Footy’s back in 2021! I don’t know about you, but I’m so excited for a return to normality. Crowds are starting to return to the grandstands in full force, scoring is higher than it has been in years, there are teams are have set themselves for a big 2021.

This year, The Mongrel Punt is doing something differently, as well. A weekly, rolling All Australian team. 23 rounds, 23 opportunities for players to stamp themselves on the competition. So who were the best 22 players from the opening round of the season? Let’s find out.

 

BACK POCKET: JORDAN BUTTS (ADELAIDE)

Keep in mind that this was Jordan Butts’ third game of AFL football. To top it off, his direct opponent for the day was reigning Coleman Medallist, Tom Hawkins. And what a third game it was!

Butts completely blanketed Hawkins, sticking to him like a magnet and making him almost a non-factor. It can be argued that Geelong’s midfielders did Hawkins no favours with their delivery, and Butts did have two goals kicked on him, but overall, this was a fantastic performance from the young Crows defender, and Adelaide fans can rest easy knowing that Daniel Talia’s replacement looks ready to step into the spotlight.

 

FULL BACK: DARCY MOORE (COLLINGWOOD)

Collingwood’s intercepting machine was again the Pies best player on Friday night, and a big reason why the margin was only 16 points. Taking a game high 12 marks to go with his 18 disposals, Moore continuously and consistently cut off Bulldog forward entries and rebounded the ball back Collingwood’s way.

There was talk in the off-season from various media pundits that Nathan Buckley should move Moore back to the forward line to solve Collingwood’s forward woes, but that would be robbing Peter to pay Paul, and Moore is far too important to the Magpies’ defence for Buckley to ever consider shifting Moore from his most comfortable position.

 

BACK POCKET: CALLUM MILLS (SYDNEY)

Despite playing further up the ground, Callum Mills just needed to be in this team. Taking nothing away from the other defenders in the league, but Mills’ performance against Brisbane was exemplary. Gathering 29 disposals, Mills was everywhere for the Swans, evidenced by his 10 score involvements, eight marks, three clearances and two goals.

With the likes of Josh Kennedy and Luke Parker moving closer to the end of their careers, it’s now time for players like Mills to step into their shoes. Based on this performance, it seems that the next step is just about to be taken.

 

HALF BACK FLANK: RORY LAIRD (ADELAIDE)

It was one of the masterstrokes of Matthew Nicks’ 2020 season when he made the decision to switch champion half-back, Rory Laird, into the midfield. Playing more stints in the middle of the ground against the Cats, Laird was again among his team’s best players. Amassing 27 disposals, Laird was the midfielder the Crows have been crying out for.

Six tackles, four inside 50s, seven marks and eight score involvements highlighted Laird’s all-round excellent performance. The only blemish on the day was his two missed shots at goal. But given the Crows scored over 100 points, this wasn’t a big issue.

 

CENTRE HALF BACK: ALIIR ALIIR (PORT ADELAIDE)

David Noble does know who Aliir Aliir is, right? He knows he was playing on Sunday, doesn’t he? It seemed like every time the Kangaroos ventured forward, they failed to account for the former Swan, as time and time again the hole was plugged and the forward entry cut off.

Aliir gathered 14 disposals and six defensive rebounds, and has shown is just one week that he is exactly what Port Adelaide missed last season, and along with fellow recruit Orazio Fantasia, could be the final piece of Ken Hinkley’s premiership puzzle.

 

HALF BACK FLANK: JACK BOWES (GOLD COAST)

This was possibly the easiest entry in the backline. Playing off half-back, Jack Bowes had himself a career-defining game. Bowes registered 30 disposals, and every single one of them hit the target. 30 disposals, 30 effective disposals. To blow your minds even further, 28 of Bowes disposals were kicks. That statistic is simply unheard of.

Taking 14 marks to go with his possessions, Bowes was everywhere when the Suns needed a rebound out of defensive 50, and he gave Adam Simpson plenty of headaches throughout the evening.

 

WING: BAILEY SMITH (WESTERN BULLDOGS)

Is Bailey Smith the Bulldogs’ best midfielder? After this display against the Magpies, the argument against is becoming harder and harder to justify. Gathering 36 possessions, Smith darted around the ground over and over again, and Nathan Buckley simply had no answers.

Smith was also directly involved in seven of the Bulldogs scores, and he also nailed two goals, something that is vital to a Bulldog side that has its struggles forward of centre. Smith also had 526 metres gained, with a kicking efficiency of 76%.

