MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JULY 08: Jack Billings of the Saints reacts during the round 17 AFL match between St Kilda Saints and Melbourne Demons at Marvel Stadium, on July 08, 2023, in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

Saturday, May 13, 2017.

With the Sun shining, the roof open, and only one game in town that afternoon, 38,014 clicked through Etihad Stadium's turnstiles to watch St Kilda take on Carlton.

Hardly a blockbuster, though the Saints had won four of their past five, hope always springs eternal, even in mid-Autumn.

Though neither club would take part in the finals that year, there were green shoots aplenty for each tortured fanbase to fawn over, with the likes of Acres, Dunstan, Gresham, Sinclair, Cripps, Curnow, Petrevski-Seton, Silvagni and Weitering each turning out under a cloudless blue sky.

Playing in his 50th game - a point at which good youngsters are said to begin their ascent to greatness - was St Kilda's opening selection from the 2013 AFL Draft, Jack Billings.

Baby-faced and without a chiseled chassis, Billings was perhaps the bluest of St Kilda's bluechip kids; a highly-touted talent whom the Saints had parted with a top-three pick to bring to Linton Street.

And while the then-21-year-old had yet to live up to his draft hype on a consistent basis, this would be the first day that Sainters in the outer would see it all come together.

However, nobody told them that it would be just about the last time they would.

After bagging St Kilda's first goal of the afternoon, Billings worked his forward flank to perfection, leaping onto the end of a Jimmy Webster thrust forward before wheeling on a dime and slotting his second from beyond 50.

Not content with this early output, the kid with the gelled hair bobbed up for a third and a fourth before half-time, the latter seeing the Saints take a four-point lead into the sheds.

Billings, time and again, working high up the ground to find the ball, banged through a fifth before three-quarter time, taking St Kilda's lead out to a game-high 24 points.

Yet, as has become custom throughout his career, Billings' efforts were overshadowed, with the afternoon best remembered for Marc Murphy barking at a prostrate Jake Carlisle and the ensuing melee.

Still, by the time the dust had settled and the Saints had walked off with their fifth win of the year, Billings had cost the statistician's pen plenty of ink, ending the day with 30 disposals - 19 kicks and 11 handballs - 12 marks, six inside 50s, two tackles, one clearance, five goals and, eventually, three Brownlow votes.

While it is impossible to have a bad five and 30 game, just as it is impossible to notch a shoddy double century or complete a questionable hattrick in Test cricket, we are now six years, four months and change on from Billings' tour de force, and the once highly-rated junior has never come close to racking up such stats again.

He hasn't even been particularly close, either.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MAY 13: Jack Billings of the Saints celebrates kicking a goal during the round eight AFL match between the St Kilda Saints and the Carlton Blues at Etihad Stadium on May 13, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Spotlights and shadows

Whether with Scotch College, Oakleigh Chargers, Vic Metro or even his junior club, Kew Comets, those who watched Billings' journey to the draft had all come to the same conclusion: the kid was a consensus top-10 pick.

Drafted behind only Tom Boyd and Josh Kelly, the Saints were certain they had landed themselves a good one in November of 2013. While Billings had shown that while he was still a prospect for the future, he had also demonstrated that when the moment struck, he had the ability to excite, right from the get-go.

With keen hands, both above his head and below his knees, as well as a knack for hitting the scoreboard at all schoolboy levels, Billings drew draft-year comparisons to four-time premiership player Isaac Smith and Pies dead-eye Jamie Elliott.

And just 21 games into his young career, these parallels proved on-point as Billings played the role of talisman in the Saints' incredible 55-point comeback win over the Bulldogs in Round 6, 2015.

On the other side of the ledger that afternoon, parked in the loser's rooms after what was also his 21st game, was the kid selected with the pick directly after Billings - now arguably the greatest Bulldog of them all - Marcus Bontempelli.

A bolter of the highest order, Bontempelli shot up the draft standings after an eye-catching end to his 2013 season with the Northern Knights.

While knocked for lacking speed, as well as a presumed inability to break a tag, the Dogs shook off these concerns, using Pick 4 on Bontempelli, bringing the Eltham junior to Footscray.

GOLD COAST, AUSTRALIA - NOVEMBER 21: Thomas Boyd, Joshua Kelly, Jack Billings and Marcus Bontempelli pose on stage during the 2013 NAB AFL Draft on November 21, 2013 on the Gold Coast, Australia. (Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

Dwarfing Billings by a full eight centimetres on draft night at the Gold Coast Convention Centre, in the seasons that have followed, Bontempelli's stature has only continued to grow as the spotlight's glow burns brighter.

