Who will challenge the champ in 2020?

September 2019 confirmed that which many of us already thought – Dustin Martin is the best player in the competition.

Collecting his second Norm Smith Medal to sit nicely alongside his second Gary Ayres Medal and 2017 Brownlow, MVP and AFLCA Player of the Year awards, Martin cemented himself as the most dominant figure in the modern game in emphatic fashion. He may not yet have the consistency of Gary Ablett Junior, but I am quite comfortable stating that he has as much physical presence in the game as anyone since we made the jump from state leagues to the national competition.

Martin is far from finished in terms of what he can deliver, but after an off-season of hobnobbing around the world with luminaries such as Serena Williams and Dane Swan (haha… just kidding… he’s a lad), what will Dusty produce in 2020?

And who are those chasing him, desperate to steal away the mantle of the best player in the game?

In addition, what do they have to do to reach the level of the Richmond champion?

 

PATRICK DANGERFIELD

Danger has been Martin’s contemporary for years now. With just a year between them in terms of age, they have taken turns in winning Brownlow Medals, but the finals success of Martin has been the factor that divides the pair.

WHAT DOES DANGER NEED TO DO?

To elevate his standing in the game, Danger first needs to make a Grand Final, then win it. It’s that simple. Martin has proven that he performs on the big stage – he eats the pressure and spits it back in the face of his opponents. Danger is yet to prove he can do that. If both men were to end their careers right now, and we jumped forward ten years, I reckon Dusty would be remembered much more fondly than Dangerfield simply based on his success in big games.

Look, Danger could add another Brownlow to his name and I don’t think it’d make a difference. Reputations are made and lost in finals. Dusty has made his. Danger needs to do the same, and being a year Dusty’s senior, the clock is ticking.

 

NAT FYFE

A second Brownlow has elevated Fyfe into rarefied air and into the pantheon of modern greats, but as the best player on a poor team, he finds himself viewed as quite a way back from Martin in the current AFL pecking order.

The All-Australian captaincy helps, and the fact he has been a leader of his own team is something that Martin hasn’t achieved – officially anyway.

WHAT DOES FYFE NEED TO DO?

How does a third Brownlow change things?

Here’s a list of names of those who have done it. Haydn Bunton, Dick Reynolds, Bob Skilton and Ian Stewart. All have been elevated to Legend Status in the AFL Hall of Fame, and if Fyfe picks up a third, it would be hard to dispute his standing in the game. With history as our guide, Fyfe would one day be an AFL Legend. How does that sit with you?

Unlike Dangerfield, Fyfe has made his way to the Grand Final, but his wayward early kicking for goal are probably my most vivid memory of his day at the office in 2013. A trip deep into September would help his cause greatly, but for mine, Fyfe’s best shot at surpassing Dusty comes with a third Brownlow.

It should be simple, right? I mean, he’s already done it twice.

 

TOM MITCHELL

Mitchell was riding a wave of momentum after the 2018 season. Coming off the Brownlow/MVP double, he became the first man in history to have three games with 50+ disposals. He is also the only man to have done it twice.

And then he snapped his leg in the pre-season. Now he has to start again.

WHAT DOES MITCHELL NEED TO DO?

Mitchell has roughly four years to close the gap on Martin given their age discrepancy, but his health is the big factor here. Coming off consecutive seasons where he averaged 35+ disposals, a third season with those sorts of numbers would have been difficult to ignore. He’s got a Brownlow and MVP award, but a finals series where the really exerts his influence would make people sit up and take notice.

Mitchell’s 848 disposals in 2018 are the highest in history, but what about if he manages to crack 900? Again, picture how people reflect. If they haven’t seen someone play, they look at numbers. If Mitchell has 4-5 seasons with total possession numbers in the 800s, and perhaps another award or two in there, will people see him as a genuine peer to Martin? Or is the standing of Martin in the game right now beyond simple stats?

 

BRODIE GRUNDY

At 25, Grundy has made his move and become the best big man in the game, nudging past Max Gawn in the process. Routinely notching 50+ hit outs, Grundy’s preliminary final total of 73 taps was the third highest ever recorded, and his ability to follow up his own work to win clearances saw him emerge as a dominant clearance player in 2019.

