevor Barker Award, however a role change to that of run-with player was the catalyst for a barnstorming finish to the season which led to him rapidly moving  up the leaderboard.

On his role change Steele told ‘Saints Insider’ “Richo just gave me a role, he thought we needed to have a defensive midfielder inside the centre square playing on the opposition’s best player each week I guess, and I put my hand up and said I’d do that which was great because I get to sort of sit on the back of the best player. The ball’s always getting hit to him and get to play a lot more minutes obviously. It was an opportunity for me that I am grateful for and sort of develop my game in all areas, learnt a lot from the best players around the competition.”

In Round 13 Steele was given the run-with role on Gold Coast midfielder David Swallow which he performed well to earn 10 votes in the Trevor Barker Award and contributed to St Kilda recording a two point victory at Metricon Stadium, St Kilda’s first win since Round 1 (they had a draw with the GWS Giants in Round 5).

At 22 years of age Steele played his 50th AFL game in Round 15 against Melbourne at the MCG, he nullified Clayton Oliver. The following week Steele limited the impact of Port Adelaide midfielder Ollie Wines.

Against Carlton in Round 17 opposed to PatrIck Cripps Steele showed what he was capable of offensively, amassing a then career-high 33 disposals comprised of 12 kicks and 21 handballs and had a phenomenal disposal efficiency of 97%. Steele also laid a game-high 10 tackles, had a team-high seven clearances, a team-high 15 contested possessions, a goal assist and kicked a goal. Cripps also had a strong offensive game with 35 disposals, 10 clearances and kicked a goal.

Against his former side the Giants in Round 19 at the Sydney Showgrounds Steele restricted his former captain Callan Ward to 20 disposals, five contested possessions and two clearances whilst having 24 disposals, 14 contested possessions and five clearances himself. 

In Round 23 against North Melbourne at Marvel Stadium Steele had a career tackles high 35 disposals comprised of 12 kicks, a game-high 23 handballs, a game-highs nine tackle, equal game-high 15 contested possessions, a team-high 20 uncontested possessions, seven clearances, kicked an equal team-high two goals and polled one Brownlow Medal vote.  

During 2018 Steele played 21 of a possible 22 AFL games for St Kilda, averaging 9.9 kicks, 13.6 handballs, 4.0 marks, 6.7 tackles, 10.2 contested possessions and 0.33 goals per game. In 2018 Steele led St Kilda for total tackles, ranked second for contested possessions, third for disposals, handballs and clearances and fifth for uncontested possessions. Steele ranked sixth in the AFL for tackles. Steele polled 134 votes at St Kilda’s best and fairest to finish third behind fellow midfielders Jack Steven (191 votes) and Sebastian Ross (175) and just ahead of small forward Jade Gresham (126). At St Kilda’s 2018 best and fairest Steele also won the Lenny Hayes Player Trademark Award for the second year in a row.

Speaking to saints.com.au backstage at the 2018 Trevor Barker Award Steele commented on the development of his game after being assigned the run-with role mid-season, saying “The role simplified the game for me and I found it really easy to get involved offensively and defensively so as the season went on I thrived, so hopefully I can do that next year.”

Steele’s profile in AFL Record Season 2019 said “It was remarkable how much the former Giant improved in the second half of last year. After assuming a negating role, Steele stopped some big names, including Melbourne’s Clayton Oliver, Port Adelaide’s Ollie Wines and Gold Coast’s David Swallow. The Canberra product racked up plenty of the ball as well, with his disposal tally dipping below 24 just once in the final eight rounds.”14 

2019 AFL season with St Kilda

Brett Ratten joined St Kilda as an assistant coach for the 2019 season in charge of the forward line and ball movement. Ratten played 255 AFL games from 1990 to 2003 for Carlton as an inside midfielder, he played in Carlton’s 1995 premiership, won three best and fairest awards (in 1995, 1997 and 2000) and was named in the All-Australian team twice. Ratten was Carlton’s head coach for 120 games from late in the 2007 season to 2012 with Carlton making the finals in three seasons during this period.

In 2019 Steele continued to be utilised effectively as a run-with player in the midfield. In his fifth season on an AFL list Steele didn’t play any games in a State League for the first season in his career, playing 20 of a possible 22 games AFL games with St Kilda, missing Rounds 13 and 14 due to a dislocated knee-cap.

