Leadership in the AFL – has it ever been more important?
In an age where it’s never been easier for players to step outside the lines of what is acceptable and what is not, strong role models at clubs are imperative to team success.
But who is the next Trent Cotchin, Joel Selwood, or even Matt Gawn? Who is next to step into the role at your club?
The Mongrel takes a look at the likely candidates at each team and the time frames for them to assume the reins.
CURRENT – RORY SLOANE
LIKELY CANDIDATE – TOM DOEDEE
It’s not often there is a clear heir apparent at a club, especially at such a young age, but Tom Doedee is just such a player for the Crows.
He started as the fill in for the departed Jake Lever before injuring his ACL, only to return and give Adelaide some welcome relief across half back. With 100% commitment to the Crows’ cause, Doedee is one of the most obvious choices to slot into the leadership role at Adelaide after the 31 year old Rory Sloane passes the torch.
TIMEFRAME – Following 2022 season
CURRENT – DAYNE ZORKO
LIKELY CANDIDATE – HARRIS ANDREWS
I’ll admit – I was doing some research for another article I was writing a while back, and penning the words “the 32 year old Zorko” made me go back and check my numbers. Where does the time go?
Anyway, what this does is it puts the captaincy of this Brisbane team on the agenda, possibly even after the 2022 season. Don’t get me wrong – I think Zorko has plenty left to give ,and coming off another Best and Fairest season, you’d be crazy to think he was going to suffer a sharp dip in form, but as he enters the twilight of his career, a successor should be found.
And if we’re looking for a man to follow, the commitment to the cause of their dual All-Australian full back cannot be discounted.
Harris Andrews is the key to the Brisbane defence and the best spoiler in the league over the last few years. You’d think Zorko has maybe one more season as the leader of the Lions before handing it over, at the most.
The other contender for this title would have been Lachie Neale, who at 28 has a number of good years in him, and was one of the instrumental factors in the turnaround of the Lions over the past couple of seasons. However, his recent to-ing and fro-ing on a move to WA kind of rules him out.
TIMEFRAME – Following 2022 season.
CURRENT – PATRICK CRIPPS/SAM DOCHERTY
LIKELY CANDIDATE – JACOB WEITERING
If I were Carlton, I’d make the move right now. Whack – done!
Sam Docherty has a huge fight on his hands and will probably be concentrating on some more important things than what’s happening at Ikon Park over the next little while. As someone who has had cancer impact their family, I wish him all the absolute best.
What I’ve seen from Patrick Cripps over the past couple of years has not screamed “leadership”. It’s screamed plenty of other things, but I am trying to keep this PG-Rated.
I like what Weitering offers – strength in the contest, no finger-pointing, accountability and a definite lead-by-example nature that reminds me of some of the excellent defenders that have slotted in to leadership roles – Maxwell, Harley, etc…
Being the best player does not necessarily mean you’re the best leader, and whilst Cripps has been a great player, and Sam Walsh is on the fast track to being one as well, Weitering’s style and reliability make him a great choice.
TIMEFRAME – NOW
CURRENT – SCOTT PENDLEBURY
LIKELY CANDIDATE – JORDAN DE GOEY… just kidding, it’s TAYLOR ADAMS
Pendles has been amazing for the Pies. Still playing good footy, he looks as though he could go on forever.
But he can’t, and at 34, the time for Pendlebury to step aside draws near. At one point I thought Steele Sidebottom would make a nice successor, but that ship seems to have well and truly sailed. Now, Taylor Adams looks most likely.
At 28, Adams has the maturity to step into the role and follow the man who could be known as the Pies greatest captain ever when all is said and done. Adams brings a manic work ethic and relentless pursuit of the footy to the role, but he would have massive shoes to fill.
Jeremy Howe has also expressed some interest, and I reckon Darcy Moore would be considered as well.
TIMEFRAME – NOW
CURRENT – DYSON HEPPELL
LIKELY CANDIDATE – ANDREW MCGRATH/JORDAN RIDLEY/ZACH MERRETT
After six years as Essendon captain, leading the club through a very trying time, Heppell is now slotting into a role at half back and looking like a seasoned veteran – it seems like yesterday that he trotted out there with his hair flying all over the place as a fresh-faced rookie.
