I’m an optimist at heart. Generally, I am a pretty happy person. Even with the world, and our country (and my state) in about a bad a spot as I can remember, I like to focus on the good things in life where I can.

It keeps you sane (ish).

At this time of the year in footy, we are all coming to terms with what our side was able, or for most of us, unable to produce in 2021. However, that does not mean we cannot look forward to 2022 with a bit of hope, right?

And that’s where I come in.

Looking at the upcoming season, there are several stories I’d love to see played out as the 23 rounds of footy tick by. Some would be great for the game or a specific team, whilst others… well, I just like the idea of them. So, with that in mind, here are the first set of things I’d love to see occur in 2022.

 

JACK HIGGINS MAKES GOOD

I’m a Jack Higgins believer.

I genuinely love watching players who love playing football, and over his first couple of years in the game, it looked like Jack Higgins was living his dream. Playing AFL footy, kicking snags, giving nonsensical interviews… it just looked as though he was having a ball.

As such, I was having a ball watching him. He was like a kid in a candy store, surrounded by everything he could ever want. And then… it almost ended for him.

His brain injury in 2020, and subsequent surgery threatened to take from him all that was important, and suddenly that cheeky, knockabout character was on the verge of being a memory in the AFL. He made his way back, but it was an uphill battle for him, and the joy simply wasn’t there.

St Kilda rolled the dice on Higgins for the 2021 season in what was always going to be a season where he stepped back into the groove that made him a special player. At the time, I remember thinking that he may take a year to find his feet in a new system, and with so much to overcome. A return of 19 games and 27 goals is way above my expectations, but I get the feeling that Higgins is only warming up at his new home. We could be about to see his best.

This is a massively overly-optimistic call, but is Jack Higgins a potential All-Australian small forward? Does he have a 50-goal season in him? With a career-high of four goals in a game (twice) it may seem far-fetched, but Higgins has all the tools to make it possible.

In 2021, Charlie Cameron finished with 55 goals for the year. The next best true small forward was Tom Papley, with 43. Jack Higgins has the ability to be in that company in 2022. An injury-free preseason and a St Kilda team playing direct footy could see Higgins become a real difference for their team. If 50 goals is a stretch, is 40 within reach? I wouldn’t mind a lazy 20 on it.

 

MATT ROWELL MAKES IT BACK

Yeah, I know he was back in 2021, but he wasn’t really BACK, was he? He was more just kind of… there.

It was obvious that Matt Rowell was struggling to find both fitness and confidence after returning from his early-season knee injury, and it soon became apparent that he was not going to find either of them that season. After such a scintillating beginning to his AFL career, his momentum was halted in 2020 and it had the brakes applied again in 2021. The poor bigger couldn’t catch a break.

He played 12 games in 2021 and managed to crack 20+ disposals just once. In contrast, Rowell topped that mark in three of his first four games in 2020.

The Suns struggled again in 2021 and I am sure they were expecting more from their second-year star. Will 2022 be the season we see him finally get a clean run at it? I hate to say it, but he and his team almost need it at this stage. The Suns once again fell in a hole this year and they desperately need someone to pull them out. For a fleeting few games in 2020, it appeared as though Rowell would be that man. As we enter year three of his career, it is edging toward the point where he has to start making people believe again.

You’d hate to see him start doubting himself.

 

CHARLIE CURNOW FINDS FORM

There were a few options to choose from for the Blues and I was tempted to go with Zac Williams turning things around. He was smashed in the press as he struggled for form and fitness (hell, even I had a few cracks at him, but I’d like to think that happened before the season given his history of not really being in the kind of shape a midfielder should be in) and was eventually relegated to defence after a midfield experiment failed.

For the record, 2022is the season that will make or break him – I am betting it will make him.

However, my focus here shifts to Charlie Curnow, who rejoined the Carlton team and managed to avoid injury over the last four games of the season. Believe me… that’s an achievement!

After a slapstick series of knee injuries where Curnow found new and interesting ways to prevent any onfield time, his return of two goals across those four games did not set the world on fire, but as always seems to be the case, it is the promise of what could be that whet the appetites of Carlton fans.

