Dunstan has been attached to that era, a solid rather than spectacular midfielder who seemed, like many of his teammates, to be deployed without imagination to do his job rather than being creatively utilised in a way that might allow him to express his strengths.
That might change in 2020 with the addition of outside run in Brad Hill, Zak Jones and Dan Butler and height in Dougal Howard and Paddy Ryder as well as the promise of top draft pick Max King likely to help Dunstan demonstrate his skills in tight.
“We have added some speed on the outside which is going to help guys like me and Steely (Jack Steele) on the inside just to crack away and if we can dish it out to them they can do the rest,” Dunstan said.
The 25-year-old is now mature enough to compete with the competition’s midfield bulls, having completed his third consecutive pre-season free of interruption. Importantly he feels better than he has in recent seasons, a fresh approach having him keen to show speed from the barriers when the ball is bounced in round one.
“We’ve been a bit smarter with our training. In previous years we have probably over-trained a bit and you can burn out. I’m feeling pretty good at this point,” Dunstan said.
However after six years in the AFL Dunstan also knows words can be as cheap as an international airfare as he enters the season hoping to scratch what will become a seven-year itch during 2020 and make finals for the first time in a career that has now spanned 103 games.
During this pre-season Dunstan been more expressive around the group displaying the sort of leadership qualities that saw him captain South Australia in the year he was drafted to the Saints with pick 18. In and out of the team in 2017 and 2018 he finished eighth in the club best-and-fairest despite missing four games in 2019 and feels more certain – yet not complacent – about his place in the team.
“It’s obviously hard to try to lead when you are not even playing and you aren’t in the best 22,” Dunstan said.
“Coming off the back of having a good solid year of football means just being able to feel more comfortable and you can have a bit more say in meetings. It comes naturally and I don’t really have to try to do it and it is more just feeling comfortable about where you stand in the group.”
He now has a positive outlook on the time spent trying to win back his spot, knowing he matured during the period.
“It has given me a bit more perspective and life tools more than anything, learning how to deal with setbacks when things aren’t going your way and the resilience you need as a person,” Dunstan said.
“You learn that sulking and being miserable doesn’t get you anywhere. It’s not going to solve anything. There is only really one way to go about it that is going to help you and that is to get on with the job and keep working hard and be positive. It’s been a good lesson.”
It’s also made him the type of person capable of leading the Saints out of the doldrums and into contention once again, part of group that is embracing change and what that might bring under a coach that has at least one midfielder ready to do anything to help him succeed.
“He [Ratten has been awesome for the group and the boys are excited for the year. He’s a good man,” Dunstan said.
Peter Ryan is a sports reporter with The Age covering AFL, horse racing and other sports.