WHAT DOES GRUNDY NEED TO DO?

Consistency is the key for Grundy. The pies are in the premiership window, and I don’t think, given the talent around him, we can say Grundy has achieved all he is capable of if the Pies don’t win a flag from this position.

Let’s jump back to that 2019 Prelim. Grundy had 73 taps, with somewhere between 30-40 in the last quarter in the stop-start ebb and flow of the contest. But how many went to advantage?

Against a fatigued and overmatched Shane Mumford, Grundy failed to feed his mids, often winning hit outs simply to create another stoppage. If he is to be truly regarded as a great of the game – a true great of the game and the best player in the comp, he now has something to prove. He needs to do more than get his hand on the footy.

He needs to do it meaningfully.

It’s hard to fault Grundy in terms of work ethic and production, and it is that kind of willingness to continue striving to be better that will hold him in good stead. For mine, jumping Dusty is a big ask, but grabbing a final by the scruff of the neck and shaking the life out of it would be a great start.

 

MAX GAWN

Already an AFLCA player of the year (2018), Gawn’s influence on a game can be huge. His deft tap-work is the one thing he has over the bloke above when the two compete, and he has shown that, used correctly, it can allow his midfielders clear path to wreak havoc.

WHAT DOES GAWN NEED TO DO?

Gawn was well and truly on the path to be recognised among the game’s greats, and whilst his performance only dipped marginally in 2019, he is a classic case of a player being negatively impacted by the putrid performance of his team. Gawn needs to play for a winner, and Melbourne need to turn it around.

Quickly.

Gawn is head and shoulders above all other rucks in terms of creative and accurate tap work. He finds his midfielders on the move and creates the AFL version of a fast break from stoppages, but last year things just didn’t seem to click. Gawn was still wonderful in patches – his destruction of an ailing Grundy during the Queen’s Birthday game was an exercise in ruck dominance, and in many ways, their ongoing rivalry may very well shape the way Big Max is remembered.

Can he bounce back and reclaim the mantle of the game’s number one ruck? In order to get close to the level Dusty is currently at, he’ll have to do that just to make a start.

 

LACHIE NEALE

The move from Fremantle to Brisbane served Neale well. Despite averaging 30+ possessions twice before whilst at Fremantle, Neale’s move to Brisbane, coinciding with their leap up the ladder in 2019 has established him as a genuine star of the game and moved him out of the imposing shadow of Nat Fyfe.

Neale became just the tenth man in V/AFL history, and the eighth if we’re counting only post-1990 AFL era, to top the 50-disposal mark in a game, and more performances like that may be on the cards.

WHAT DOES NEALE NEED TO DO?

Currently he sits behind Tom Mitchell in the pecking order, in the gospel according to The Mongrel. Despite his wonderful 2019, he is yet to amass the awards or accolades Mitchell has, let alone that of his previous running mate, Nat Fyfe. At 26, Neale has time, and we may have seen the beginning of his true peak last season.

If he has three or so seasons at the same, or higher standard that he demonstrated in 2019, perhaps we will be entitled to start looking at Neale as a legitimate challenger to Martin’s throne. In 2019 alone, it will be hard for him to elevate to that level unless we witness something truly incredible, like a Brownlow/MVP/Norm triple-header.

Not much to ask for, is it? I mean, Dusty’s done it…

 

ELLIOT YEO

Some may look more at new Eagles captain, Luke Shuey, but there is something about Elliot Yeo that indicates that his impact on the competition may see him go to another level . He is 25, and has added to his game each of the last few years in his time with the Eagles. What he adds in 2020 may put him on another level altogether.

WHAT DOES YEO NEED TO DO?

Dusty had his huge, breakout year the season before he won the Brownlow. Lifting his disposals per game from 25.9 touches per game to over 31, Martin let the league know in no uncertain terms, that he was a force to be reckoned with. Yeo may have already done that, but he has done it by increasing his other statistical outputs, such as clearances (from 2.2 to 6.2 in the 2017-19 timeframe) and tackles (from 3.3 to 7.3 from 2017-19).