Heppell has been great for the Bombers and has given them stability when they needed it. The more I look at where the team is headed (and I do think their trajectory is heading upwards), the more I think it will be a new face that leads them there.
But who would be ready to assume leadership of the Bombers and lead them out of this period if Heppell decides he’s had enough?
Lead candidate would be Andy McGrath. The former number one overall pick is 23 and has started to make real strides in terms of what he offers the Bombers on-field. Is he a little too young? Even if Heppell steps down at the end of the 2022 season, a 24 year old in the role would be a big ask. Having said that, it would be an appointment that would give the Bombers a leader for six or so years.
If placing that burden on McGrath seems a little too much, then it is an even bigger ask to throw Jordan Ridley’s name out there. However, what he has displayed across half back for the Dons absolutely defines leadership. He has become one of the best interceptors in the game and is fast becoming a defensive general.
The other that could realistically step into the role would be Zach Merrett, who is now 26 and… look, that’s about it in the short term. He is playing brilliant footy and has recommitted to the club.
So, either Heppell hangs on for another year until McGrath is ready, or Merrett steps in and hands over eventually to Ridley. How do you see it, Bomber fans?
TIMEFRAME – Following 2022/23 season
CURRENT – NAT FYFE
LIKELY CANDIDATE – ANDREW BRAYSHAW/CALEB SERONG
With Brayshaw’s re-committing to Fremantle last season, the Dockers secured not just a fantastic young talent for a while longer, but were able to lock away the player they viewed as a future leader of the club. The Dockers had three players they were desperate to secure for the long term. They ended up landing two of them, with Brayshaw and Caleb Serong shaping up as the one-two punch in the Freo midfield for the next however-long. Adam Cerra, however, played the role of my mate Joe Ganino, ruining a potentially great threesome.
Freo have one of the best players of his generation at the helm currently, but at 30, you’d think at some stage in the next two seasons, Nat Fyfe may hand over the captaincy to one of the budding stars of the team.
Brayshaw has been excellent for Freo, developing his game and enhancing his role in the team with every season. With 76 games under his belt already, Freo have done a great job nurturing him and he could reward them by becoming one of the better leaders in the game.
Let’s say that Fyfe captains one more seasons. That’ll make Brayshaw 23 at the commencement of the 2023 season. Maybe, if he does not seem ready, a then 28 year old Luke Ryan could step into the role for a couple of seasons?
TIMEFRAME – 2022-24
CURRENT – JOEL SELWOOD
LIKELY CANDIDATE – CAM GUTHRIE/JED BEWS/TOM STEWART
There is no clear standout amongst the Cats’ mid-age players, which could lead to someone in their late twenties taking on the role for a couple of seasons while some of the young blokes develop their leadership skills.
I’ve highlighted Guthrie, Stewart and Bews here – all are hard working talents that put team before their own personal glory, but it could also be a left-field choice taking the reins once Selwood gallops off into retirement – I’d keep Joel in the role til he hangs up the boots, personally. He has been an absolute warrior and implores his teammates onto bigger and better efforts.
The other who could surprise is Mark O’Connor, who has been talked up by those from the Cattery over the last 12 months, and started the 2021 season in excellent form before injury claimed him. He was added to the Cats’ leadership group for last season, so that is always a good sign.
Gun to my head right now and forced to choose someone over Selwood, I’d go with Tom Stewart. Late bloomer who bleeds for the club and takes every act in every game seriously.
TIMEFRAME – End of 2022 season.
CURRENT – JARROD WITTS/DAVID SWALLOW
LIKELY CANDIDATE – TOUK MILLER
Witts and Swallow were the right choices at the time for the Suns, but there was a definite push for Touk Miller to assume the role of captaincy at the Suns at a time when they were struggling for leadership. Steven May and Tom Lynch had both wandered out of the club, leaving a void of established stars to lead the team. Miller was quite “vocal” about their departures, Lynch in particular.
