Tick tock… the season is just ten days away from recommencing, and with everything going on in the world, I, for one, am looking forward to having footy back so I can spend my weekends absorbed in the ebbs and flows of our great game.

For those who doubt its importance, I invite you onto Twitter for an hour or so to see what else is occupying the hearts and minds of people all over the world. If ever we needed the distraction football provides, it’s right now.

As the season commenced, there were players who I was going to be keeping an eye on, and after the first round, I added to the list.

The first five are listed below.

Players To Watch – Volume One

Now, onto the next batch

 

TOBY GREENE – GREATER WESTERN SYDNEY

There was a definite shift felt in the AFL air during the pre-season of 2020. Could you feel it? Sense it? Smell it, maybe?

Aussies love a good redemption story, and the old chestnut of ‘bad boy turns good’ is ready to occur in 2020. The journey of Toby Greene, from the role of public enemy number one to that of respected AFL superstar is ready to commence. If you’ve missed this change in the air, you haven’t been paying attention.

But I suppose, in the current climate, that’s understandable.

The shift toward positive coverage for Toby Greene was evident as he took on the role of smiling assassin of the Victorian team in the Bushfire relief game, and make no mistake – it was his brilliance that propelled the home team to victory over the All-Stars. Yes, Dusty was awarded the medal for the best player on the ground, but those watching closely saw who changed that game.

When Greene flipped the switch, the momentum changed drastically.

It is not often that the public sides with Toby Greene. They were baying for his blood in the 2019 finals series when he appeared to attack the faces of Marcus Bontempelli and Lachie Neale, missing the cut-throat preliminary final as a result. However, in the wake of that bushfire exhibition game, I started to notice something… he was being portrayed as something more than the villain we’d become accustomed to.

He was actually portrayed as a hero.  People were starting to mention how he was robbed of the best on ground award. I almost did a double-take. Toby Greene being defended? I thought this was my schtick. What planet were we on?

Positive stories started filtering through the newspapers, and just like that, the horns of the devil from Greater Western Sydney’s weren’t quite as pronounced, and whilst far from donning a halo, you could sense a few people starting to warm to him.

His Round One performance was integral in the Giants’ win over Geelong. Four telling goals saw him as one of the match winners for the Giants as he again put the foot on the throat of a team (instead of into the face or stomach of an opponent… sorry, that was too easy).

The Giants are on a path of redemption of their own in 2020. Stacked with talent, their loss in 2019 will either galvanise this group or tear it apart, but as the new season commenced, we saw a united GWS team with an injection of even more young talent.

Whilst Stephen Coniglio is the captain of the club, and old heads like Callan Ward and Phil Davis will continue to provide support, it is the spiritual leadership of Greene that will propel this team to greatness.

It is interesting that Greene was included in the official 2020 GWS leadership group. They know what he means to this club, and what he could mean to their premiership chances in 2020.

He’s the hand that rocks the cradle, the cough that starts the plague… the gunshot that starts the war, and in 2020 he could just be the most impactful player of the season.

 

DARCY FOGARTY – ADELAIDE

It was just four games in 2019, but it was enough to demonstrate to the footy world that Darcy Fogarty was far too good a player to spend his time whiling away in the SANFL. He was ready for the big time.

A five-goal blast against the West Coast Eagles, in what turned out to be a rather single-handed effort in attack gave Crows supporters a glimpse into what he is capable of. The Eagles would fight their way to a ten-point win over the gallant Adelaide, but after the game, all South Australian tongues had one name on their lips.

That of Darcy Fogarty.

He is a strange cat when it comes to the modern game; a throwback to a time when big forwards made the opposition pay when they dropped into the hole in front of them. Solidly built and with a lethal combination of great hands and a booming, straight kick, Fogarty adorns the famous number 32 for the Crows and has something about him that makes me think he would happily do what Mark Ricciuto did to Dean Kemp if the opportunity ever presents.

Not that I want him to go hunting Dean Kemp on the street. I have nothing against him.

Entering his third AFL season, Fogarty finds himself in a revamped Crows forward line, playing alongside Tex Walker and Tom Lynch, and having waved goodbye to Eddie Betts and Josh Jenkins. The Crows are a team in need of an identity following the exodus of players at the end of 2019, and the attitude of Fogarty could go a long way to helping them establish that.

Hard but fair was the way Mark Ricciuto went about his football, and it’s hard not to see a bit of him Roo in The Fog. If the Crows can get some good, quick delivery inside 50, the boot of Fogarty looks to be about as reliable as it gets in the game.