Opposed to Carlton co-captain Patrick Cripps in Round 10 at Docklands Stadium Steele had 10 kicks, a game-high 18 handballs, took five marks, laid a game-high 10 tackles and polled one Brownlow Medal vote in the 15 point victory.

Against North Melbourne in Round 16 at Bellerive Oval Steele laid 18 tackles to set a new club record for most tackles laid in a game surpassing the previous record of 17 which he was a joint holder of along with David Armitage.

From Round 6 to Round 17 St Kilda only won two of their 11 games to have a record of six wins, 10 losses and be 15th on the ladder. After Round 17 Alan Richardson stepped down as St Kilda’s head coach with Brett Ratten taking over as care-taker coach, St Kilda won three of their last six games of the season with Ratten as the head coach.

The profile for Steele in AFL Prospectus 2020 said “Steele continued to be given plenty of responsibility and was one of only three midfielders to have at least 10 major match-ups last season. His opponents were the most difficult of any player and he recorded a defensive rating of +7% with his scalps including Clayton Oliver and Rory Sloane. He has built his game around defense, averaging 3.2 AFL Player Ratings from defensive acts- ranked No. 1 amongst midfielders.”15

During 2019 Steele averaged 9.8 kicks, 12.1 handballs, 4.0 marks, 8.2 tackles, 9.6 contested possessions and 0.15 goals per game. In 2019 Steele had at least 20 disposals in 16 of his 20 AFL games and laid at least seven tackles in 17 games. In 2019 Steele led the Saints for tackles, ranked third for disposals, handballs and contested possessions, equal fourth for uncontested possessions and fifth for clearances. Steele led the AFL for tackles with 164, three ahead of West Coast midfielder Elliot Yeo. Steele polled 151 votes in the Trevor Barker Award to finish in third place for the second year in a row, behind Sebastian Ross (170 votes), and one vote behind ruckman Rowan Marshall (152) with wingman Jack Billings (140) finishing fourth.   

Career-best 2020 AFL season with St Kilda

On 5 September 2019 Brett Ratten was appointed as St Kilda’s head coach. There were significant changes to St Kilda’s list between the 2019 and 2020 seasons with Jack Steven, Josh Bruce and Blake Acres being traded to Geelong, the Western Bulldogs and Fremantle respectively. St Kilda identified deficiencies on their list and targeted players to improve these areas, recruiting midfielder Zak Jones from Sydney, wingman Brad Hill from Fremantle, small forward Dan Butler from Richmond, key defender Dougal Howard and ruckman Paddy Ryder both from Port Adelaide.

From the second half of the 2018 season until the end of the 2019 season Steele was one of the best run-with players in the AFL, excelling in the role of negating his opponent and also winning the ball himself however new St Kilda head coach Brett Ratten wanted to free Steele up and enable him to focus more on the offensive side of his game in 2020. During Steele’s exit meeting at the end of the 2019 season Ratten commented to Steele “I want to let you off the chain next year, mate.” In early September 2020 Steele commented to saints.com.au on his 2019 exit meeting with Ratten, saying “Ratts obviously saw a lot more room for growth in me. It was good to hear they backed me in then, because it allowed me to train hard and work towards something over the off-season and pre-season.”16

In the week before the 2020 AFL home and away season commenced it was announced that due to the uncertainty regarding the coronavirus that the structure of the season and length of games would be condensed. During the 2020 home and away season each club played 17 games comprised of one game against each of the other AFL clubs, a reduction from each team playing 22 games across 23 rounds. The length of quarters was reduced from 20 minutes plus time-on to 16 minutes plus time-on to enable a shorter break between games if required.

After 82 AFL games from his debut in Round 12, 2015 until Round 4 2020 Steele had polled a total of five Brownlow Medal votes including one best afield performance against West Coast in Round 20, 2017. In a phenomenal 2020 season Steele polled Brownlow Medal votes commencing with three votes against Carlton for a Round 5 performance in which he had 11 kicks, a game-high 12 handballs, took sis marks and laid a team high nine tackles – four more than the second ranked player for the game.

In five of his next six games from Round 5 to Round 10 2020 Steele polled Brownlow Medal votes including four best afield performances to amass 13 votes during this period, with the Saints winning all five games that Steele polled votes in. Highlighting how dominant Steele was during this six week period only 11 players polled more than 13 Brownlow Medal votes for the entire 2020 season. St Kilda won all five games that Steele polled Brownlow Medal votes in during this period.