For Billings and St Kilda diehards alike, the inverse has also sadly proven true, with both parties forced to watch on as the Bulldogs skipper tasted premiership glory in 2016, claiming personal award after personal award, virtually each and every season.

At last count, Bontempelli's resume reads as such:

  • 1 x AFL premiership
  • 1 x AFLCA Champion Player of the Year Award
  • 1 x AFLPA Best First-Year Player Award
  • 1 x AFLCA Best Young Player Award
  • 2 x Leigh Matthews Trophy
  • 2 x AFLPA Champion Player of the Year Award
  • 5 x Charles Sutton Medal
  • 5 x All-Australian
  • 5 x 22Under22 Team Selections
  • Runner-up 2014 AFL Rising Star

For Billings, his CV comes stamped with a sole AFLPA 22Under22 nomination, and a nod in the 2014 Rising Star race - a final count he failed to poll a single vote in.

Try as he might, 'The Bont' is the tag that Billings just can't seem to shake.

Cutting bait

In his own time, Billings has shown that he can still add something on most days. However, his battle to truly break through and dominate at league level is one that he continues to lose.

It is also a battle the Saints appear keen to cut bait on.

As far back as May of this year, Billings has been posited as "gettable" for rival clubs at this year's trade period.

Yet, as the hoo-hah of the annual trade period ramps into overdrive, the same excitement hasn't been seen for Billings - even at a bargain basement price tag.

According to reports from SEN's Tom Morris - a journalist with a professional past at Moorabbin - while the former No.3 pick wants out, there are no suitors in the market, a truth that hasn't improved throughout the past five months.

Jack Billings is a player that is desperate to get out,” Morris told SEN listeners earlier this week.

“St Kilda is more than happy to facilitate a trade, but they just need a club to be keen."

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JULY 13: Jack Billings of the Saints runs out onto the field during the round 17 AFL match between the St Kilda Saints and the Carlton Blues at Etihad Stadium on July 13, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

In August, Billings' manager, Paul Connors of Connors Sports Management, spruiked his client's wares, claiming that "if clubs aren't enquiring about him, they're not doing their job."

However, with the trade bell now rung and the market madness once again underway, either assessments are wrong or a glut of list managers across the country are still to do their due diligence.

Whether by bad luck, bad form, the massive weight of red, white, and black expectations, or a heady mix of the whole lot, the truth is that the Saints are keen to sever ties with the player they once rated higher than both Bontempelli and Carlton's captain, Patrick Cripps.

But how did we get to this point, and where does the club and player go from here?

Ball don't lie

There are three kinds of lies, American literary giant Mark Twain is said to have claimed: lies, damned lies, and statistics.

And while a certain sect of St Kilda diehards have been known to make excuses for Billings over the years, none of the 28-year-old's numbers have ever leapt off the stats sheet.

Run Billings career numbers under the microscope, and they roll out as such:

  • 155 games
  • 108 goals
  • 123 behinds
  • 231 scoring shots
  • 3186 disposals
  • 523 inside 50s
  • 201 clearances
  • 412 tackles

Run them through a calculator, and his per-game averages boil down as so:

  • 0.7 goals
  • 0.79 behinds
  • 1.49 scoring shots
  • 20.55 disposals
  • 3.37 inside 50s
  • 1.3 clearances
  • 2.66 tackles

Not much to write home about, right?

In terms of peaks and troughs, Billings' best, and worst seasons for each particular statistic are as follows:

Best season Worst season
Goals 2017 (1.04 per game) 2023 (0.33)
Scoring shots 2017 (2.68) 2022 (0.89)
Disposals 2019 (25.73) 2014 (14.56)
Inside 50s 2018 (4.19) 2020 (2.58)
Clearances 2019 (2016) 2014 (0.38)
Tackles 2016 (3.29) 2014 (1.75)

 

This particular breakdown shows that Billings' peak, arguably, ended four years ago and that the former first-round pick has, at best, regressed back to his rookie form, or, at worst, fallen below it.

Perhaps the most depressing dip can be seen in Billings' inability to find the ball, with Billings averaging just 0.44 more disposals per game in his 10th season than he did in his first - 15 disposals in 2023 as opposed to 14.56 in 2014.

Some may go into bat for Billings, pressing he was battling injury this season, but as the stats sheet shows, in his three outings against Melbourne, North Melbourne, and Hawthorn, outings in which he spent an average of 77.6 per cent time on ground, Billings had just 22 kicks and 23 handballs.

So although it appears as though Billings hit his peak early in his career, just about all of us either missed it or failed to appreciate it for what it was at the time.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 06: Shaun Atley of North Melbourne (L) and Jack Billings of St.Kilda pose during the AFLX Season Launch at Etihad Stadium on February 6, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

Underwhelming between 2014 and the present, St Kilda has featured in just three finals appearances across the course of Billings' days in red, white, and black, winning just the one - a COVID-condensed elimination final against Bontempelli's Bulldogs in 2020.