 

CENTRE: TRAVIS BOAK (PORT ADELAIDE)

Like new teammate, Aliir Aliir, was David Noble aware that Travis Boak was playing? Watching on, I got the impression that both Boak and Aliir must’ve spent Sunday morning at the local dump, and their odour kept anyone from going near them.

By half time, Boak had gathered 21 possessions, seven score involvements, four inside 50’s and a goal. Kicking another goal four minutes into the second half, Boak was quieter after this passage of play, as he felt a knee to the hamstring and spent the bulk of the rest of the game tucked away in Port’s forward line.

 

WING: ANDREW MCGRATH (ESSENDON)

Essendon supporters, this is now clearly the next captain of your football club. When the Bombers were charging away in the second quarter, McGrath was at the forefront. Totalling a team high 33 disposals, 13 of which were contested, McGrath was also a tackling machine, with 11 tackles for the night.

There was nothing that McGrath didn’t do on Saturday night, as he also had five clearances, seven inside 50s, four defensive rebounds, and eight score involvements. McGrath is still just 22 years old, and is yet to reach 100 games, but he displays a maturity and composure well beyond his years.

 

HALF FORWARD FLANK: DUSTIN MARTIN (RICHMOND)

New year, same old Dusty. Actually, you might just consider this version of Dusty “new and improved”, as this performance against the Blues was peak finals Dusty. Dale Thomas said on Fox Footy’s First Crack that Dusty will win the Coleman Medal with this form, and the idea has merit.

Martin registered 12 score involvements, eight inside 50’s, four goals assists, all to go with two goals. Martin also gathered 31 disposals in a best on ground display, and is setting himself for yet another dominant season.

 

CENTRE HALF FORWARD: TAYLOR WALKER (ADELAIDE)

Well, that was certainly unexpected. Not just Adelaide’s win over grand finalist Geelong, but also the stunning return to form from spearhead Tex Walker. Finally benefitting from ideal forward entries, Walker returned to his old dominant self, kicking five goals to be the unlikeliest of Coleman Medal leaders.

Walker also was involved in 12 scoring opportunities, a league-high, and his 18 disposals were the most of all key forwards on the ground.

 

HALF FORWARD FLANK: ORAZIO FANTASIA (PORT ADELAIDE)

We highlighted Orazio Fantasia in our “Who Needs a Big Year” article, as from his seven years in the system, Fantasia had always displayed pockets of potential to break the game wide open, but could never quite string together consistent performances worthy of his talent.

On Sunday, in his first match in new colours, Fantasia showed the AFL world that he could be the difference between Port Adelaide lifting their second premiership trophy. Kicking 4 goals from eight shots, Fantasia provides the Power with another target forward of the ball, and could go down as one of the recruits of 2021.

 

FORWARD POCKET: ERROL GULDEN (SYDNEY)

We got a glimpse of the future on Saturday night, as Sydney’s three prized draftees all made their debuts together against Preliminary finalist Brisbane. And what debuts they were! The best of the bunch was small forward Errol Gulden, who put together a majestic display well beyond his years. Gathering 19 disposals (including 17 kicks, and at 84% efficiency), 10 marks, seven inside 50’s and nine score involvements.

Gulden also bobbed up with an equal team high three goals, equal with Isaac Heeney and fellow debutant Logan McDonald. Gulden was awarded the Round 1 Rising Star nomination.

 

FULL FORWARD: OSCAR ALLEN (WEST COAST)

We also saw the future in Western Australia on Sunday evening, as the Eagles saw what life without Josh Kennedy and Jack Darling might look like. Based on the performance of young key forward Oscar Allen, West Coast’s forward line seems to be in safe hands.

Kicking four goals, Allen also tallied seven score involvements, nine marks, and four marks inside 50. Allen has been nurtured by the Eagles, and looks to be the year that Allen is unleashed as West Coast’s number one man forward of the ball.

 

FORWARD POCKET: TOM MCDONALD (MELBOURNE)

On Saturday afternoon, Melbourne’s forward line was missing prized recruit Ben Brown, and young gun Sam Weideman. All was left to Tom McDonald, a man whose career is arguably at the crossroads. With all the responsibility on his shoulders, McDonald turned back the clock and reminded us all of his 2018 best.

Looking slimmer after a big pre-season, McDonald was a commanding presence inside the Demons’ forward 50, and his two goals were far more vital than would otherwise suggest. McDonald also spent time in the ruck, and was a valuable assistant to Max Gawn.