Luckily, Witts and Swallow were ready for the responsibility. Both are 29 years old, so you’d think they have two years left in the role, either together or one as a standalone version. That will make Miller around 27 years old when the role becomes available.
Although I expect a push for Matt Rowell to be anointed as the next leader at some point, a few of years of Miller at the helm would be a fantastic reward for such a hard-working Gold Coast star.
If I were in charge of the Suns, it’d be Miller’s team sooner rather than later. He is ready right now.
TIMEFRAME – Following 2022 season
CURRENT – STEPHEN CONIGLIO
LIKELY CANDIDATE – TIM TARANTO/TOBY GREENE
This is possibly the most interesting of the scenarios here.
Stephen Coniglio, much like C3PO and R2D2, was not the captain the Giants were looking for. Yes, they wanted him to re-sign, and I am sure the captaincy made a tasty piece of bait, but Toby Greene was the spiritual leader of the group, and never has that been more apparent than in Coniglio’s 2021 absence.
However, we have the unfortunate circumstance of having Greene on the sidelines for the first five weeks of the season due to an AFL appeal on his initial three-week ban for making contact with umpire, Matt Stevic. Is his latest indiscretion enough to have the Giants move away from him as a leadership option?
Do they leave Coniglio floundering in the role for another season? He looks like a shell of the player he was a couple of seasons back, and strikes me as someone who couldn’t lead a politician to a cushy post-career board of directors role at a company he/she gave preferential treatment to whilst in power.
Like the politicians need someone to lead them into those roles, right?
The other option is a safer one – their 2019 Best and Fairest, and young star, Tim Taranto. Already an excellent player, is he the solution to the conundrum the club faces with one of their leaders too hot-headed to be an official leader, and their official leader unable to… you know, actually lead?
If I am Leon Cameron, I bite the bullet on Toby Greene. He is the man the rest of the players follow. He bleeds orange and charcoal. Give him the chance, and if he cocks up, then you make the move to salvage things.
TIMEFRAME – NOW/END OF 2022
CURRENT – BEN MCEVOY
LIKELY CANDIDATE – JAMES WORPEL/JAMES SICILY
Slim pickings at the Hawks, unfortunately.
The appointment of McEvoy surprised some, but also cast a bit of doubt on the mid-twenties players at Hawthorn and their willingness, or capacity to take on a leaderships role. That’s why I am looking a little further down the list at 23-year-old Worpel.
Already a Peter Crimmins Medallist, Worpel’s commitment to the cause and his head down/bum up workmanlike style is the hard edge that the Hawks need in the middle in the long term. He is a 200-250 game player in the making and if he can recapture his 2019 form, he automatically makes the Hawks a more dangerous team.
McEvoy is 32 so you cannot see him holding down the captaincy for longer than a couple of seasons. By then, you’d hope Worpel is ready to assume the role.
Some might argue Mitchell or O’Meara should get a run as the captain, but I’d argue that they would not be more ready than they were at the end of the 2020 season, and the club went in a different direction with them available as options. Why would they change their mind?
The other option is… *gulp*… James Sicily.
If he had not had a knee reconstruction late in 2020, he may be poised to take over right now, but at 26, he will take a year to find the form that made him one of the best interceptors in the game, and then he may be ready for the responsibility.
That said, the Hawks will be taking a risk slightly akin to GWS with Toby Greene by giving such a temperamental player the largest responsibility on the field.
TIMEFRAME – Following 2022 season
CURRENT – MAX GAWN
LIKELY CANDIDATE – CLAYTON OLIVER
Clayton Oliver is born to lead this Demons team. Still just 24, by the time Gawn is ready to relinquish the captaincy, Oliver will be 26 or so and cherry ripe to take over.
His style of play – cracking in and competing for the hard ball – is the type of game that exudes leadership qualities, much the same as Josh Kennedy at Sydney – leading through actions.