Failing to lace them up for the Saints' recent elimination final loss to GWS, Billings did, however, feature during St Kilda's pair of finals appearances in 2020.

But despite being brought to the club in the hopes of playing a game-changing role in September - a potential Norm Smith fancy if you will - Billings failed to light it up when the lights burned brightest, failing to match his career averages in many markers.

Disposals Scoring shots Clearances Inside 50s Marks inside 50 Tackles
2020 EF vs Bulldogs 13 1 1 0 1 3
2020 SF vs Richmond 16 1 0 0 1 3
Finals average 14.5 1 0.5 0 1 3
Career average 20.55 1.49 1.3 3.37 0.81 2.66
Fluctuation -6.05 -0.49 -0.8 -3.37 +0.19 +0.34

 

Playing a role close to goal during the bubble finals, Billings' clearance and i50 numbers naturally took a hit as his marks inside the arc saw a rise.

However, with a sum total of 0.2 before goal from a combined average of 83 per cent time on ground against the Dogs and Tigers, Billings failed to prove potent when standing alongside Max King, Tim Membrey, Dan Butler, and wildcard forward option, Jarryn Geary.

This ineffectiveness has hardly been isolated either, even if scouts once saw Billings as the second coming of Smith or Elliott.

With 231 scoring shots from 155 appearances, Billings has been able to create, or complete, chances at goal since slotting 0.1 against the Demons on debut in Round 1, 2014.

But with a career completion rate of less than 47 per cent, the Saints have operated at worse than a flip of the coin when the Sherrin is in Billings' hands and he stands within scoring range.

In fact, Billings has had just five seasons during his decade at the league level in which he has scored at a rate better than 50-50, with his worst campaign - 2016 - seeing him sit below 34 per cent for the year.

Total scores Conversion rate
2014 14.15 48.28%
2015 7.6 53.85%
2016 6.12 33.33%
2017 23.36 38.98%
2018 14.19 42.42%
2019 13.10 43.48%
2020 11.6 64.71%
2021 14.14 50%
2022 5.2 71.42%
2023 1.3 25%


As mentioned, very few of Billings' stats and figures are worth a letter home. But while the once-talented-teenager has never exploded during his 10 seasons at Linton Street, his failure to launch isn't his fault entirely. 

Moving magnets

Deep forward, patrolling a flank or guiding traffic on a wing, Billings has been asked to be a jack of all trades during his tenure with the Saints, proving to be a master of none.

And though shifts playing forward of the ball or acting as a conduit are to be expected of a hybrid draftee, the lack of stability around Billings is enough to prevent him from wearing all of the blame.

Since becoming a Saint in November of 2013, Billings has played under three head coaches: Alan Richardson, Brett Ratten, and Ross Lyon. Across this stretch, the Saints' roster has been steered by four different men: Ameet Bains, Tony Elshaug, James Gallagher, and Stephen Silvagni.

Statistically, that's a new head coach every 51.7 games, and a new list boss every 38.7.

Hardly stable ground for an at-times timid talent asked to play one of the game's hardest roles.

While sackings and switches are par for the course at AFL level, St Kilda has made a habit of cutting and running, and it's their players who have paid the price.

Since Billings was first drafted by the Saints - and arguably long beforehand - St Kilda has also earned a reputation for failing to develop young talent.

If we use the AFL's Rising Star Award as a marker for measuring the best young talent in the game, the Saints have sat inside the bottom half of the league for producing nominees during Billings' career span, seeing 12 names earn nods since the start of the 2014 season.

And while the Moorabbin men aren't sitting dead last in this metric, four of the six clubs that finished with less nominations - West Coast, Geelong, Collingwood, and Richmond - have all won premierships during the period in question.

A period, remember, in which St Kilda has won just one final by comparison.

The three clubs on equal footing with the Saints - Adelaide, GWS and the Western Bulldogs - have also featured in at least one AFL Grand Final since 2016, with the latter tasting premiership success in the same year.

It's not as if the Saints haven't had access to gun talents at the draft, either.

Since the Giants took key forward Tom Boyd with the opening selection of the 2013 AFL Draft, only GWS (25 selections), Gold Coast (21), Carlton (14), Adelaide (13), Brisbane and Sydney (12 apiece) have used more first-round draft picks than St Kilda (11).

Whether by bad luck or subpar development, the Saints have not only struggled to turn any of these early picks into deadset legends, they have largely failed to eke out better than serviceable outputs from several of their bluechip picks.

