I genuinely can’t believe we’ve been through five months of Season 2019. Round 1 feels like just weeks ago, but since then this season has gone through so many deviations in form that picking a premier now is exceedingly difficult. The same goes for the Mongrel of the Year, with the leaderboard tightening at the top with three rounds left in the year. This week we saw a number of star midfielders really stake their claims for All Australian spots, as well as plenty of rebounding defenders, gun half forwards, and the game’s two best ruck men feature in the votes.

In 2019 we at the Mongrel Punt have devised this award to recognise the kind of players we love. It isn’t all about the flashy mids here, as it is with some other awards. Each week, those of who write the corresponding game report on the Mongrel give out votes on a 3-2-1 basis, being determined by our own individual criteria. Our votes may not line up with other media outlets but we think they do justice to the unheralded stars of the competition. Here are the votes from Round 20:

NORTH MELBOURNE V HAWTHORN

3 Shaun Higgins (North Melbourne)

2 Marley Williams (North Melbourne)

1 Cam Zurhaar (North Melbourne)

Has there been a midfield cog more forgotten than Shaun Higgins? With no disrespect meant to the former Bulldog, the hype around North Melbourne has been predominantly based on their off field work in recent months, especially around the eventual signing of Rhyce Shaw as full time coach, and so I didn’t even realise he was back in the side after six weeks out following a shoulder injury. It would have been hard to miss him on Friday night though, with the two time reigning Syd Barker Medallist having team highs in possessions (28), contested possessions (15), and score involvements (10), while also being near the top of the tree in clearances (seven), inside 50’s (five) and metres gained (504). Add in two goals, with one in the second quarter to get North back into the contest and one in the last to seal the game, and it was a night to remember for the 2018 All Australian.

Marley Williams has been a classic moneyball pick up for North Melbourne. The Roos gave up pick 105 to Collingwood for the defender, and while he had had his off field issues, trading what essentially amounts to a bag of chips for a player who is worth, at the very least, a cup of hot chips seemed a little bit low. In any event he has slotted in nicely at Arden St, playing every game last year. His game on Friday night might not have been a career best offensively, but he played his role pretty well, keeping the potentially dangerous Paul Puopolo to just nine touches, one goal and three score involvements. That’s a definite win for the former Pie, and when you add in 18 touches for eight intercept possessions he definitely earned his place in the votes.

If nothing else you have to admire Cam Zurhaar for his commitment to the contest. He’s 21 years old, yet his manic attack on the Hawks in their backline was nothing short of spectacular, disposing of Ricky Henderson and Ben Stratton in the same passage of play. He won’t win the Ron Evans Medal this year, with Sam Walsh having sewn that one up, but he’s given North supporters plenty to salivate over in coming years. His nine tackles for the match and four inside 50 were both game highs, as the Roos brought an increased pressure to Hawthorn after quarter time. He also managed a goal to open the third quarter and give his side the lead for the first time in the game, and had four score involvements from 12 touches, in an impressive display of youthful physicality.

ESSENDON V PORT ADELAIDE

3 Darcy Byrne-Jones (Port Adelaide)

2 Robbie Gray (Port Adelaide)

1 Patrick Ambrose (Essendon)

In a year in which the Power have struggled to find any sort of consistency, they’ve got it from Darcy Byrne-Jones. He’s exactly the kind of player you won’t read about it in the more mainstream Melbourne footballing media, given his status as a small rebounding defender, but in just his fourth season of footy the young back flanker has improved hugely. He’s up more than five disposals a game on last year, and was a huge factor in Port’s win over the rampaging Bombers on Saturday. His 25 disposals came at 88% efficiency, as he gained a team high 474 metres for his team. It wasn’t just his ability to send the ball forward which was impressive, as he also racked up a game high 10 intercepts, shutting off a number of Essendon forward forays, which then translated into a game high seven rebounds. He also laid an equal team high five tackles, had four inside 50’s and seven score involvements, in a game which was perhaps the most complete of his young career.