The one game in the six game stretch from Round 5 to Round 10 that Steele didn’t poll any Brownlow Medal votes proved to be a turning point. St Kilda led Fremantle by 37 points early in the second quarter, however Fremantle overran St Kilda 11 goals to four from that point on to win by a goal. In “Insider Access: The ‘hard conversation’ that sharpened up Steele” St Kilda head coach Brett Ratten commented “We had a pretty hard conversation after the Fremantle game. It was around him and his influence on others and from that moment onwards I could see him shift some of the behaviours and he really grew from that moment. It was a bit of an uncomfortable conversation for him, but we had to have it and it was one that I think he really stood up and took ownership of that conversation or the moment that he was in, in the game and then I think he started to know how he could influence others by not just his performance but by his body language, his voice, his support, these thing which was really critical.“

After the loss to Fremantle in Round 6 St Kilda had a record of three wins and three losses and were seventh on the ladder two games behind the ladder leading Port Adelaide and one game behind Geelong who were second on the ladder.

Whilst Steele wasn’t an official member of St Kilda’s leadership group he started to attend leadership group meetings during 2020 and took on more responsibility in this area.

Later in “Insider Access: The ‘hard conversation’ that sharpened up Steele” Ratten commented on Steele “I think his performance on the field sort of speaks for itself, but I thought it was the work he did away from the game, his care for others he’s prepared to put in extra time with the Bytel’s and sit down. I think he started to speak up and I think that is a bit of self-confidence as well. In his performance he could feel that his performance was going to this level and I think that allowed him to really start to direct the group and lead from a leadership point of view.”

Against Adelaide in Round 7 Steele had 13 kicks, had a team-high 13 handballs, took three marks, had a game-high 13 clearances – six more than the second ranked player for the game, had 20 contested possessions – 10 more than the second ranked Saint, kicked a goal and scored 162 SuperCoach points in the 23 point victory at Adelaide Oval.  

After Round 10 St Kilda had a record of seven wins and three losses to be second on the ladder a game and percentage behind Port Adelaide. The Saints lost three of their next four games which included back to back nail-biting losses to Brisbane by two points in Round 13 and Melbourne by three points in Round 14.

In early September 2020 it was announced that Steele had signed a two-year contract extension with St Kilda until the end of the 2022 season. St Kilda’s head of list management James Gallagher commentedWe’re rapt that Jack has recommitted to the Saints. After finishing in the top three in both the 2018 and 2019 Trevor Barker Awards, Jack has elevated his game in 2020 to a very high level, which is just reward for the hard work, competitiveness and determination that we at the football club see from Jack on a daily basis. As pleasing as Jack’s performances in 2020 have been, his leadership and positive influence on his teammates have been equally as impressive. He’s an incredibly competitive footballer, and also a very popular, humble and well-respected player off the field.”17

St Kilda’s final round victory against Steele’s former club – the GWS Giants by 52 points secured the club’s first finals berth since 2011. Only one St Kilda player remains on the Saints list from that elimination final loss to Sydney, Jarryn Geary.

St Kilda won a thrilling elimination final against the Western Bulldogs by three points at the Gabba to record the club’s first finals win since the 2010 preliminary final which was also against the Bulldogs. Steele had an equal team-high 25 disposals and kicked a goal in St Kilda’s 31 point semi-final loss to reigning premiers Richmond who went on to win the 2020 AFL premiership.   

Steele was extremely consistent throughout 2020, and despite the quarters being reduced from 20 minutes in 2019 to 16 minutes in 2020 Steele had at least 21 disposals in 16 of his 19 games during 2020 including six games with more than 24 disposals.

During 2020 Steele played all 19 games for St Kilda, averaging 10.7 kicks, 11.2 handballs, 3.8 marks, 5.5 tackles, 11.0 contested possessions and 0.6 goals per game. Steele led St Kilda for disposals, handballs, contested possessions, score assists, clearances, tackles and inside 50’s, ranked second for kicks, third for uncontested possessions and equal seventh for goals.

At the 2020 St Kilda best and fairest Steele polled 207 votes to be a run-away winner of the Trevor Barker Award, 81 votes ahead of runner-up Dan Butler with key defender Dougal Howard third on 122 votes. At the best and fairest Steele also won the Lenny Hayes Players’ Crest Award and the Dare Iced Coffee Sainter of the Year Award as voted by St Kilda supporters. Steele was selected in the 2020 All-Australian team on the interchange, becoming the first Saints player to make the team since Nick Riewoldt in 2014. 