Of those selected with first-round picks - Billings, Luke Dunstan, Blake Acres, Paddy McCartin, Hugh Goddard, Jade Gresham, Hunter Clark, Nick Coffield, Max King, Nasiah Wanganeen-Milera and Mattaes Phillipou - only the three final names remain locks to be at St Kilda next season, as two have requested a desire to leave this off-season, four have already left and three are already out of the league completely.

So, sure, Billings has failed to live up to expectations set by his club and his fanbase, however, those pulling the strings, filling the list, or moving the magnets have hardly done right by him in the process.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JULY 08: Jack Billings of the Saints reacts during the round 17 AFL match between St Kilda Saints and Melbourne Demons at Marvel Stadium, on July 08, 2023, in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

But while player and club must wear much of the blame for Billings' failiure to launch, some factors just can't be planned for, no matter how fastidiously one prepares or develops.

After playing 16 games during his debut season, a stress fracture in his tibia limited Billings' sophomore season to just nine appearances.

Despite this run of misfortune, one that has seen Billings play just 11 of a possible 46 games throughout 2022 and 2023, any notion that the flanker is some injury-riddled hard-luck story is expunged by the fact that he featured in 119 of a possible 129 games between 2016 and 2021 - more than enough time to have made a genuine impact.

Still, it is tough to see on-field progression when you are working with a back that has required surgery, a fractured leg, a fractured thumb, and/or a distinct hamstring complaint; you don't have to be Dr. Peter Larkins to know that.

So, again, while Billings hasn't been helped - nor has he always helped himself - his body has at least provided him enough of a run to have made an imprint somewhere, even if the present paints a different picture.

Hold 'em or fold 'em?

There may be plenty of ambiguity surrounding the question of whether Billings will stay on with the Saints next season, but thus far this trade period, the wider footy world has been made aware of four clear facts.

One, we know that Billings is contracted at Moorabbin until the end of the 2025 season.

Two, we have been told that Billings is set to be paid within the vicinity of $500,000 for each of these campaigns.

Penultimately, it has been pressed that this figure is now set to sit at just above the league average under the new collective bargaining agreement.

Finally, we have been told, several times, that Billings, his management, and the St Kilda Football Club are keen to move on from the status quo.

With these factors, his past, and his formline in mind, it comes as little surprise as to why there isn't currently a list of clubs wrapped around the block vying for Billings' signature.

How, though, does a trade play out?

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JULY 01: Jack Billings of the Saints in action during the 2022 AFL Round 16 match between the Carlton Blues and the St Kilda Saints at Marvel Stadium on July 01, 2022 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

In spite of the noticeable dings in his chassis, clubs will eventually come to the table to discuss Billings, especially as Saints list boss Stephen Silvagni is said to be willing to accept very little for him.

Why, though, if these figures are clear to see, would a club come knocking?

One, $1 million dollars (over two years) for a role of the dice isn't exactly breaking the bank these days, especially with the prospect of stretching this figure owed into a third season.

Two, even if his career continues on greener grass, if a new club opts to add Billings to their books until the end of 2026 on a less-than-median wage, the wantaway Saint will only be 31 by the end of any amended deal - hardly panic stations from a list management standpoint.

But who is in the market for a half-forward who never really shot out of the starter's blocks and is still yet to find a second wind?

Billings may yet find himself at Collingwood, perhaps aided by a good word from his old Chargers teammates in Jordan De Goey and premiership skipper Darcy Moore.

On Monday, Pies GM Graham Wright claimed Collingwood had a "mild" interest in making Billings a Magpie. But before you scoff, claiming mild is, well, mild, Wright made very similar statements about Tom Mitchell last off-season and we all know how that worked out.

North Melbourne may also come knocking, with Billings' good mate, and fellow former Comet and Charger, Luke McDonald co-captaining the Roos.

Maybe even Melbourne, as has previously been fired off into the ether.

And even if all chats break down, Silvagni won't be losing any sleep holding Billings to a deal that isn't eating a sizeable portion of the Saints' salary cap.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 01: Head of Talent and Acquisition, Graeme Allan and List Manager Stephen Silvagni look on during a St Kilda Saints AFL training session at RSEA Park on February 01, 2023 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

At present, rival clubs are clearly operating with the knowledge that Billings is never likely to be 'the guy' St Kilda fans were sold he would be.

Again, though, this isn't entirely Billings' fault.

Has he failed to live up to expectations?

Sure.

But can he still play a role somewhere else, somewhere with a system able to accommodate a so-far-underperforming half-forward?

Absolutely.

But after running in the same circle for 10 seasons, taking orders and advice from three separate coaches, and standing around teammates brought through the doors by four different roster gurus, it's high time for a fresh start.

Where will Billings land, though?

That's the future fourth-round question.