It was just a couple of years back that Charlie Curnow was the talk of the town. An emerging star at Carlton, he was drawing praise from greats of the game for the way he attacked the footy, and there was a feeling that he would play a huge part in the Blues’ revival.

In reality, his absence has likely contributed to the stagnation of the team. Is this the season that Charlie Curnow repays the faith? A tandem, of him and Harry McKay could play havoc with defences. Whilst many lauded the potential of the Hawkins/Cameron combination at Geelong, this Curnow/McKay pairing has the potential to be better.

As a duo, I mean – Cameron and Hawkins will end up with limited time together when all is said and done.

At 24 and 23 respectively, Curnow and McKay could be the spark that lights the fire for the Blues in 2022. If they manage to catch fire, themselves, Carlton will play finals.

 

ZAK BUTTERS EMERGES AS A COMPETITION SUPERSTAR

We almost saw it in 2020, with the young star emerging from the shadows of his celebrated teammates, Connor Rozee and Xavier Duursma, to capture the imagination of the Port Adelaide supporters.

Butters is a rare talent. He possesses the blend of aggression and skill that few do – think Toby Greene in a slightly more controlled form – that is what the Power possess in this combustible package. He is ready and willing to use his body as a battering ram if it means creating opportunities for his teammates, and whilst he can do the tough stuff, his hands at ground level, and decision-making are undeniably elite. He is creative and spectacular whilst being aggressive and dangerous. It is close to the complete package when you talk footy.

His 2021 was ruined by a knee/ankle/nerve injury – there is a combination you don’t want to hear. As a matter of fact, for a little while, it seemed as though more than just his season would be ruined. Some of his descriptions of the impact the injury was having made me concerned that his career may have been in danger.

However, perhaps something good can come out of a poor season?

Maybe Butters realises that you have to make the most of your time in the league? Maybe it’s the slap in the face with a cold fish that pushes him to a higher level? Maybe this is the season that Zak Butters realises that he has the potential to become the best player in this Port Adelaide side and makes it a reality?

Irrespective of how it plays out, a Zak Butters with his head in the game and his body cooperating with him is a combination that footy purists would love to see. A skilled player with a proven amount of mongrel in his game, he is one of the most enjoyable players in the league to watch.

 

TOM MITCHELL REMINDS HAWTHORN WHY THEY SHOULD NOT ENTERTAIN TRADING HIM

I genuinely cannot believe the Hawks would be looking to move a player of Mitchell’s stature. And I genuinely dislike that it is occurring.

Hawthorn have been ruthless in recent years with stars that are past their prime, but Mitchell is still in his, and after a season that saw him average a league-leading 34.3 touches per game, there is no chance the Hawks will get back anything commensurate to the value he provides. And no, I am not just talking about the value on the field, which is irrefutable, but more in terms of what he can teach the kids coming through.

When you’re rebuilding, you still need senior players to guide the young generation. Mitchell is a Brownlow Medallist and a three-time Peter Crimmins Medallist – here are the names that have won more. Leigh Matthews, Sam Mitchell, Shane Crawford, Jason Dunstall, and John Kennedy Snr. Not bad, eh? You don’t dismiss club legends, which is what Mitchell is fast becoming, to recruit a “maybe”.

The Hawthorn midfield is a weak link and as 2019 demonstrated, the hole that Tom Mitchell left in the middle was unable to be filled by the others. He is the centrepiece of the Hawthorn team, and in 2022, my hope is that the club starts paying him the respect he damn well deserves, and shuts down any yapping about a potential trade.

We hear a lot about building culture at clubs and what makes people want to come to a certain team. Answer me this – if you were out of contract, why the hell would you want to head to the Hawks when they ship club greats out the door like yesterday’s garbage as soon as they turn 26/27?

I’m hopeful Mitchell adds to an already stellar career with another blindingly good season in brown and gold, and proves that he is worth more to the Hawthorn Football Club than the potential of a hit/miss pick in the teens.

Having said that, the Hawks will probably trade him on Wednesday.

This was supposed to be a positive column… damn stupid Hawthorn, ruining it for me.

 

ELLIOT YEO PUTS THE EAGLES ON HIS BACK

I am currently working on an article centring around the players who look like they give a shit about what’s going on in games, irrespective of what the score is – Elliot Yeo is the first player I thought of.

