MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 13: Catherine Phillips and Rhiannon Watt of the Saints lead the team on to the field before the 2021 AFLW Round 03 match between the St Kilda Saints and the Carlton Blues at RSEA Park on February 13, 2021 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

St Kilda's AFLW season has been far from a waste

St Kilda's AFLW season was off to a slow start, in Nick Dal Santo's debut season, but Cat Phillips says there is hope and growth coming.

St Kilda has not had a dominant AFLW season by any stretch, with seven losses in a row to start the season. Despite the slow start, Cat Phillips maintains that the season has had progress, and has continued the positive trajectory of the club since its inception.

St Kilda's season started with tough news, as young midfield stars Georgia Patrikios (personal) and Tyanna Smith (knee) ruled out for the season.

The news didn't get better during the season, as Rhiannon Watt was also struck down with a knee injury.

Cat Phillips spoke toEdge of the Crowdabout the forced changes into the midfield.

"People understand that the challenge has always been Doc (Patrikios) and Tee (Smith) both being out," Phillips said.

"You can tell you, look at our midfield and there's a bunch of girls in there playing their first game or the second game or the third game in the midfield I think the most experienced may feel that we have right now it's like, Tarni White has played like four games.

"Given all of that, I think we have made a lot of progress from last year, but it's maybe not obvious to other people and to the outcome of games because the other teams have all got better."

Phillips has been taking on an informal leadership role this year, after stepping away from the Club leadership group after last year. It has given her a chance to make connections and mentor some of the younger players.

That mentoring has been even more important as the younger players have been thrust into the spotlight and the midfield with the personnel issues.

"My overarching goal, that has been driving me this season has been around supporting the younger girls in the team and helping them through what will be, what has been, and will continue to be like a bit of a tough year.

"I think I'm in a lucky position where I'm not too fazed by like external noise and I'm not too fazed about what other people say about the team or our performance or, you know, week on week, I'm pretty relaxed about how things are going.

"So I've taken it upon myself to try and be a support network for those girls. It's been lovely for me not be involved in a formal leadership capacity anymore.

"We've got to the two other wingers that I work with Molly McDonald and Talia. Molly's obviously been around for a while, but she's a great kid and I love working with her and then Talia is newer to football and to the team.

"So it's been cool like building a strong connection with the two of them."

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Phillips has also seen how the Club has changed. She had a strong connection with former coach Peta Searle, and was disappointed to see the coach depart St Kilda after last season, as part of a top-to-bottom club review.

"I had and have a great personal relationship with Peta. So on a personal level, that was really disappointing for me for her to leave.

"I think the other aspect of it is that I felt and feel very strongly that it's important for young people to have strong female role models. And obviously, like young women, I feel that even more and then even more women in industries where there aren't many women, particularly in sport, I think the impact of seeing Peta and seeing what she did.

"I think it would have been really powerful for a lot of young people. So from that perspective, it was all quite disappointing for me."

As part of the review, the Club recruited Paddy Hill from Hawthorn to be the Head of Development and Strategy, and installed Nick Dal Santo as head coach of the AFLW side.

Phillips spoke glowingly of Hill's impact on the club, and on Dal Santo, in his first head coaching role.

"Paddy Hill has been huge like Patty's come in, I'm pretty sure Patty's in a full-time role now working with Nick. And the two of them together, from a playing perspective, seem to be a great team, they seem to be really on top of the way they want us to play, the way they want to train and embed things.

"I think they both have a really good long term perspective on the growth of the team and where we need to get to that, you know, obviously we still want to be winning games right now. But the focus is definitely on ‘what do we need to do now to be a team that can win over the long term?’

"I've really enjoyed the way that they've communicated that the way that they taught you know, new content works with the younger girls in particular."

In Dal Santo's first year as head coach, and in his first role as a head coach, Dal Santo's football knowledge has come to the fore.

"He obviously didn't have a lot of coaching experience, but you can really tell the football knowledge that he has is great, obviously.

"He's done a lot of work developmentally with the St Kilda Academy and working with those younger boys, and so I think he's really connected well with the young people on the team and working on an individual level to help them develop, I think that's been a real strength."

Phillips admitted that she had been disappointed about the appointment of a 14th male coach for the AFLW's 14 teams for 2022, when St Kilda had announced that Dal Santo would be taking on the role.

"I think part of my disappointment was at a whole of AFLW level, the fact that there are no female coaches I think is really disappointing.

"Even really small things that are as an example, like one of the things that I noticed about having all-male coaching staff is that you know, they refer to things like ‘pick up your man’ or ‘take the man on the mark’ that kind of language and things like that are really small and they happen everywhere. But when you have you when you have a woman in the role, they don't happen, because obviously, you know, they're more aware or just like a bit more careful with language."

Asked about whether it was an improvement on previous years, Phillips explained that the review had influenced changes in all facets around the club, and that it wasn't just a coaching change.

"I think from a club perspective, what I touched on before, in that review, there was a lot of learnings about what the club could do better to support the program.

"Peta was one part of it, but there were wholesale changes across the whole program."

Those wholesale changes will take time to have their effect. They aren't instantaneous, especially with so much talent still sitting on the sidelines. But Cat Phillips is confident that the Saints will rise, and that the changes will have their desired impact.

How the St Kilda side is affected by the upcoming AFLW expansion is anybody's guess, but Phillips has trust in the system that the Saints are building, and intends to commit to the Club for the future.