Oliver is one of just three men to ever crack 400 contested touches in a season (he’s now done it twice). He is in great company, with Patrick Dangerfield (twice) and Josh Kennedy (three times) the only other men to accomplish this. Clarrie had that one tucked away at age 21. A few years ago I mentioned he’ll go down as an all-time Melbourne great and people cracked in. I’m a patient man… I still think I’m right on that one.
TIMEFRAME – Following 2023/24 season
CURRENT – JACK ZIEBELL
LIKELY CANDIDATE – JY SIMPKIN/LUKE DAVIES-UNIACKE/LUKE MCDONALD
Some may prefer Luke Davies-Uniacke in the role and that could be an option, but at 22, LDU is a year behind Simpkin and that may provide the difference. Simpkin recently re-signing with the Roos also bodes really well in terms of his commitment to the club.
Simpkin is a hard at it, in-and-under mid who can hurt teams. His pairing with LDU over the next 6-7 years will be vital to the rise of the Kangaroos (and if they pick up Jason Horne-Francis, watch out!).
At 30, Jack Ziebell has been a great captain for the Roos over the journey. Underrated in terms of his leadership, he has been a rock for this team, and his 2021 season was excellent. I have to admit, I thought he was well into his thirties a couple of seasons back, but the move to half back seemed to breathe new life into him in 2021. For a while there, he was looking like an AA-worthy rebounding defender.
Another possibility is Luke McDonald. Though he is coming off an injury-plagued 2021 season, his ability to switch from negating mid to rebounding defender is something that will give the Roos a huge boost in 2022. Turning 27 before the commencement of the new season, a leadership position for him might make a great little bridge between Ziebell and the emerging leaders at the club.
For me, Simpkin is the man for the job. Still a little younger than I’d like for the number one role, but another year teaming with Ben Cunnington in the guts will only benefit him. One more year for Ziebell, and then he can pass the torch.
TIMEFRAME – END OF 2022
CURRENT – TOM JONAS
LIKELY CANDIDATE – OLLIE WINES
Will the Power go back to the well with Ollie Wines?
After a period where his tenure at the club seemed to be tenuous, Wines recommitted to Port and went about winning back the respect of the group, club and the supporters.
The Ollie Wines that now runs out for Port Adelaide each and every week is the exact version Ken Hinkley was hoping for when the club broke with tradition and appointed both Wines and Jonas as co-captains a few years back. Maybe Wines was not ready for the responsibility at that stage, or maybe there was a perfect storm of injuries, poor decisions and poor form that caused him to fall out of favour, but the 2021 version of Wines was everything you’d want – not just in an emerging leader, but as a superstar of the competition.
Tom Jonas turns 31 in January, so you’d expect his tenure to last another year before he hands over his role. Wines is currently 27, and is now perfectly situated to step in as the standalone leader – it’s the Port Adelaide way.
Looking further down the track, some close to the club have talked up the maturity of Xavier Duursma. The 21 year old archer might have a bit more maturing to do before he can be considered, but Dan Houston, at 24, is one that will be looked at as a future leader of the club, and Willem Drew could be a smokey if he continues his rise up the ranks in the Port midfield..
TIMEFRAME – Following 2022/23 season
CURRENT – VACANT
LIKELY CANDIDATE – NICK VLASTUIN/JACK GRAHAM/DYLAN GRIMES
What do you get from Jack Graham that five or six others do not provide at Tigerland?
It’s difficult to choose an heir apparent to Cotchin, as he is a heart and soul player in essence, but Graham provides much of those characteristics as well. One only has to hark back to his gallant efforts, playing with a dislocated shoulder in the 2019 Preliminary Final against the Cats. It was an injury that would have sidelined many, but there was Graham, throwing himself into contest after contest despite immense pain.
That is leadership, and even if it doesn’t translate to the stats sheet, it is the kind of act that inspires those around him. Captain Jack… has a nice ring to it.
The other choice, and this could be a great choice for a couple of seasons, is Nick Vlastuin. Courageous, inspirational and very reliable, his work across half back has been integral to the Tigers’ years of dominance. At 27, he has years left and could make a great bridge until Graham has another year or two under his belt.
