With the 2021 AFL season upon us, it’s time we at the Mongrel Punt took a look at the players (and coaches) around the league that are in need of a big season in 2021. Two of our most esteemed judges, Daniel Jon Kershaw and Matt Oman, have scoured over each playing list and have found more than a few examples of players that need to pull their socks up and make 2021 their own.

All of these players have different reasons they need to increase their output on previous seasons, and all involved are good players and more importantly, good people. But that doesn’t excuse that all of these players are in need of an improvement to their respective outputs, and if they fail to improve, consequences could be dire.

 

THE PLAYERS….

 

BRAD CROUCH (ST. KILDA)

It was certainly a topsy turvy season for the elder of the Crouch brothers. Playing the first eight rounds of the shortened season, Crouch looked in ominous form despite his team’s losing streak. Then came yet another injury, this time a hamstring complaint, and suddenly Crouch was on the sidelines, unable to regain his place until round 15.

Playing a total of 12 matches in 2020, Crouch averaged 22 disposals, but free agency rumours would swirl all season long. While it only had a minor effect on the field, it seems that Crouch was more affected off the field, because everything came to a head in September, when Crouch and now former teammate Tyson Stengle were caught in possession of an illicit substance.

Crouch will spend the first two rounds of 2021 on the sidelines due to the incident, and with St. Kilda signing the midfielder on a five-year deal worth $600,000 a season, Crouch will want to earn the respect of his club and teammates and prove that he is over the off-field problems of late 2020.

 

JOSH BRUCE (WESTERN BULLDOGS)

It was a move designed to help Aaron Naughton become the dominant key forward of the future. After 99 games and 168 goals with the Saints, Josh Bruce crossed to Whitten Oval at the end of 2019. The only redeeming performance Bruce delivered in his debut year with the Dogs was a six goal haul against the hapless Kangaroos.

Bruce kicked just 14 goals from his 17 matches in 2020 (8 goals from 16 games if you take away his North Melbourne demolition), and in only eight games did he kick a goal. Bruce quickly needs to find the form he showed while at St. Kilda, and if he continues to display poor performances, Luke Beveridge will be more than justified in dropping him from the senior team; something Dogs fans called for last season.

 

ORAZIO FANTASIA (PORT ADELAIDE)

Brian Taylor’s favourite player is reaching a cross roads in his career. 25 years old, at a new club, desperate to finally fulfil the potential he has shown glimpses of across his 80 game career. After seven seasons at the Bombers, Fantasia sought a move back across the border, and finds himself at premiership fancy Port Adelaide, a club just one straight kick away from their first Grand Final appearance in 13 years.

Injuries have always dogged the South Australian, but hopefully the fresh environment, as well as finally being home surrounded by family and friends, can rejuvenate Fantasia. The Power could use some genuine spark underneath Charlie Dixon, and Fantasia’s presence in the forward line also frees up the likes of Connor Rozee, Robbie Gray and Zak Butters to push into the midfield. Fantasia is a player that has always teased us with his potential. Now is the time to step up and show us all what you’re capable of.

 

DYSON HEPPELL (ESSENDON)

2021 marks Heppell’s fifth season as Essendon skipper. So what have the Bombers achieved under Heppell’s leadership? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Now, before every Bombers fan leaps down my throat, I should defend Heppell in that the lack of on-field success does not rest entirely on his shoulders.

Watching on from afar, it seems to this observer that Heppell’s lack of killer instinct, coupled with a personality that doesn’t lend itself to “follow me into battle” leadership has hurt Essendon badly. His talent has never been questioned. But Heppell needs to start carrying his team on his back. Heppell will be 29 in May. He leads a club on its knees. A club starved of any finals victories in 16 years. This is his time now to make his mark at the Bombers. Time is quickly running out.

 

CHARLIE CURNOW & MITCH MCGOVERN (CARLTON)

Much like many other players who have found themselves in our crosshairs, Charlie Curnow’s talents can never be questioned. What must sting Carlton supporters is that Curnow has shown tiny glimpses that he can take the game apart, only for inconsistency and injury putting a halt to the Curnow train.

Curnow best season was 2018. Playing 20 matches, kicking 34 goals and finishing third in Carlton’s best and fairest, sadly Curnow has fallen at every hurdle since. He is still just 23 years of age, and key position players tend to take more time to develop, but Harry McKay and Tom De Koning now have a strangle hold on the Blues forward line.

