It almost feels as though we’re getting a brand new season, doesn’t it? With less than two weeks to go until the 2020 restart, players are working into condition and preparing to hit the field again.

And others are on the sidelines as their bodies have betrayed them at the exact wrong moment.

We’ve got one round in the books, and coming out of those nine games, there were some interesting stories that started to take shape. The Western Bulldogs’ loss to Collingwood was like being smacked in the face with a wet fish for Dogs supporters, who were expecting so much more after their 2019 finals capitulation. The Lions fell to the team they’d handled pretty easily over the last couple of seasons, and gave the Hawks a nice win to start the season, and the Giants handled the Cats as they embarked on their road to redemption.

But amidst those stories were the ones of the players.

I’ve covered the Brodie Grundy mauling of Tim English quite enough, and it is probably time to give the kid a break. Eight weeks with little to talk about from the Bulldogs’ perspective but how Grundy molested their up and coming ruckman gets a bit tiresome. We saw Tom Mitchell return and pick up 26 touches, Jacob Weitering made a bit of a statement in his personal matchup against Tom Lynch, and Isaac Heeney emerged as the key forward hope for the Swans in the absence of Lance Franklin.

And there are more stories to emerge as well. We’ll forget the Lachie Hunter/Tyson Stengle/Jack Steven and Jordan de Goey quadrilogy of stupidity, and instead focus on players that should provide plenty of interest as the season restarts.

Here’s volume one of The Mongrel’s Players to Watch in 2020.

 

JAMES SICILY – HAWTHORN

The Hawks have tried to change the narrative on Sicily since last season – another season where his behaviour on-field was both brilliant and ridiculous.

Sicily is either the kind of player you love to watch, or the one you’d like to punch right in the mouth. It takes a special kind of person to elicit those kind of extreme responses, but Sic seems to do it quite easily. Even amongst his own team’s supporters.

There has never been any question at all about the talent James Sicily possesses. He is a wonderful reader of the play and can control a game from half-back, combining intercepts with long, penetrating Rebound 50s. His performance in absolutely dismantling Mason Cox in 2019 was a lesson in how to play a taller player – this one much taller – and actually use that height against him.

Sicily used deft touches, slight nudges, and his hips, forearms and shoulders to consistently move Cox out of the contest, leading to a clear win over the big man. He had 28 disposals, 14 marks (five contested) and seven rebounds as he collected the three Brownlow votes.

But then, there’s the other side of Sicily – the stupid side. And I say that as a Hawthorn supporter.

Watching Sicily when he starts to lose his cool is like masturbating with a cheese grater – slightly amusing, but mostly painful.

Cast your mind back to Round Two last season. The AFL is cracking down on the cheap shots to the stomach, and at three-quarter time, the Hawks are up by five goals on the Dogs. Safe. Right?

Nope.

In a 49 point turnaround, the Dogs swooped on the Hawks and stormed home to with by 19 points. And they did it via skill, niggle and some reactive umpiring to the stupidity of Sicily on the day. Worked up like Joe Ganino at an all-boys school (believe me – I saw it, I was there, cowering!), Sicily couldn’t help himself as he continually fell into the Dogs’ provocations, and though the Hawks may have lost that game anyway, Sicily’s inability to control himself made certain of it.

So, as the Hawks start to use words like “mature” when they describe Sicily, one saying leaps to mind – talk is cheap. Last year, Wesaw both the best and worst of James Sicily, and in Round One this year, we got a little of the same.

Which James Sicily to we get this season? The in-control half back who should be All-Australian by now (Tom Stewart occupies the spot Sic wants… he’ll have to be excellent to supplant him), or the hot-headed version that causes as much damage as he does benefit to his team?

The Hawks have a tough run through the first four weeks of the restart. How Sicily performs will go a long way to dictating just how successful they can be.

 

BAILEY SMITH – WESTERN BULLDOGS

Forget the dopey-looking hairstyle – there is a lot more substance underneath the layer of poor style than many know. Bailey Smith is the exact kind of player the Dogs need in the midfield to balance the offensive brilliance of Marcus Bontempelli and Jack Macrae.

How?

Bailey Smith loves to tackle.

That’s not to say Bont, Macrae and particularly Josh Dunkley don’t pull their weight in that department (Dunkley had double figures in tackles three times in 2019), but watching Smith through the Marsh series and into Round One, he is the kind of player that gives the defensive side of the midfield some real bite.

And that will matter as the Bulldogs seek to become a team that is a little more than just bark.

Smith registered ten tackles in the Marsh series opener against North Melbourne and backed it up with another ten the second game against Port Adelaide. It bears stating – these games are largely meaningless. They serve as a warm up  – a chance to work out the cobwebs and get your groove on again.

But the intentions of Bailey Smith were noticeable from the get-go.

Fast forward to Round One of the home and away season, and Smith was at it again, registering seven tackles to lead the game (with Hayden Crozier) as the Dogs struggled against the powerful Collingwood team.

Not only did Smith lead the Dogs in tackling, but he led them in disposals (23) as well.

The Western Bulldogs have the potential to have an A-Grade midfield in 2020. They started off with a D-Grade effort in there, but the tireless work of Bailey Smith stopped them from falling any further down the alphabet. In just his second season, it is my strong belief that we will soon be inserting his name into the conversation with Connor Rozee and Sam Walsh as to who the best pickups of the 2018 Draft were.

Last year, Smith averaged 17.7 touches and 4.04 tackles per game. I expect he’ll be leaving those numbers for dead this season, mullet flowing freely behind him as he goes about his business.