 

RUCKMAN: SCOTT LYCETT (PORT ADELAIDE)

The new man on the mark rule has clearly had an effect on the game’s big men, as from my perspective, no ruckman had the dominant “Max Gawn/Brodie Grundy” type performance this week. Tom Hickey and Matt Flynn were effective for their new teams, and Ben McEvoy showed terrific leadership to pull his team across the line, but the best performance from a ruckman was from the team that had the most destructive performance, Power ruckman Lycett.

Registering 28 hitouts to go with 13 disposals, Lycett also hit five bone-crunching tackles and dropped into the defensive hole to take a saving mark when necessary.

 

RUCK ROVER: CLAYTON OLIVER (MELBOURNE)

35 disposals, 80% efficiency. 15 contested possessions. Nine score involvements, six marks, seven clearances. Make no mistake, the Demons might just have lost to the Dockers had Clayton Oliver not been deep in the guts all day long. The clear possession leader on the ground, and 11 more than his next best teammate, Oliver, playing in his 100th game, was a beast for a team that has often been seen as a bruise-free outfit.

Too much has been left to Oliver for too long, and if Melbourne are going to be a serious team going forward, the other midfielders at the Demons need a step back up in a big way.

 

ROVER: TOM MITCHELL (HAWTHORN)

Tom Mitchell must have renewed his sponsorship with Sherrin this season, as it was evident from the Hawks win over Essendon on Saturday night that Mitchell brought his own football. It was a typical 15 disposal first half from Mitchell as Hawthorn gave the Bombers a 39 point head start, but it was the second half, and particularly the third quarter that Mitchell reminded us all of his Brownlow Medal winning brilliance.

Gathering 17 possessions in the third quarter alone, Mitchell led from the front in dragging the Hawks back into the contest. His clearance work was outstanding, and quite simply, Hawthorn would not have gotten over the line without Mitchell in the trenches.

 

INTERCHANGE:

 

SAM WALSH (CARLTON)

Patrick Cripps was his usual commanding self in the opening game of the season. But finally, for everyone at Princes Park’s sake, he wasn’t the best on ground for the Blues. That honour fell to fellow midfield wunderkind, Sam Walsh.

This was the performance we’ve all been craving, and with Walsh commanding the midfield, everything was going well for Carlton. Gathering 31 disposals, 13 of which were contested, Walsh went at 87% efficiency, and took control of the game when the Blues needed it. Unfortunately, the more experienced Tigers got their team over the line, but Walsh is still on the rise, and is just getting his career started.

 

TIM MEMBREY (ST. KILDA)

It’s fair to say St Kilda’s big man stocks have been more than depleted. Missing both first choice ruckmen, as well as their young gun key forward, the Saints needed someone to stand up and take control. That man was Tim Membrey. In a wet weather slog, Membrey was one of his team’s best in a commanding forward display. Kicking three goals was just the start.

Membrey also ventured up the ground, gathering 20 disposals, seven marks and seven inside 50s. When Max King returns to the forward line, hopefully less pressure on Membrey will see the former Swan thrive even more this season.

 

TIM KELLY (WEST COAST)

It is blindingly obvious that Tim Kelly has had a massive pre-season. Perhaps Kelly was ever so slightly too heavy in 2020, and this year, just from one showing, Kelly seems back to his 2019 best. Every time the Eagles went forward, it was Kelly leading the charge. Registering 28 disposals, Kelly also took seven marks, nine inside 50’s, five clearances, and a monstrous 13 score involvements.

This is the performance that the Eagles have been asking for since he was recruited, and hopefully, 2021 can be the resurgence that Kelly has been waiting for since heading home.

 

JAIDYN STEPHENSON (NORTH MELBOURNE)

Now that’s how you show your former team what they’re missing! Since essentially being dumped by Collingwood, Jaidyn Stephenson has found a new lease on life at Arden Street. Playing in the midfield and using his supreme aerobic capacity, Stephenson was his team’s best player in the loss to Port Adelaide.

Gathering a game high 33 disposals, Stephenson played like a man possessed with proving himself to a football club that discarded him. Stephenson also took five marks and registered seven score involvements.

 

For those of you with lives too busy to read all of those words, the simplified version of our Round 1 team looks like this:

B: Butts, Moore, Mills

HB: Laird, Aliir, Bowes

C: Smith, Boak, McGrath

HF: Martin, Walker, Fantasia

F: Gulden, Allen, McDonald

R: Lycett, Oliver, Mitchell

INT: Walsh, Membrey, Kelly, Stephenson

 

That’s all for this week. Nine games are coming up fast, and for those who could consider themselves unlucky not to feature in the first instalment of our team, and there are far too many to list right now, have so many more chances to put together the stellar form that our team commands. This season is going to be so much fun.