The AFL is a ruthless business, and if Curnow doesn’t find consistent form soon, he could find himself on the scrapheap sooner rather than later.

Now let’s talk about his teammate, former Crow Mitch McGovern. Back in McGovern’s debut season, Adelaide were on the rise, fast entering conversations as one of the best team of the competition. Forming a devastating forward line partnership with Walker, Jenkins, Lynch and Betts, McGovern often had the fourth or fifth best defender manning him up. In this situation, McGovern thrived, kicking 32 goals from 21 matches, and looking like a star of the future. In the four seasons since, McGovern has never even come close to replicating the form he showed in his debut year.

Requesting a trade to Carlton at the end of 2018, despite having two years left on a contract he signed only a year prior, McGovern has been dogged by poor form ever since. Some will argue that he has had a few injuries along the way and this has stifled his chance to succeed. But those same people are overlooking McGovern’s form when he was in Carlton’s best 22. He failed as a forward, with players like McKay, De Koning, and Levi Casboult ahead of him, and David Teague has had to resort to plugging McGovern into the Blues defence to salvage a once promising career.

Who knows what the future holds for McGovern, whether it is forward or defence, but one thing is certain. Despite turning 26 in October, McGovern is quickly running out of supporters. If he doesn’t turn his career around soon, he will be another forgotten AFL one hit wonder.

 

CHAYCE JONES (ADELAIDE)

Before you say anything, I get it. This entry might be a little harsh. Let’s not forget that this is a 21 year old kid who is just starting out in the AFL. But we’ve seen this story at West Lakes before. Talented young gun taken by the Crows in the first round, who could never seem to get his career off the ground, and was cut by the club four years later, ending his career before it could really begin. If that sounds familiar to you, it’s because I described former Crow Jordan Gallucci.

While it’s true that the 2020 season featured shorter quarters, Jones’ averaged decreased in every major stat. He is currently averaging under 10 disposals across his 23 career games, and of the 15 matches he played in 2020, half of those were seven possession or less performances. Jones is a talented young man. But he needs to start making his mark at the Crows. If he takes too long to get his career going, he will be overtaken by the next batch of talented youngsters.

 

WEST COAST’S MIDFIELD

On paper, the West Coast midfield is arguably the best in the competition. With a list comprising of the likes of Shuey, Yeo, Redden, Kelly, Sheed and Gaff, the fact that this was the weakest component of the Eagles game is astounding and I think it is not too long a bow to suggest it directly impacted what was a very promising season. If not for the career best from Nic Nat, the Eagles may have possibly missed the finals altogether.

I can’t single out individual players within this group, as no one performed exceptionally poor, but it is fair to say that they never really clicked. For players of this calibre, it was surprising to see sloppy disposals and a lack of grit when it came to contested ball.  Sure, they had injuries woes throughout the season, but even when they had a full regiment, they looked a mile off the engine room that took on the stacked Pies midfield and won the 2018 premiership.

Midfields packed with this much talent don’t come around that often and it will be a tragedy if we never see them at their best. They’ll want to hope to quickly rectify their issues before the season commences, because the window is rapidly closing for the current playing list.

 

JEREMY CAMERON (GEELONG)

The chips are all in for Geelong with three first draft picks going to GWS for the former Coleman medallist. Although it could be a gamble that could have a huge pay out, Jeremy Cameron’s 2020 campaign was an insipid affair that completely went under the radar. If he had played for a Victorian side, he would have been dragged across hot coals for such a disappointing performance.

24 goals over 17 games in 2020 was Cameron’s lowest output in a 9-year career, including his first, which saw him bag 29 majors in 16 games. Perhaps a move to the Cattery is what he needs to get him firing again.

With a heavily reliance on Hawkins in 2020 to kick a winning score, Cameron is exactly the type of forward option the Cats need to take their offense to the next level. If Hawkins can put his ego aside for the team much in the same way Riewoldt did when Tom Lynch was recruited, the payoff could be bountiful.

I think we’ll see a better year from Jeremy, but how he fits into the Cats dynamic and whether he’s the missing piece remains to be seen. One thing is for certain – if he is not meeting expectations, the media sharks will frenzy on him.