They are huge leaps, and he has demonstrated that on any given day, he can be the most impactful and damaging player on the park. He had 10+ tackles six times, and 10+ clearances twice in 2019 as well as often taking on the opposition’s best midfielder head-to-head.

Yeo needs not only to continue this trajectory, but clean wins in duels against the game’s best (Martin, Dangerfield, Cripps) will see his reputation grow in the eyes of many.

 

PATRICK CRIPPS

Already the career leader for average contested possessions per game (15.55 to Clayton Oliver’s 15.1) the Carlton powerhouse is just 24 years old and has an AFLPA MVP under his belt. Forced to carry a painfully thin Carlton midfield, Cripps’ outstanding 2018/19 seasons are the perfect launching pad for an assault on the top spot in the competition.

WHAT DOES CRIPPS NEED TO DO?

It’s less about what Cripps needs to do, and more about what Carlton need to do, I’m afraid.

Is Cripps destined to be remembered as a great stats/terrible team kind of guy? It’s probably something that a player like Robert Harvey has had attached to his name over the journey, despite the Saints eventually making Grand Finals with him in the team.

If Cripps spends the next five or six seasons toiling away on a mediocre Carlton team with little to show for it but big stats, will future generations ask the question – if he was so good, why did his team never win anything? Cripps and Blues have been in the wilderness long enough. They need to emerge, and emerge quickly to capitalise on a great player coming into his peak years – yep, I don’t reckon we’re there yet!

Whilst there is definitely no shame in being mentioned alongside the likes of Harvey and Scott West, I am sure an elite player would prefer being mentioned alongside those like Chris Judd, Sam Mitchell and Trent Cotchin – great players with premiership medals.

Like the bloke underneath, Cripps is well-placed to challenge Dusty, and if we married Cripps’ career up with Dusty side by side at the same age, Cripps is ahead of where Martin was at the same point.

 

MARCUS BONTEMPELLI

Unlike the bloke above, Bont has already sealed the deal as a premiership superstar, and in 2019, his reputation grew. Career high numbers almost across the board saw Bontempelli make the leap from young superstar in the making to genuine superstar of the game in 2019, with the promise of more to come a tantalising prospect for Bulldogs fans.

WHAT DOES BONT NEED TO DO?

Bont is tracking along nicely at the moment. After six season in the game, he is a top ten player in the competition, has a coaches association player of the year award to his name, three best and fairest awards, two AA berths and most importantly, a premiership. What happens now is Bont continues to build on the legacy he is creating at the Whitten Oval.

The Dogs looked threatening in 2019 until they were beaten up and beaten down by the Giants in the prelim. It was a lesson learned the hard way by Bont and his teammates, and one that SHOULD serve him well moving forward. If his numbers increase again in 2020, he will be on the right track to challenge Dusty’s standing in the game. At the same age, Martin has accomplished nowhere near that which Bont has. It’s just about continuing to build for him now.

 

LANCE FRANKLIN

Did we forget about Buddy? No, but due to injury the sparkle that once decorated his amazing career dimmed a little in 2019. Can he turn it around?

WHAT DOES BUDDY NEED TO DO?

Franklin is a freak, and the fact that he has been severely compromised by injury during the majority of his time in Sydney is testament to his ability, but there is an argument that Franklin’s time has been and gone in terms of being the number one man in the game.

I’m not sure anyone has told Buddy this, however.

Returning to training early this year (in stark contrast to his previous few seasons) Franklin looks like a man who realises nothing lasts forever, and is set to make every post a winner from here on. A fit Franklin is a nightmare for defenders, and though we hear so many “he’s  flying” reports at this time of year, the fact Franklin is on the track amounts to some genuine excitement at Mongrel HQ. We want to see Buddy have one more big year to remind people how privileged they’ve been to witness his career.

And if he gets that one more big year, is that the tap on the shoulder to Dusty to remind him that there is one other bloke in the competition that strikes fear into the hearts of the opposition?

If Franklin sets sail for goal number 1000 in 2020, it’d be a hard case to argue against that we’re still seeing one of the top players in the caper before our eyes.

Stay healthy, Bud.