He has shown glimpses. He has thrown his body in with abandon, and in 2020 he should really make a name for himself as one of the hard men of footy.

And oh… in order to do that, he may want to lay a few tackles (he has just two from his last five games).

 

JOSH JENKINS – GEELONG

Part of the Adelaide exodus, Josh Jenkins was made the scapegoat for a dysfunctional team.

And it was pretty unfair if you ask me.

Whilst others were performing worse than Jenkins, it was him who was forced to make way and went back to the SANFL to ‘find form’. This, despite averaging two goals per game for the season, for the sixth straight season.

The list of blokes to average two goals per game for the last six seasons is pretty slim.

Jeremy Cameron, Lance Franklin, Tom Lynch, Josh Kennedy, Tom Hawkins and Josh Jenkins. That’s it.

Jenkins now finds himself at Geelong; a bargain as the back-up forward to Tom Hawkins, and with no real expectations on him, could prove to be one of the players who sneaks up on the season and proves his worth in a major way.

Geelong has been without a reliable second option for a while now. Dangerfield gets thrown forward to create havoc here and there, but that tactic seemed to be figured out over the last couple of seasons (he kicked 51 goals in total over 2018-19 after 47 in 2017 alone). Daniel Menzel wandered off to Sydney, and as good as Gary Ablett is, he is as much a creator and distributor as he is a goal kicker. Jenkins’ addition could be vital.

So, what would Cats fans like from JJ this season? Two goals per game seem like a very achievable return. Adelaide started asking him to be something he’s not – he is not going to start clunking contested marks on a regular basis, although a career average of 1.24 per game is nothing to sneeze at, and he is not going to come out and kick big bags (he has kicked five or more nine times, but four was his best in 2019).

What he is capable of providing is a solid, opportunistic second option to Hawkins and if he gets to that two-goal per game average again, he will more than justify his recruitment.

The Cats lost a bit when Tim Kelly opted for a trade, but they have retooled pretty well on the fly. Jack Stevens should provide some run and is a burst player that can take the heat off Danger. And if Jenkins adds something that the Cats haven’t had in a while – a viable second option inside 50, the Cats should be contending again.

No pressure, though, Josh.

 

DOUGAL HOWARD – ST KILDA

I have a lot of faith in Dougal Howard.

It was just a couple of years ago that I was watching two young defenders ripping contests apart in defence. One has gone onto become the All-Australian full-back. The other was thrown forward in a last-gasp attempt to kick-start the sputtering Port Adelaide attack.

And when that failed, and a return to defence was not entertained, he opted to pursue a trade to St Kilda.

How this recruit fits in with the Saints will go a long way to dictating their defensive prowess in 2020. The Saints are set in terms of big defenders to tackle the best power forwards in the league. Nathan Brown is a very underrated defender, and was leading the league in spoils last season when Alan Richardson dropped him as the team was set to go against GWS. The reason? Well, Jeremy Cameron was going to be too tough for him to handle, apparently.

So, after a week off, and Cameron kicking the lazy six, Brown was recalled, and remained a resolute defender in a team that endedup doing a lot of defending.

Jake Carlisle is back there as well, and I am hoping that the inclusion of Dougal Howard in this team is assessed in more ways than just how many spoils or intercepts he has. Perhaps we could measure his impact by the response of Jake Carlisle?

When Carlisle departed Essendon, he looked like an All-Australian player waiting to happen, but what we’ve seen with the Saints has been underwhelming to this point. Is the addition of Dougal Howard – a younger and more athletic version of him, the thing that ignites the fire within Carlisle?

No longer is his position in this team a guarantee. No longer will be able to waltz into this side on the basis of there being no one better. Carlisle is looking at the man that could be his replacement when he sees Howard. It must be a scary thought… almost enough to compel him to pull his finger out.

If 2019 proved that Dougal Howard should not be deployed as a forward, what will 2020 bring for him and the Saints?

If you’re a St Kilda supporter, you may not be aware of just how good a defender Dougal Howard can be. He has two of the top four games in history for one-percenters  (spoils), with Harris Andrews and Josh Gibson possessing the others. He is a contest killer, a flying fist with murderous intent on the footy. He has the potential to be one of the best defenders in the game, and he will use 2020 to re-establish himself as a player to keep an eye on.

And maybe he can challenge the other bloke I watched a few years back as the All-Australian full-back.

 

 

ANDREW GAFF – WEST COAST EAGLES

I called this one a long way out, and I am sticking by it.