 

JORDAN DE GOEY (COLLINGWOOD)

Between off field incidents and a footy career that encompasses everything from insipid to red hot, De Goey is one of the most frustrating players in the game today. He’s been compared to Dusty, lauded as the next big thing – and occasionally we catch a glimpse of what could be, but more often than not, we see a very good player and not the generational talent we have been promised.

In a couple of weeks De Goey turns 25. I think Collingwood supporters and fans in general have waited long enough for De Goey reach his heights. Collingwood have really struggle up in front of goals over the past two years and they’ll need someone take it up a few notches if they want to remain in contention. That someone is Jordan De Goey.

For too long now, De Goey has coasted on his potential and a few exceptional games. Sure, he can kick half a dozen sodas a game, but too often I see him either on the injury list, playing midfield minutes or go missing. He needs a break out season like no other. And with uncertainty surrounding his future career, you’d think he would be wanting to give it everything.

 

JAIDYN STEPHENSON (NORTH MELBOURNE)

As much as he is maligned for his recent performance and some questionable decisions, I think a lot of supporters, including the Collingwood army would love to see Jaidyn give the ‘up yours’ to the team that discarded him.

People can have short memories when it comes to players. It was only a few short years ago that the Pick 6 of the 2017 draft won the Rising Star award and looked electrifying in his rookie year. Sure his 2019 campaign was railroaded by stupidity and 2020 was a severe drop in form, but I don’t think this kid is done. Not by a long shot.

It’s hard to say what went wrong last year, whether it was the bout of glandular fever, a loss of confidence or just a poor attitude, but I believe Stephenson can turn it around this season and a move to Arden Street might just be the catalyst he needs to get back to that explosive small that kicked two first quarter goals in the 2018 grand final. His team, which is destined for the bottom of the ladder doesn’t need him to have a big year, but I think he needs one for his career.

 

JOE DANIHER AND ERIC HIPWOOD (BRISBANE)

Daniher is the recruit everyone has their eye on this season. Brought to the Lion’s den to remedy their scoring woes, there are some lofty expectations for the former Bomber. If he can stay on the park this season and recover some of his 2017 form that saw him kick 65 majors, you’d think the Lions are in a very good position to take it all and Joe himself might be in line to win himself a Coleman.

But he can’t do it alone. If the Lions want to be an offensive force to be reckoned with, they really need Eric Hipwood to be a dangerous option, so that teams have to dedicate their energy on him rather than smother Joe Daniher and Charlie Cameron out of games. He needs to stick marks. He needs to convert high percent goals. He needs to be reliable. Something we’ve not consistently seen across his career.

The rest of the competition will want to hope that a fire isn’t lit under these two forwards, because if they go off, we could see the rebirth of the dominant Lion.

 

BRADLEY HILL (ST. KILDA)

Last year, a lot of commentators excused Bradley Hill’s form and some even suggested he wasn’t at fault, but rather it was his teammates not getting him to footy. Don’t get me wrong, Hill is a brilliant player and watching him deliver the ball off his foot at Fremantle was a thing of beauty, but ever since moving east, he hasn’t really earned his pay day.

His stats across the board have been abysmal compared to his 2019 campaign. Shortened quarters cannot account for a 51% drop in inside fifties, a 75 % in clearances and 61% in contested possessions. Those numbers are damning and indicate that his inability to win his own ball is reducing his ability to make a meaningful impact to games.

While you can give the benefit of the doubt to players moving to a new club, I don’t think Hill gets the same courtesy. He’s done this twice before and he is a seasoned pro. He was traded to St Kilda to provide them with the sort of goods we admired him for at Fremantle and Hawthorn, and as of yet, he’s yet to repay the faith.

 

JOSH KELLY (GREATER WESTERN SYDNEY)

If the reports are to be believed, Josh Kelly made out like a bandit when negotiating his contract. It is believed that he triggered a clause worth just shy of a million dollars for 8 years, seeing him into his mid-30s. A deal like that suggests Josh Kelly is a superstar among such peers as Dusty, Franklin, McGovern and Jeremy Cameron. I think it’s a disastrous deal up there with Tobias Harris’s NBA contract. And like that infamous Philadelphia contract, it might start to justify itself if Kelly has the kind of year Harris is, but based on his 2020 campaign.