During a press conference on 25 September Steele commented “One part of my game that I just wanted to get better at is just my consistent performance and I feel like I did that this year and was lucky enough to be rewarded with the honours.”

On his leadership Steele commented “Yeah, that has been a focus off-field and on game-day just to become a leader for this group, this young group. Ratts came to me about it and it is definitely something I have been working towards.” 

During the 2020 AFL home and away season Steele ranked second in the AFL for tackles, equal sixth for score assists, equal seventh for clearances, eighth for contested possessions, and 15th for disposals. Steele averaged 122.5 supercoach points per game, ranked third in the AFL behind ruckman Max Gawn (139.9 points per game) and midfielder Lachie Neale (134.4).    

At the 2020 Brownlow Medal Steele polled quadruple the number of votes that he had in his career before the 2020 season. Polling a total of five Brownlow Medal votes in his first five seasons from 2015 and 2019, he polled 20 votes in 2020 to finish equal third with Christian Petracca, 11 votes behind Brownlow Medal Lachie Neal and one vote behind runner-up Travis Boak. Steele’s 20 votes was comprised of four 3’s, three 2’s and two 1’s. Steele’s four best afield games ranked equal fourth with Cam Guthrie and Toby Greene, behind Lachie Neale (10), Christian Petracca (6) and Travis Boak (5).

Steele was one of four players to finish in the top five of the Brownlow Medal, Most Valuable Player Award and the Coaches Association Player of the Year Award along with Lachie Neale, Travis Boak and Christian Petracca which highlights how influential Steele was during 2020. Steele finished fifth in the AFL Most Valuable Player Award behind fellow midfielders Lachie Neale, Travis Boak, Christian Petracca and key forward Tom Hawkins. Steele polled 72 votes to finish fourth in the AFL Coaches Association Player of the Year Award behind Lachie Neale (93), Christian Petracca (78) and Travis Boak (77), with Collingwood midfielder Taylor Adams (60) finishing fifth.

2021 and beyond with St Kilda

In February 2021 Steele was appointed St Kilda co-captain alongside Jarryn Geary who had been the Saints captain from 2017 onwards. Tim Membrey and Dougal Howard were named joint vice captains and the seven man leadership group was completed by Seb Ross, Jack Billings and Callum Wilkie.

Nick Riewoldt was Geary’s predecessor as St Kilda captain and holds the club record with 208 games as captain ahead of the late Danny Frawley (177 games) and Darrel Baldock (104). St Kilda have multiple captains in 2021 for the first time since St Kilda had three captains in 2007 – Riewoldt, Lenny Hayes and Luke Ball before Riewoldt was appointed as the Saints sole captain from 2008 to 2016.

On being named St Kilda co-captain Steele said “It’s a real honour and a privilege to lead the St Kilda Football Club out in the season coming, especially doing it next to Gears who has been my captain since I got to the club, so it’s a real honour and I am proud to do it.”

At the Press Conference Steele was asked “Does it take a bit of pressure off you (being a co-captain), do you feel you could have done it on your own?” Steele responded “Yeah, it probably does take a little bit of pressure off me. I feel like I still have full support of the playing group and Gears himself  so whether he was next to me standing here now or he wasn’t I would still feel as though I have a lot of support around me.”

At the press conference in February 2021 Jarryn Geary was asked “Was this on the cards regardless of the injury, or did this expediate the process?” Geary responded “It was certainly on the cards, it was probably a longer process this year than it had been previous. Probably because we hadn’t had anyone who had stood out as much as Jack had, previously. The process is probably a little bit longer, probably conversations I had been having with Ratts and Lethers and Roughy and Jack probably before Christmas on what leadership looked like this year. It has been a bit of a process and I am just really thankful it has come to this point, I am really proud to stand next to Jack, the person and the player he has become is something that I have been really impressed with and I am really confident that he is going to be a great leader, not just for this year but many years to come.”

In a video “Insider Access: The ‘hard conversation’ that sharpened up Steele” published on AFL.com.au on 17 March 2021 Steele recalled his first AFL goal and the progression to now be Saints co-captain alongside Jarryn Geary, saying “It’s a funny thing, I took my first contested mark and kicked my first goal on Gears. That’s when I was playing at the Giants so I feel like I’ve got his respect before I even walked in the doors of this footy club. He’s always had a lot of faith and confidence in me and how I play, the leader that I can potentially become for this football club.” 