The player that will most benefit from the recruitment of Tim Kelly will be Andrew Gaff, and even though I am no betting man, I am tempted to place a few bucks on him to win the John Worsfold Medal this season.

Gaff had a brilliant 2018, and though it was marred by a suspension for punching Andrew Brayshaw in the jaw, even an act like that could not detract from just how good the wingman was for the whole year.

Whilst he would gather larger numbers in 2019, they lacked the quality we’d grown accustomed to from Gaff, and only when you go back and watch a few of those early 2019 Eagles games that you see why he was less effective.

Gaff was sucked to the contest too often in the first half of 2019. I’m not sure whether this was a directive, or whether he felt it necessary to be a little more involved at stoppages, but so many of his disposals came in congestion and were more ’hit and hope’ than the punishing delivery he is capable of.

Whilst I am no AFL coach (as evidenced by my lofty position as ‘bloke who writes about footy on the internet’), I have zero doubt that Gaff’s best position is one, or even two disposals removed from the contest. He is a release player who can get on his bike and finish off the great work of his inside mids like Shuey, Yeo and… Tim Kelly.

Yes, Tim Kelly provides the Eagles with another player highly capable of winning his own footy, and had 9+ clearances on six occasions in 2019 as his one-two punch with Patrick Dangerfield helped elevate the Cats to the top of the AFL ladder.

Whilst I don’t think Kelly will have to do as much in an already-powerful West Coast midfield, providing another strong body to extract the footy will allow Gaff to drift off the back or side of the pack. And that is where he’ll do his damage.

Round One saw Gaff accrue his customary 30 touches, but what was most noticeable was his impact when he had the ball in hand. He travelled at 87% efficiency in that game.

Have a guess how many times Gaff had 30+ touches and went at over 85% efficiency in 2019. Give up?

Zero.

Tim Kelly in this midfield means so much more than how many touches he gets, himself. His presence is that which sets Andrew Gaff free. Those who forgot just how damaging Gaff can be when given the time and space to operate are about to have their memories jogged. If Round One wasn’t enough to start sounding the alarm bells for opposition coaches, I expect that by the time we reach Round Three or Four, plans will be implemented to reduce the impact of the wingman.

 

CLAYTON OLIVER – MELBOURNE

It’s quite amazing how winning can change the narrative around a player, isn’t it?

In 2018, the footy world lauded the skills of Clayton Oliver. As the Demons started their run towards the finals series, the then-21 year old was riding high. No one bothered to critique his game too much – his errant kicking was completely offset by his playmaking and ability to set his teammates up at stoppages.

And then Melbourne started losing in 2019, and the knives started to come out. Surprisingly, former Melbourne star, Garry Lyon went on the attack against Oliver, stating he was releasing the footy too early, rather than holding it and taking the contact of the tackler. This criticism must have stung, and not just because it was coming from a former Dees player, the stature of Lyon. It would have hurt because the quick release handball and the lightning-fast reflexes were exactly the kind of things the football media was wrapping Oliver up for 12 months earlier.

Oliver’s greatest strength is his creativity. He sees the game unfolding before him the way Sam Mitchell used to do. His quick hands to a player in better position have the capacity to make those around him better, but in 2019, no one in Melbourne colours really got better. The team regressed and sometimes, Oliver’s hands were working faster than the minds of his teammates. He was releasing the footy, and they were a step slow, or fumbling.

But he took it on the chin. There was no firing back at Lyon, even though he was probably justified.

Oliver has the stats to compare with some of the modern greats. Over the past three seasons, he has averaged 29 touches once, and 30 once. His lowest average for clearances is 6.48 per game. His lowest number of tackles per game in that period is 6.32.

His numbers stack up favourably against media darling, Patrick Cripps, who also happens to play on a team that doesn’t win, but seems immune to the criticism levelled at Liver.

I’d love to see Oliver turn it around in 2020, and put the Dees on his back. He has Max Gawn giving him first opportunity to clear the footy at most stoppages, and with Ed Langdon and Adam Tomlinson now playing the role of outside runners, maybe the Melbourne midfield will start to operate a little more cohesively.

And maybe then Clayton Oliver’s fast hands won’t be looked upon by those fishing for a story, as a liability. Maybe he’ll start getting the respect he deserves.

 

And that’ll do for part two. I’ll have another one of these coming at you in the next day or two. Please consider signing up as a member for additional content, and stay Mongrel. Footy is almost back!

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