There were times in 2021 where you could see Yeo fuming at the way his team were trotting around the field, missing assignments and figuratively dropping the ball when it came to defence. Whilst others dropped their heads or looked around for answers, Elliot Yeo went a bit further and decided to call teammates out on the field for their… well, for their laziness.

As a neutral supporter in those games, it was a very endearing quality. I love a player that genuinely gives a shit about his team’s performance, whether they’re five goals up or five goals down, and though Yeo was working back from a long term Osteitis Pubis injury, the level of concern he had, not just for the result, but for the effort being applied, clearly demonstrated that he is the heartbeat of this West Coast Eagles team.

Around a week or so ago, I wrote an article on the Eagles’ fortunes in 2022. In summary, a lot has to go right for them to have one more shot at the title, but first and foremost, the health of Elliot Yeo has to be cherry ripe heading into Round One.

He is the player that can match it with anyone at a stoppage. He tackles like a beast, wins clearances and makes his opponent accountable. I don’t believe he was anywhere near 100% fit in 2021, yet his effort made him the most important midfielder the Eagles had. A full free season, no OP issues and a good run into the season may very well be the spark that lights the West Coast flame in 2022.

Given what I wrote above, as goes Elliot Yeo in 2022, so go the West Coast Eagles.

 

CUNNINGTON RECOVERS FULLY AND TURNS IT ON

I am an unabashed Ben Cunnington fan… gut punches and all. There are few players in the league that will invite contact, allow you to get close and then dump you on your backside the way Ben Cunnington does.

He is a warrior, a blue and white battering ram, and a remorseless fending machine, but even apparent supermen have a weakness, and the footy world rallied around Ben when he spent the latter stages of the 2021 season recovering from a testicular tumour… just the words are enough to make most blokes shift, uneasily.

My hope is that he makes a full recovery, gets a solid preseason and hits 2022 with a vengeance.

Cunners missed the first two games of the season and ended up with 15 to his name for the year, but in those games he played, it was amazing to see just how much taller the young players in the Kangaroos’ outfit started walking. There are blokes who lead with words and blokes who lead with actions – Cunnington is definitely one that falls into the latter category.

I get the feeling that North are on the cusp of something, and slightly depending on what happens with the draft and offers for the number one pick, North fans should be looking forward to the 2022 season with a lot of hope. With Cunnington back in the team, that hope is buoyed.

And if he is playing at the level we saw from him in 2021 without the games missing, a well-deserved, and long overdue All-Australian nod would be a fitting reward for such a great player.

 

SEAN DARCY MAKES THE NEXT STEP

When you consider that Sean Darcy hobbled through the second half of the 2021 season and was still able to be highly effective, you kind of get a glimmer of what is possible with him.

Able to mix it with the league’s best, Darcy was a complete warrior, whose stature grew over the course of the season, to the point where his name was being floated (a little prematurely) as a potential All-Australian option. In the end, the old stagers, Max Gawn and Nic Naitanui took those spots, but Darcy wasn’t just meekly knocking at the door – he was starting to force it open.

Could 2022 be the season he barges on through?

An improved fitness base in 2021 saw Darcy double his work around the ground, going +7.69 in disposals and +2.67 in clearances. It was as though we saw a young man come to the realisation that he could hang with, and beat the best on any given day.

With an emerging midfield at his feet, the Darcy/Brayshaw/Serong combination could be a potent weapon for years to come, with Nat Fyfe slotting in and out of the centre as required as well. Oh, and Mundy would only have six or seven more years in the league, wouldn’t he?

Given what we saw in 2021, and given a lot of what we saw from Darcy was with damage to one wheel, what can the big man produce in 2022? And is his best THE best we’ll see from a big man next season?

If he manages to remain injury-free, we could be looking at the league’s new best big man as soon as next season.

 

 

The second half of this column will be released in a couple of days – please note, it will be a members-only release. If you like this type of stuff, and enjoy that we don’t have gambling ads all over the place, please consider supporting the site and becoming a member.

Oh look, here’s number two now – it has been a couple of days

 

The Optimistic Mongrel – Part Two

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