 

CONNOR ROZEE – PORT ADELAIDE

How high can this bloke climb? What is his ceiling?

Looking at the Port Adelaide team, they have a bloke already on the books that has been mercurial for years, and if there was ever a more natural passing of the torch, I’m not sure I have seen it when compared to Robbie Gray and Connor Rozee.

Gray has been brilliant for the Power, and will go down as one of their greatest ever players, but at 32, he has started to slow down just a little, and the body hasn’t been right for a little while. Still serviceable, but not tip-top shape.

Whilst Gray will still be a very good, and at times brilliant contributor to the Power, the ability of Rozee to step into the role Gray made his own, as that sneaky forward who can swing into the midfield looks as though it is ready to happen.

Oh, I expect Gray will occupy plenty of time in that spot, but the transition starts now, and Rozee has the skillset to indicate the switch will be as seamless as possible.

There are a few players in the league that set the crowd alight when they get their hands on the footy – Connor Rozee is one of them. His hands are brilliant, his change of direction almost defying the laws of physics, and his ball-use is wonderful as well. He has great goal sense, will make something out of nothing, and can make a grizzled old bloke writing on the internet gush over him like Joe Ganino when he watches his special movies at home alone.

Rozee looked sharp in Round One. 21 touches and a goal were enough from him to indicate he was ready and raring for the season to commence. After being placed on hold for two months, he will be one I have no doubt will be itching for the bounce to restart proceedings.

With 15.27 touches and 1.32 goals per game in his rookie year, the bar is already set high for Rozee, but improvements are inevitable. 20 touches and close to two goals per game are not out of the question, and if he hits those numbers, we could see another Port Adelaide player make the half-forward flank on the All-Australian team a foregone conclusion for the next few years, just as Robbie Gray did when he was fit from 2014-18 (four selections)

 

JESSE HOGAN – FREMANTLE

Some great news out of Freo during the week that Jesse Hogan would accompany the team to the Gold Coast hub when they relocate there, indicating that he is a good chance to get some games under his belt early in this season restart, and I don’t just mean it was good news in terms of the man getting himself right and back into footy.

I meant that this was good for the Fremantle Football Club.

They suffered a litany of injuries over the 2019 season to key players, leaving their spine looking like that of Dermott Brereton. You saw those x-rays, right? It looked like a cobbled together bluestone wall. Alex Pearce, Luke Ryan, Matt Taberner and Jesse Hogan all spent time on the sidelines and it left Freo searching for answers they simply could not come up with.

The Freo forward line needs a player like Hogan, but only one playing at his maximum capacity. They have Taberner, who I am a big fan of, but his goal kicking is atrocious. He will clunk big contested grabs all day long, but put goalposts in front of him and he looks as frightened as I was of girls at 23 years or… errr, I mean 14 years of age.

The Fremantle forward line needs Jesse Hogan playing well to function properly. I know they have players like Cam McCarthy, Brennan Cox and the aforementioned Taberner to play the roles, but none of them can play them as effectively as Hogan.

Imagine a Freo forward set up with the 2018-version of Jesse Hogan patrolling that 50-metre arc? Imagine the pressure it takes off Taberner? Imagine Michael Walters not having to be the focal point, and being allowed to run around and play his more natural small man’s game?

Ultimately, Fremantle gave up pick six for the rights to Hogan. That pick was on-traded from Melbourne to Gold Coast, who used it to nab Ben King. The Dockers have a bit of a history of poor trades, and this may end up being another one unless we start to see some impact from Hogan early in this season.

Freo are due for some good fortune, and they were brave in acquiring Hogan. Will it pay off in 2020, or will many point to the fine line between bravery and stupidity and accuse them of slipping off into the bad side of that equation once again?

 

 LIAM BAKER – RICHMOND

I was really impressed with this bloke in the pre-season, and loved the way he went about it.

There are certain types of players in the league that just appear to want it more than others. They’re easy to spot. Andrew Collins was one at Hawthorn in the 80s and 90s. He would scrap and fight to get a touch and beat his man in a contest. Mark Harvey was another at Essendon. He would throw himself into harm’s way to get the better in a contest and damn the consequences. And Heath Shaw is another. He never backs down from a challenge and will take some of the best players in the game on, in one-on-one duels without batting an eyelid.

I see a bit of all of them in Liam Baker. He just looks like he knows he has to fight, scrap and pour his heart into every contest in order to retain his spot in the Richmond team. That comes with earning your spot via the rookie draft – things haven’t come easy to date.

The Tigers are making a habit out of finding these absolute gems away from the pointy end of the draft. Dylan Grimes was picked up in the 2009 pre-season draft. Jason Castagna was a rookie elevation in 2017. Jayden Short was a 2016 rookie elevation and now here’s Liam Baker.

With many of the stars out of the first week of the Marsh series due to participating in the Bushfire Relief game, Liam Baker grabbed his opportunity and shook the damn life out of it. He racked up 30 disposals in a depleted side and showed the kind of hunger and desire for a bigger role in the team that would have had Damien Hardwick smiling.

As players like Liam Baker apply more pressure, it compels those already occupying those spots to respond. Baker will not take his foot off the accelerator. He has only two speeds – fast, and faster, and if not this season, but 2021, I reckon he will have made his move into the middle for more time.

If it’s what he wants, he’ll make it happen. Plenty of high picks from other teams could learn a valuable lesson from him.

 

The next five will be up in a day or two. Stay tuned.

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