What is there left to say about Robbie Gray which hasn’t already been said thousands of times before? He was again superb on Saturday afternoon, both offensively, with four goals, and defensively, by keeping Adam Saad accountable to him inside forward 50. Saad is beaten so rarely that it makes a huge difference if it can be done, and with the former Sun having just 11 touches, the points clearly went to Gray. In fact, on any other day simply that might have been enough for votes, but he also managed to impact the scoreboard pretty significantly. Of his 19 touches, 10 resulted in scores, including 4.1 to himself and a direct goal assist to Cam Sutcliffe. Everything the four time All Australian touched against the Bombers turned to gold, as he kept his side in with a sniff of September.

The losses of Michael Hurley and Tom Bellchambers have been hugely significant for the Bombers, with Joe Daniher already out for the season. Cale Hooker has had to play forward to drag his side out of the mire on a few too many occasions, leaving his side understaffed down back, and Shaun McKernan has had to play in the ruck to cover the absence of a ruckman. Yes, Zac Clarke played on the weekend. No, that doesn’t count as picking a ruckman. In any event, Patrick Ambrose has had to essentially hold down the fort down back in tandem with Michael Hartley, and though the Power kicked 19 goals on Saturday, the fact that Charlie Dixon managed not one score from five touches gives Ambrose a vote. He had 10 touches at 100%, five intercepts, three contested marks out of five total and six one percenters as he prevented the score from getting completely out of hand.

GWS V SYDNEY

3 Nick Haynes (GWS)

2 Jacob Hopper (GWS)

1 Isaac Heeney (Sydney)

Nick Haynes may well be our out and out favourite at the Mongrel, although as my parents would probably say, ‘we don’t play favourites’. We all know that’s not true, though, and in combination with Brad Sheppard, Elliot Yeo and Jordan Roughead, rates very highly on our list. I think progressively Haynes has become less and less underrated, with so many people seeing him as such that he now isn’t. It’s bit of a paradox but he’s a star of the competition and should earn an inaugural All Australian jumper come season’s end. In the Battle of the Bridge he was best on ground for the second week in a row, to take him to equal 13th in this award. Having kept Nick Blakey to just one goal from nine touches, he managed 18 possessions of his own, with 12 intercepts, 12 marks, and four contested grabs all game highs, as well as four rebounds from defence. The entire Giants’ backline was, well, enormous on Saturday, but Haynes was the best of a very good bunch.

It must be exceedingly difficult being the seventh banana at GWS. Jacob Hopper would be in the starting midfield of just about every team in the competition, but with Stephen Coniglio, Josh Kelly and Callan Ward all in there, as well as Toby Greene, Zac Williams and Lachie Whitfield all rotating through, he flies under the radar. That wasn’t the case on Saturday, with the former trio all out injured, as Hopper simply torched his opposition, especially forward of centre. His three goals were all classy finishes at critical junctures of the game, with only Jeremy Finlayson, who was also excellent in Jeremy Cameron’s absence, having more than his nine score involvements. Add in four clearances, four tackles, and four inside 50’s, and it’s not overly surprising that he was the recipient of the Brett Kirk Medal for best on ground.

Just edging out Finlayson, Greene, Williams and a host of other Giants for votes in this encounter was Isaac Heeney, who demonstrated he is ready to be the face of this franchise when Buddy Franklin inevitably hangs up his boots. That is, hopefully, a little ways down the road, but the young Swan showed he is ready to step up whenever he needs to. His four goals were all of the highest quality, and though his two misses in the last would have given his side some well needed breathing room, it’s hard to be overly critical of the one Swan who kept his side in the contest. 12 of his 18 disposals, and three of his seven marks, were contested, as he managed a massive impact forward of centre. There has been talk of whether John Longmire is better suited to playing Heeney in the middle, but with games like that on Saturday, it isn’t hard to see why Horse sticks to his guns.

FREMANTLE V GEELONG

3 Nathan Fyfe (Fremantle)

2 Michael Walters (Fremantle)

1 Tom Stewart (Geelong)

Who else but Nathan Fyfe to be best on ground when Freo needed a win, in one of their most important games of the season, on their home deck, against the top side, to keep their slim finals hopes alive? His work in the middle of the ground was the reason why Fremantle pulled off this upset victory, and for that he earns three Mongrel votes. It wasn’t just the two third quarter goals he kicked to keep his side in the game. A massive 23 of his 27 touches were contested, with two out of his four marks for the day also contested, to go with eight score involvements and a game high 11 clearances. The Docker star may not be quite back to his 2014-15 best, but he’s pretty damn close to it, and with the Brownlow race seemingly wide open, he’s a pretty good chance of adding a second one to an already well decorated trophy cabinet.

