Sometimes a relationship comes to a natural conclusion that benefits both parties.
This could be the case for St Kilda and Jack Billings after a healthy union spanning seven and a half seasons and 136 games.
Billings, a restricted free agent, is out of contract and will be 26 in August. He remains a stylish and valuable AFL artist who will likely play more than 200 games. At his best, like in 2019, he can win matches with his own slick left shoe.
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But he also didn’t reach the heights St Kilda hoped to do when he took him with Pick 3 – a place ahead of Marcus Bontempelli – in the 2013 National Draft.
In seven full seasons he has recorded just one top five of the club’s best and fairest and none of the top three.
Although he played every game of 2020 in a team that performed well, he finished outside the top 10 in the vote.
This is the clearest indication that the club do not rate Billings as a top player and that for his next deal he is unlikely to rack up any big bucks to keep him.
Why would they do it? Especially with Jack Steele and Rowan Marshall out of contract at the end of 2021 and Ben King on their radar. They have other priorities to respect.
But it’s also possible that for much of Billings’ career, the club failed him as much as they failed them. He entered a team that finished low in his freshman year, saw a coach sacked in his sixth season, and only managed one final appearance throughout the trip.
Yes, he could have done more, but St Kilda is littered with individual stories of much worse underperformance than Billings over the past decade.
For the sake of argument, let’s say the Saints are offering the left-footed $ 550,000 over three seasons, but a rival club – hypothetically North Melbourne – is raking in $ 750,000 a year over five seasons.
St Kilda would almost certainly receive a first-round pick as compensation and Billings would have career security, the opportunity to play alongside close friend Luke McDonald and more money. It could be a win-win.
Another team, maybe Essendon, Fremantle or even Port Adelaide might see Billings as a player they can get more from than St Kilda. Billings might like the idea of going to a contender to win a flag and not be so concerned about his financial worth, and that would have merit, too, given he only made two appearances in the Finals.
If it remains unsigned at the end of the season, it will attract considerable attention even if it does not attract the top dollar in the open market.
The challenge for the Saints will come if Billings decides to test the scenery, but the offers that come for him will only result in a second round selection as compensation. Do they part with a Pick 3 for one in the mid-1920s? Maybe St Kilda forces a trade and asks for a choice as a teenager?
List manager James Gallagher will be keenly aware that the team that were beaten by 111 points on Saturday night were the third oldest in the AFL in Round 10. The club also have no second-round pick in the draft. in November after a period focused on swapping mature talent rather than recruiting elite juniors.
Alas, we are not even halfway through the season. St Kilda is not keen to kick Billings out and the player has not made up his mind, according to those who know him best.
When a team is out of the final race – as St Kilda is in all measures except math – they invariably begin to look to the future sooner than they would if they were chasing a flag. That alone makes the next 12 games possibly the most important of the Scotch College product’s career. He can prepare until the age of 32 with a form of 2019. This is how he must attack it.
When he looks at himself in the mirror at the end of the season, the best appeal for Billings might be to find a new challenge to rejuvenate and reinvigorate his career. And St Kilda, tough as the breakups are, has to come to terms with the fact that their valued No.3 draft pick was good – at times very good – but not big enough to justify a sustaining contract at all costs.