 

 

THE DARK HORSES

 

STEPHEN CONIGLIO

One of the ways Martin hurts teams is by going forward and converting on the scoreboard. His last three seasons have all seen 30+ goals returned as he has established himself as the premier mid/forward in the game (and yes, the best player in the game). Whilst Coniglio is a very different beast, he has bobbed up to become a forward presence at times over the last two years as well. Could he make the necessary step to usurp the position of Martin?

WHAT DOES COGS NEED TO DO?

I’ll be pretty specific on this one.

Cogs did the right thing and sat out the Grand Final. His knee wasn’t right and he knew it. He could have pushed for a spot and possibly been a detriment to his team. He didn’t. his team were belted anyway. They were demoralised.

Cogs needs to pick them up off the canvas and give them their Rocky moment. It aint about how hard ya hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward!

Coniglio needs to grab the reins of this list and drag them back to the precipice of greatness. And once there, he needs to be the player that stands out from the pack. he needs to be the difference, and he needs to institute himself as the first club legend at Greater Western Sydney.

There ya go… not much to do for him, is there?

 

LUKE SHUEY

Dusty is a big game player, but Shuey isn’t exactly a shrinking violet in that regard either. He’s been there with goals after the siren and already has a Norm Smith medal to his name as well. When the Eagles need a lift, it is Shuey who provides it. I know I’ve written it before, but find the round 15 game last season against Hawthorn. Watch the last quarter of that game and bask in possibly the best individual quarter of the season by the new Eagles captain.

WHAT DOES SHUEY NEED TO DO?

Shuey is so underrated outside Western Australia. He opened the eyes of many with his best on ground performance in the 2018 Grand Final, but for some, it wasn’t enough. Here’s the stretch in which Shuey can elevate himself into the truly elite of the game.

Mark your calendars for the month of Shuey.

Round 10 v GWS

Round 11 v Collingwood

Round 12 v Essendon

Round 13 v Richmond

That is a four game stretch that will attract hundreds of thousands of eyeballs. Up against three quality teams (and Essendon…just kidding Bomber fans, settle down) Shuey can turn on the jets and match it with some of the best in the game, culminating in what should be an absolute belter against the Tigers.

As captain, Shuey has to lead from the front. He has to make people sit up and take notice, and if they decide to look away, he needs to make them look back and recognise just how good he is. Career highs in disposals and inside 50s didn’t do it in 2019 – Shuey needs to give some of the best a real belting in order for the footy world to truly acknowledge what he has meant to West Coast.

 

JOSH DUNKLEY

A sneaky one, but Dunkley did slip under the guard of plenty of teams in 2019, and with highly-skilled running mates, he has the sort of game that can easily go to the next level simply by continuing his current trajectory.

He made the jump from 21.89 disposals per game in 2018 to 28.30 in 2019 and if we discount the first five games when Luke Beveridge decided to drop him into the forward line (fail!), his numbers become even more impressive.

From Round six onwards, Dunkley averaged 31.5 touches. He’s a midfielder. Leave him there.

WHAT DOES DUNKLEY NEED TO DO?

In elite terms, he is a baby. At just 22 years old, he has produced the kind of performances champions of the game would be proud to have next to their name. 41 touches and ten tackles against the Blues. 39 touches and 15 tackles against the Dees. 36 touches and 11 clearances against the Lions… with the focus on Bontempelli as the key to the Dogs, Dunkley’s rise to prominence is starting to give opposition coaches fits.

A full season on the ball and another step, if not a leap, in performance could see Dunkley muscle his way into the conversation for not only Brownlow votes, but All-Australian selection and whether or not it is him, Jack Macrae or Bont that is most valuable to the Doggies’ midfield.

Suffice to say, I love his game, and whilst Bontempelli might be the burst player that garners a lot of attention, the work of Dunkley, with Dusty approximately 6-7 years his senior, will be interesting to watch.

 

There’s an old saying that the wolf climbing the hill is always hungrier than the one on top. Right now, Dustin Martin sits atop the hill as the best player in the game. Who, if anyone, has the ability to knock him off?

Feel free to chime in with your own selections.