If there was any doubt that Michael Walters would collect a first All Australian blazer this September, it was put to bed on Saturday evening, with his performance equally important in running rings around the Geelong midfield. His 29 touches were a game high, and only Fyfe had more than his 17 contested possessions and eight clearances, with a goal in the third quarter to give Freo a lead from which they wouldn’t look back. He also laid five tackles and sent his side inside 50 four times, with his performance on the weekend raising the question of whether he’s best suited to a role in the forward line or the middle of the ground. In any case, it’s a good problem to have.

With the amount of ball Fremantle had inside their forward 50, it’s not overly surprising that Geelong’s best player was a defender, nor is it particularly surprising that the defender in question was Tom Stewart, who has proven himself over the last two seasons to be one of the premier defenders in the league. His nine intercept possessions were the second most on the ground in Perth, to go with a massive 12 rebounds, a game high. His 582 metres gained and nine marks were also game highs, and his 24 touches for the match were the second most of any Cat, and he now looks almost unbackable to add a second All Australian blazer to his collection in September.

MELBOURNE V RICHMOND

3 Dustin Martin (Richmond)

2 Shane Edwards (Richmond)

1 Max Gawn (Melbourne)

It was, if nothing else, an ominous display by Richmond on Saturday night, with a significant number of eerie parallels between this season and 2017. Perhaps the most notable, though, is the return to Brownlow form of Dustin Martin, who it must be said has only himself to blame for not being in contention for the award again in 2019. His 34 touches, 17 contested possessions, 10 score involvements and 11 inside 50’s were all game highs, to go with five clearances, six intercepts, and 418 metres gained. Add in his last quarter goal and it’s not overly hard to see why Martin received votes for the third week in a row, after best on ground honours last week.

I was going to begin this paragraph by suggesting that Damien Hardwick would want a bit more production heading into September from Shane Edwards, who could quite rightly feel aggrieved not to be known colloquially as Norm Smith Medallist Shane Edwards. However, he is averaging career highs in disposals and marks. Having been deployed more behind the ball, he is also averaging more rebounds from defence but fewer goal assists. He was back near his best on Saturday though, with an equal career high 31 touches at 74%, 11 contested possessions, nine score involvements, and game highs in five rebounds and eight clearances, all of which made up a pretty good outing for last year’s All Australian.

The fact that Max Gawn is anywhere near the top 10 in this award is a testament to his ability to single handedly influence contests, given how few votes generally go to players on losing sides. He won another vote on Saturday night, with Richmond’s rampant midfield losing the clearances 34-33 to Gawn. After Soldo and Chol probably won the battle around the ground last week against Grundy, they lost it to Gawn this week, with the Demon having 19 touches including seven intercepts, nine marks (two contested), three inside 50’s and four rebounds. He has been a lone hand for Melbourne all year, and without him things could somehow possibly be worse.

ADELAIDE V ST KILDA

3 Brad Crouch (Adelaide)

2 Rory Laird (Adelaide)

1 Matt Crouch (Adelaide)

There has been talk of Adelaide needing to trade one or both of the Crouch brothers to add some much needed leg speed to their midfield. To be honest, that already seemed foolish before the weekend, but against the Saints on Saturday night the Crow duo highlighted their value to Don Pyke’s side, putting in enormous performances. Brad was the standout, with his 14 contested possessions a team high out of 29 total disposals. He was a huge factor in the Crows gaining an important midfield ascendancy, with seven clearances, and though the Saints won that count, Brad’s workrate to lay an equal game high seven tackles meant they got little value out of it. He also had five score involvements, with his grunt work in the middle of the ground a big factor in Adelaide’s ability to dominate on the outside.