Finally, perhaps the Tigers look to reward one of their unsung heroes with a couple of years at the helm? Dylan Grimes has been a great club servant and is another lead-by-example player that inspires the troops. Would they invest a year or two in Grimes instead, as Graham further develops?
TIMEFRAME – NOW
CURRENT – JACK STEELE
LIKELY CANDIDATE – PROBABLY DOES NOT PLAY FOR THE CLUB YET
Jack Steele is 25 years old – he turns 26 in December and the Saints would be hoping like hell that he remains healthy and committed to this team, because right now, looking at their list top to bottom, he is the best candidate for the role of captain by the length of the Flemington straight.
Looking at the Saints list top to bottom, I see Cal Wilkie, Dougal Howard and Rowan Marshall as potential leaders… maybe throw in Nick Coffield and Hunter Clarke, as well, but there is no standout as the next in line.
If I am choosing right now, I would probably go with Dougal Howard, despite his relatively short tenure with the club. He is the key to their defence and genuinely takes on the responsibility as a key position player. He looks as though he gives a damn out there in every contest – I do like that. In saying that… I would not be overly confident in my choice, despite being a bit of a Howard fan.
Stay healthy, Jack.
TIMEFRAME – ???
CURRENT – JOSH KENNEDY/LUKE PARKER/DANE RAMPE
LIKELY CANDIDATE – LUKE PARKER/ISAAC HEENEY/CALLUM MILLS
The Swans are an interesting case, with John Longmire happy to share the love amongst multiple partners… oops, I mean “leaders”. I really don’t know what he gets up to in his own time.
With leaders emerging and others in the twilight of their careers, it appears as though the Swans model of leadership could extend to a new group, with Luke Parker remaining the consistent presence across the two groups.
It would be fair to say that Josh Kennedy is in the last year or two of his career, whilst Dane Rampe will be turning 32 mid-season. Parker is 29 and is playing ultra-consistent footy. Below him, Callum Mills has made the leap into the midfield after being nurtured in a half back position during his Sydney apprenticeship, whilst Isaac Heeney, after remaining relatively injury-free in 2021, has demonstrated the ability to inspire those around him.
The left field option is Tom Papley, who slipped into a secondary, or even a third-ondary role (yes, yes, I know…) behind Franklin and Heeney in 2021. Viewed by some in 2020 as a selfish player, his teamwork in 2021 demonstrated some quality leadership up forward. He might be a chance.
TIMEFRAME – End of 2022 season
CURRENT – LUKE SHUEY
LIKELY CANDIDATE – ELLIOT YEO
Injury has cruelled the captaincy of Luke Shuey, with his dodgy hamstrings restricting him to 20 games over the past two years. He really hasn’t had the chance to lead this club on a consistent basis. Now at 31 years of age, this year could very well be his last at the helm.
The heir apparent is Elliot Yeo.
Yeo is a man that exudes an air of leadership. The way he plays, running both ways and demanding accountability from his teammates could be exactly the type of onfield leader the Eagles need as they look to re-establish themselves in 2022.
Yeo seemed visibly upset with some of the efforts of his teammates in the latter stages of 2021 and had no issue calling them out on it. That is the sort of bloke I want leading the team – he takes no shit, and gives the most shits of everyone out there. At 28, his time is now.
TIMEFRAME – End of 2022 season
CURRENT – MARCUS BONTEMPELLI
LIKELY CANDIDATE – BAILEY SMITH
The Bont has taken on the responsibility with the Dogs – it is well and truly his team in every way, but Smith is emerging as an on-field leader who does not take a backward step.
Bontempelli is the player that will lead these Dogs for as long as he sees fit. He is probably the best leader in the competition in terms of taking a game over and putting his stamp on it, but with five years between Bont and Smith, the Dogs could be set for one of the easiest transitions they’ve ever had.
Smith is driven and sets an example others will follow. At just 20, he has years to develop into the next leader of this Dogs outfit. I could definitely see Bont passing the torch to Smith as he nears 30-31 years old.
TIMEFRAME – 2025-26
And there we go. Anyone I missed? Anyone I am way off the mark with? You know where to find us on our socials, or get me in the comments below.