Nothing is above Kelly’s pay grade anymore. He is one of the highest paid players in the competition and he needs to start earning his keep by being the best player on his team and one of the best in the league. If he falls short of the mark, I think it’s warranted that people start asking questions about how GWS is being managed.

Regardless of how the next few years pans out for Josh Kelly, I think he’ll be pretty happy earning with the deal he’s brokered. I mean, who doesn’t like being overpaid?

 

…..AND THE COACHES

 

SIMON GOODWIN

The end of the 2018 season and the first two weeks of finals was an exciting time for Dees fans. After years in the proverbial backwaters, it looked like Melbourne were finally rising to become one of the Victorian powerhouses, led by former Adelaide great Simon Goodwin.

Then that infamous or famous (depending on who you barrack for) preliminary final where it all came crashing down and hasn’t been the same since. Perhaps Melbourne over performed that year with their list, but one thing that has been apparent since that game is that there is something rotten in the state of the Demons and I don’t think it’s just the list.

Too often I see the Dees win or fall from one style of play. Sometimes it’s successful. At other times it’s not. That’s fine. What’s concerning is when it is successful and teams change up to mitigate that success and the Dees can’t respond. I call that a failure in the coaching box. I just don’t see Goodwin as a coach who is able to pivot on the day. I also don’t feel he has the complete buy in from the group.

I would love to be proven wrong about Goodwin and maybe this is the year I will have mud on my face. However, I think the odds are decent on the Dees missing finals again and Goodwin been shown the door.

 

LEON CAMERON

The Ferrari engine is still humming, but it’s now not leading the pack. More that it’s starting to trail behind the peloton. After getting absolutely humiliated in the 2019 Grand Final, Leon Cameron is in desperate need of some silverware to ensure that his embarrassment of riches is not wasted.

The Giants missed the finals in 2020, and they enter 2021 without Coleman Medallist Jeremy Cameron. They have brought Jesse Hogan in to fill the Cameron void, but if we’re all being honest with ourselves, Hogan is almost a broken commodity. The Giants have a weak ruck division with the injury to recruit Brayden Preuss, and their forward line is rich on potential, but light on for proven, sustained success.

Cameron enters his eighth season at the helm of the Giants, and the men in charcoal and orange are teetering on the brink of oblivion. If the Giants fall further off the perch, the decision-makers in Western Sydney will need to make a choice. Is Cameron still the right man to take this team forward? If he is deemed unsuitable to keep the hot seat, is his senior coaching career over? Time will only tell, but the Ferrari needs to get back to the Promised Land. If they fail to do so, Cameron will be out the door. Simple as that.

 

NATHAN BUCKLEY

This is just about it for Collingwood’s favourite son. After 205 games at the helm, Nathan Buckley has never been under more pressure. His biggest supporter in Eddie McGuire is gone, the Magpies are in turmoil off the field, and significant changes in on-field personnel were made in the off season. The worst was clearly Adam Treloar, and Buckley came out of the trade period looking far worse than when he entered it.

First it was Heritier Lumumba that fell out with the coach. Now Buckley has thrown Treloar out like last year’s Christmas tree. Will he still have the support of his players after all this? More broadly, does he still have a list capable of challenging for a premiership? Collingwood finished the 2020 season in sixth place (including finals), and has an arguably worse playing list heading into 2021.

Should the Pies do what we all predict and fall out of the top eight in 2021, can Buckley convince the powers that be that he is still the man for the job? And more so, after splitting from his wife, are we even sure he still wants the top job given how it has impacted his personal life?

Buckley’s appointment to the top job of the biggest sporting club in Australia came with controversy, and now that he no longer has Ed to look out for him at board meetings, Buckley may find himself joining the unemployment line at Centrelink sooner rather than later.

 

So there we have it. 14 players, three coaches, and an entire midfield that all need to produce seasons of significance. Some need to fulfill their draft potential, others need to fend off the media piranhas, and some need to save their diminishing careers.

There are also a group of players that will consider themselves extremely lucky to have been left off this list. Names like Jake Carlisle, Jack Viney, Chad Wingard, Stephen Coniglio, Jack Martin and Mitch Lewis also need to pull their fingers out a little bit and show that they can produce the goods at AFL level.

Season 2021 is here. And for these players and coaches, it can’t get here quick enough.

 

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