Speaking of dominance on the outside, Rory Laird’s season to date hasn’t quite been as impactful as in seasons gone past. His disposal numbers are his lowest per game since 2016, but on Saturday night against the Saints he had absolutely his best game of the season. His 38 disposals were a season high, and only Brad Crouch had more than his 12 contested possessions for Adelaide. His 12 marks, nine score involvements and 12 intercepts were all game highs as well, and those score involvements came without the two time All Australian recording an inside 50, meaning he was bringing his teammates into the action rather than attempting to do it all himself. He also gained 421 metres for his side, in an important reminder of his talent and ability to impact contests.

Matt Crouch may not have done the bull work of his older brother, but he certainly reaped the rewards thereof. With just eight of his 35 disposals contested, it meant the younger Crouch’s work came predominantly on the outside, and he was able to have a far greater impact because of that. It was just the second time Matt has kicked multiple goals in a game, and the first time since 2016, with majors in the first and third quarters giving Adelaide varying degrees of breathing room. He didn’t win a clearance, but didn’t need to either, with his nine score involvements an equal game high. He also sent his side inside forward 50 five times, with Don Pyke seemingly finding the right balance for his midfield at the right time.

COLLINGWOOD V GOLD COAST

3 Adam Treloar (Collingwood)

2 Steele Sidebottom (Collingwood)

1 Brodie Grundy (Collingwood)

In a game which shaped as some small part of a danger game for the Pies, whose form has been wobbly over the last five weeks, it ended up being some sort of momentum corrector, with Collingwood ultimately setting up their win in the first half before putting the Suns to the sword in the second. Adam Treloar was a huge factor in that first half, before trailing off a little after half time, though not sufficiently to be stripped of the three votes. His goal to open the major scoring for his side was a beauty from beyond the 50 metre arc, and his 35 disposals, 15 contested possessions, 13 score involvements, three goal assists, 10 clearances and nine inside 50’s were all game highs. He was robbed of a sweep of the board by Tom Phillips, who was the only player on the ground to have more than his 551 metres gained. The former Giant is the league’s leading disposal winner for a reason, and on Sunday he absolutely torched his admittedly inferior opposition.

With Jordan de Goey out this week, Nathan Buckley was afforded an opportunity to experiment with his forward set up. Mason Cox not reemerging after half time with an eye issue meant that Brody Mihocek was brought into the game more as the focal point of the attack, but Steele Sidebottom was also an addition to the forward line, providing his class as we’ve come to expect from the two time Copeland Trophy winner. He was one of four Pies to record double digit score involvements, with 11, including two goals and a direct goal assist to Will Hoskin-Elliot which he comfortably could have kicked himself. He also laid seven tackles and sent the Pies inside 50 four times, looking very much at home forward of centre.

Jarrod Witts has been one of the premier ruckmen in the competition this season, leading the league in hitouts and having been best on ground in last week’s tight loss to Essendon. Brodie Grundy, in fairness, has been the frontrunner for the All Australian ruck spot throughout this season. In some ways, it was a contest of an immovable object and an unstoppable object, and whichever one of those is Brodie Grundy won out on the day. After a relatively even first half, Grundy won out in the second half, with the Pies winning the clearances 44-29, Grundy recording 11 score involvements, eight clearances, a goal and 399 metres gained. His ability to play not just in the ruck but as a tall midfielder is essentially unparalleled, and is exactly why he’s in the conversation as the best player in the game.

CARLTON V WEST COAST

3 Elliot Yeo (West Coast)

2 Liam Ryan (West Coast)

1 Brad Sheppard (West Coast)

With some sound beginning to be made about Elliot Yeo as the best player in the competition, it’s about time to look back at the season he’s had and ask whether he should be in contention for, if not the Brownlow, then at least the AFLPA MVP award. Since Round 4 he’s recorded fewer than seven tackles in a game just once, with double digits six times since then. No midfielder is more accountable, and he’s now been best on ground in consecutive weeks to take him into the top five of this award. On Sunday, opposed to Patrick Cripps, he had 10 tackles and 16 contested possessions, both game highs, as part of 25 touches, to go with four score involvements, three contested marks, five clearances and four inside 50’s. He’s certainly the frontrunner to win the Eagles’ best and fairest for the third year in a row, as well as to be an All Australian for the second time.