Due to a fractured leg Jarryn Geary has missed the start of the 2021 AFL season and he is expected to make his return in the middle of the season, as a result Steele has been St Kilda’s match-day captain in all games so far in 2021.

An undermanned St Kilda line-up started the 2021 season well on the road in wet conditions, defeating the GWS Giants by eight points at the Sydney Showgrounds in Round 1 after trailing by 12 points mid-way through the last quarter. Several Saints players from their best 22 were injured or unavailable with players in this category being ruck duo Rowan Marshall and Paddy Ryder, midfielders Brad Crouch, Zak Jones and Dan Hannebery, key forward Max King, and small defenders Jarryn Geary and Ben Patton.

In Round 3, 2021 at Marvel Stadium Steele played his 100th AFL game at 25 years of age. Steele was the 10th player selected at the 2014 National Draft to reach 100 AFL games, joining the following players in that category: Touk Miller (121 games after Round 4 2021), Brayden Maynard (120), Harris Andrews (117), Caleb Daniel (113), Isaac Heeney (112), Lachie Weller (107), Christian Petracca (106), Liam Duggan (106), Jordan De Goey (102)

In his milestone game Steele had an equal career-high 35 disposals comprised of 18 kicks and 17 handballs, however St Kilda were outworked, laid a total of only 32 tackles for the game and Essendon thrashed them by 75 points.

At a press conference on 6 April 2021 Steele commented on St Kilda’s loss to Essendon “We’re going to hold blokes accountable. There were a few efforts on the weekend that just weren’t good enough and they weren’t the Saints’ way. The good thing is we get an opportunity in four days’ time to redeem ourselves… and show the fans we’re proud to wear the jumper. We’ve had some pretty harsh open and honest conversations in the last couple of days about our previous two performances and the effort we’ve shown. We need to be better as a collective.”18

On St Kilda’s next three games against fellow 2020 finalists West Coast, Richmond and Port Adelaide (in Adelaide) Steele commented “You can easily look at those games and be scared of what’s to come, but as we’ve already seen so far this season, there’s (been) so many upsets. They’re great teams that we’re coming up against, but (these games are) also real opportunities for us.”19

At the 16 minute mark of the third quarter in their Round 4 game against West Coast at Marvel Stadium St Kilda trailed by 33 points. St Kilda lifted their pressure and finished the game full of running to dominate from that point on, kicking eight goals six behinds to West Coast’s solitary behind to have a 53 point turn-around and win by 20 points. Steele led from the front throughout the crucial game, receiving the maximum 10 votes in the AFL Coaches Association Player of the Year Award for his performance in which he had 15 kicks, a game-high 18 handballs, a game-high 33 disposals, five marks, six tackles, six clearances, an equal game-high seven inside 50’s, a game-high 17 contested possessions and kicked the penultimate goal of the game to extend St Kilda’s lead to 14 points at the 22 minute mark of the final term. 

After Round 4 of the 2021 season Steele is averaging 14.8 kicks, 13.5 handballs, 3.5 marks, 6.0 tackles, 5.8 inside 50’s, 14.3 contested possessions and 1.25 goals per game. In 2021 Steele is setting new career-highs for kicks, disposals, inside 50’s, contested possessions and goals per game. After  Round 4, 2021 Steele ranks third in the AFL for total contested possessions, fifth for tackles, fifth for supercoach points and equal seventh for inside 50’s. 

Up until the end of Round 4 in 2021 Steele ranks third in the AFL for total contested possessions, fifth for tackles, fifth for supercoach points and equal seventh for inside 50’s.

Epilogue

When Steele was growing up in Canberra and was part of the GWS Giants Academy his dream was to play AFL football for the Giants. During 2014 Steele played outstanding football for New South Wales/Australian Capital Territory as a midfielder/forward in both the TAC Cup and the Under 18 National Championships and was rewarded with selection in the 2014 Under 18 All-Australian Team and being named his state’s MVP.

The GWS Giants matched a bid by North Melbourne and selected Steele with pick 24 at the 2014 AFL National Draft. During his two seasons with the GWS Giants Steele was the epitome of a fringe player, playing 17 AFL games, was named an emergency 14 times and dominated playing for the Giants at State League level in the NEAFL.

In the 2016 trade period Steele was traded by the GWS Giants to St Kilda in exchange for a 2017 2nd Round pick which enabled him to gain more continuity with his career and spend more time playing in the AFL. Whilst Steele has a regular in the AFL Saints side from his club debut in Round 1 2017 he briefly spent some time in the VFL, being omitted from the St Kilda AFL team twice before he played 25 games for the club.

Steele has struggled with self-belief during his career and a turning point was commencing a role as a run with player opposed to the opposition’s best midfielder half-way through the 2018 season as it simplified the game and his purpose. Steele thrived in this role and the dual tasks of reducing the impact his opponent had whilst also making an attacking contribution. Steele developed into one of St Kilda’s most consistent players and finished third in St Kilda’s best and fairest in 2018 and 2019.

In his 101 AFL games up until Round 4, 2021 Steele has averaged 9.1 kicks, 12.2 handballs, 3.7 marks, 6.7 tackles, 9.8 contested possessions and 0.41 goals per game. On St Kilda’s all-time list Steele ranks first for tackles and contested possessions per game amongst players that have played at least 10 games for the club, he also ranks seventh for disposals.

During his four and a bit seasons at St Kilda Steele has played 84 of 89 AFL games which equates to 94.4% of the maximum number of games. Steele played his 100th AFL game in Round 3, 2021 and is on track to play his 100th club game for St Kilda late in the 2021 home and away season. After Round 4 six players on St Kilda’s 2021 list have played 100 games for the club – Geary, Seb Ross, Jack Billings, Tim Membrey, Luke Dunstan and Jack Sinclair.

Whilst Jack Steele didn’t play as much AFL football as he would have liked in his first couple of seasons these setbacks have helped mould him into the player he is today. In his sixth AFL season in 2020 Steele was unleashed in an attacking midfield role and took his game to another stratosphere, excelling with his ability to win contested possessions, clearances, tackle, perform at a consistent high level and inspire his team-mates which led to him become St Kilda’s first All-Australian since Nick Riewoldt in 2014 and being appointed club co-captain in February 2021.

Article and photographs by Dean Andrews

Twitter – @DeanAndrews7777

References

1 https://www.gwsgiants.com.au/teams/academy

2 https://www.saints.com.au/news/272558/man-of-steele-steals-show

3 https://www.saints.com.au/news/861208/steele-and-geary-to-captain-the-saints-in-2021

4 https://www.gwsgiants.com.au/news/28440/strong-as-steele

5 https://www.gwsgiants.com.au/news/28440/strong-as-steele

6 Champion Data, AFL Prospectus – The essential number-cruncher for season 2015, 10th Edition, page 292

7 https://www.gwsgiants.com.au/news/14559/virgin-australia-arrivals-jack-steele

8 Australian Football League, AFL Record Season Guide 2015, page 184

9 https://www.gwsgiants.com.au/news/108405/two-to-debut

10 https://www.saints.com.au/news/862102/jarryn-geary-the-jack-steele-i-know

11 https://www.afl.com.au/news/90250/giant-becomes-a-saint-steele-deal-done

12  https://www.afl.com.au/news/146240/potbellied-pig-turns-into-man-of-steele

13 https://www.theage.com.au/sport/afl/annoyed-steele-motivated-by-shock-best-and-fairest-finish-20180215-p4z0gh.html

14 Australian Football League, AFL Record Season 2019, page 302

15 Champion Data, AFL Prospectus – The essential number-cruncher for season 2020, 15th Edition, page 326

16 https://www.saints.com.au/news/806855/licence-to-hunt-steele-s-off-season-rev-up-reaps-rewards

17 https://www.afl.com.au/news/495615/the-steele-deal-saints-take-red-hot-midfielder-off-the-table

18  https://www.saints.com.au/news/898842/steele-presser

19  https://www.saints.com.au/news/898842/steele-presser

Milestones and Misses

Milestones and Misses publishes articles to celebrate the achievements of sportspeople, mainly in Australian Rules Football (AFL and AFLW) and the Women’s National Basketball League (WNBL). In sport as with life in general it is common that milestones are only achieved after overcoming adversity, so whilst the articles on the Milestones and Misses website celebrate sportspeople achieving milestones they also cover the misses along the journey, such as a player having minimal game-time or spending a prolonged period on the sidelines due to injury. The aim of the articles is to enable readers to gain a greater appreciation of the journey the sportspeople have had during their career.

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