In a career already jam-packed with highlights, and which is only 32 games old, Liam Ryan may have provided his best game of his career on Sunday. His mark earlier in the year over Max Gawn will probably win Mark of the Year, but his mark going back with the flight in the second quarter against the Blues may well have been even better, displaying tremendous courage, or at least minimal concern for his own safety. His 16 touches included four goals, six score involvements, five inside 50’s and nine contested possessions, with a superb all round performance showing just how capable Ryan is of providing a spark to the Eagles.

Brad Sheppard has had a truly remarkable season from a player who doesn’t get nearly enough credit outside his own state. We have him in the top five of our player of the year award, and he adds a vote to his already impressive haul after his performance on Sunday. Not only did he manage to keep Darcy Lang to just five touches, the equal fewest on the ground, he had 22 touches of his own at 91%. It’s the kind of game we’ve come to expect from Sheppard, who is so rarely beaten and manages to have an impact offensively more often than not. He gained 359 metres from his disposals, with eight marks and seven intercepts, as he proved to be once again a vital cog in the West Coast defence.

BRISBANE V WESTERN BULLDOGS

3 Mitch Robinson (Brisbane)

2 Marcus Bontempelli (Western Bulldogs)

1 Jarrod Berry (Brisbane)

There was talk in the Mongrel group chat on Sunday night that Mitch Robinson could be the best player in the competition over the last month. He’s certainly been impressive, compiling back to back best on ground honours as part of seven votes over the last four weeks. As part of a midfield group on Sunday that was apparently content to let the Bulldogs have the lion’s share of possession, Robinson had a huge impact on the contest, especially forward of centre. Only Jarrod Berry had more than his 24 touches for the Lions, and his two first half goals really set the tone for the Lions. Only Charlie Cameron had more score involvements for Brisbane than Robinson’s 10, while he also gained a team high 652 metres, and laid six tackles, an important factor in the Lions’ ability to halt the Dogs’ forward run.

Jackson Macrae had 45 touches and 12 clearances for the Dogs, and yet still wasn’t quite good enough to displace Marcus Bontempelli as the best Son of the West on the ground. The Bont was a huge factor in his side’s second half fightback, though it was always going to be a long way back in enemy territory. Nonetheless the new leader in the AFLCA player of the year award got himself within one vote of the lead in our award, with 35 touches, of which 14 were contested. He also racked up game highs in 12 score involvements, including a last quarter goal, and 716 metres gained, as he proved to be a massive thorn in the Lions’ side, with five clearances, five inside 50’s and seven tackles as well. There’s no doubt in my mind that the future Bulldogs’ skipper will win a Brownlow in his career, but with the race wide open this year, he could conceivably exit September with the prestigious medal.

With apologies to Charlie Cameron and Stefan Martin, who were both enormous in getting Brisbane their second consecutive win, Jarrod Berry gets the final vote in this encounter. The young Lion, who gets nowhere near the hype of Hugh McCluggage, who was taken in the same draft, has gone about his business fairly well this season, just his third in the AFL. His 25 touches were a team high, as were his eight inside 50’s, while he also contributed solid numbers in six score involvements, eight intercepts, three clearances and 431 metres gained. Berry is a nice role-player in the Brisbane midfield, which has already shown it has the ability to compete with the best in the competition, and he’s beginning to find form at just the right time.

LEADERBOARD

1. Travis Boak (19)

2. Marcus Bontempelli (18)

2. Tim Kelly (18)

4. Lachie Neale (15)

5. Brad Crouch (14)

5. Nathan Fyfe (14)

5. Brad Sheppard (14)

5. Elliot Yeo (14)

9. Dustin Martin (13)

9. Zach Merrett (13)

A fair bit of movement in and around the top ten this week. While Travis Boak was outshone by his Power teammates in their big win, and Tim Kelly was one of the Cats’ best in their pretty poor loss to Fremantle, Marcus Bontempelli demonstrated his class, even in a loss, and is now in equal second, just one vote back of the leader. Since Round 14 he has been spectacular, with votes in all bar two games.

Brad Crouch, Nathan Fyfe, and Elliot Yeo all recorded best on ground performances, the latter for the second game in a row, to join Brad Sheppard, who also polled votes this weekend, on 14. One vote back from them sit Zach Merrett, who wasn’t considered given the magnitude of the Dons’ loss, and Dustin Martin, who was best on ground for the second week running.