Well, it’s been a little while now since the Magpies hoisted the 2023 Premiership Cup – long enough for us all to put a bit of distance between the result and the season, itself.
Irrespective of the result, this year was a belter, with a dozen sides looking like finalists with a few weeks remaining, and plenty of stars either confirming their status as the game’s best, or forcing their way into the conversation for the first time.
Let’s launch into The Mongrel’s Loves of Season 2023
THE WINGMAN RENAISSANCE
Two wingmen making the All-Australian team… when was the last time that happened? Just let me jump into the time machine here for a moment… punch in the coordinates…
You could argue it was 2018, when Andrew Gaff and Steele Sidebottom made the team, but Sidebottom wasn’t playing wing at that stage – he was in the middle more often than not. I reckon it might be 1993, with Greg Anderson and Peter Matera, but even then I wonder whether Anderson was spending time in the guts.
Most of you know that I have been a big fan of the wingmen getting recognised for the position they actually play, as opposed to the AA selectors throwing another midfielder into the role just so he makes the team. The form of Errol Gulden and Josh Daicos in 2023 simply demanded the selectors pay attention, and when their names were read out, I was rapt for both guys.
Of course, Daicos spent more time on the wing than Gulden over the course of the year, but at least we saw two blokes that played the role actually get selected there.
In addition to that, both Gulden and Daicos taking out their respective Best and Fairest Awards… music to my ears.
TEX WALKER SHINING IN HIS TWILIGHT YEARS
I was so hoping that Tex Walker would do enough to win the Coleman Medal this season. Not that I was barracking against Charlie Curnow, but I was definitely barracking against Charlie Curnow. I’m sure you know what I mean.
In the end, the Carlton full-forward snagged his second consecutive Coleman Medal, with Tex trailing him, kicking a career-high 76 goals. Curnow ended the home and away season with 78 goals (he kicked three more in finals) but at 33 years of age, seeing Walker do what he did was extremely gratifying.
Let’s face it – Tex had experienced a pretty ordinary couple of years over 2020-21. Though his form improved in 2021, the off-field racism issue tarnished his accomplishments. Since then, he has knuckled down and become an even better player for the Crows and has aided them in re-establishing themselves as a finals threat.
He looked cooked in 2020, but with 171 goals over the past three seasons, the reversal of form from Tex has been something special, and as a neutral fan watching him, seeing him attack the footy and bomb a long goal was one of the highlights of 2023.
THE SAINTS KIDS STANDING UP
Remember in the pre-season where Nathan Buckley just savaged the Saints and said they were a bottom-four team?
Pepperidge Farm remembers.
And so do I.
I’m not sure whether Bucks ever touched on his prediction again, but I am sure there was a bit of F-U from the St Kilda list after Bucks made his call and the club sustained a rash of injuries. I can remember going into Round One and looking at the St Kilda forward setup. It wasn’t exactly full of high-profile, established names.
Zaine Cordy was the biggest body out there, having moved over from the Western Bulldogs to help the Saints bolster their defence. But with Max King, Jack Hayes, and Tim Membrey all injured, he was surrounded by young pups.
Mattaes Phillipou was the one to watch, as far as I was concerned, and that remains the case now. He has the makings of a star of the game, and though he was thrust into unfamiliar roles later in the season, the way he attacked the ball in flight early in his career put him on the radar as one to watch.
Mitch Owens, having already served his apprenticeship in 2022, was a highlight for St Kilda, and with eight goals from his first four games, showed a maturity way beyond his 19 years.
And then there was Anthony Caminiti. Lucky to be on the list at all, he was asked to do the big job of flying for everything to force a contest. Not only did he do that, but he managed to hit the scoreboard as well.
The Saints moved to 4-0, surprising most pundits and shocking the frigging hell out of Nathan Buckley.
Eventually, the cavalry arrived and suddenly left again at various points, with Cooper Sharman also finding his way into the St Kilda side as a forward.
It was a great first season back in charge at Moorabbin, but it must be remembered that this was supposed to be the year Ross came in, assessed his list, and prepared to make changes. That the kids stood up so brilliantly early would have been a little bonus for him so early in the piece. He may have come in wondering what he had to work with over the next few years. With Phillipou, Owens, Caminiti, and Sharman all shining in moments, he would be well aware that he has heaps at his disposal.
And maybe it has allowed him to tinker with his timeline just a little.
TOBY GREENE FINALLY GETTING HIS DUE AND THE GIANTS’ FAST REBUILD
After crashing to 16th place in 2022, the new coach, Adam Kingsley, was determined to re-embrace the run-and-gun style of play, known as the ‘Orange Tsunami’ made famous by the Giants a few years ago.
With talent to burn, this team was always going to be one that turned things around quickly, but going from third-last to being a kick out of the Grand Final… I am not sure people saw this coming.
The Giants got huge contributions from Stephen Coniglio, Jesse Hogan, and young superstar, Tom Green. However, the main difference came in the form f their leadership. With Toby Greene as captain, the Giants did what many speculated they might, and made the heart and soul of the team the official leader. And if anyone doubted the move (and some did – vocally) they’re probably taking the safe option now of keeping their big, fat mouths shut!
In fairness, it was mainly pearl-clutchers on reddit saying the move was a poor one, citing any range of things that offended them about Greene, but those who don’t live at home with their mums saw what Adam Kingsley saw – Toby Greene lives and breathes both footy and the GWS Giants. Not only was he a good choice to captain the club, he was the only real choice if you were talking about genuine leadership.
Greene returned a career-best season in front of goals, notching 66 for the season. He stood up in big moments and kicked vital goals to either keep his team in games, or put the contest to bed.
All of a sudden, people were praising Greene’s leadership and the way his style of leadership was impacting the group. Many were the same people who were likely calling for him to be suspended/castrated/executed a couple of years ago.
But it doesn’t matter now – the larger football world has now had their eyes opened to one of the most talented footballers on the planet and I couldn’t be happier for him. He still gets stuck in and will fly the flag for his team – most good leaders will, but now when Greene does it, he is accepted for it and even lauded.
What a difference. Glad you all caught up.
THE OAK TREE IN THE ACORN
Nobody was more reviled in AFL circles this time last year than Jason Horne-Francis. With a whole heap of bad press and a trade request away from the club that took him with the number one pick, you could have counted the number of JHF fans outside Port Adelaide on one hand.
I’m not sure that’s still the case, with the young star winning plenty of support amongst long-term football lovers with his crash-and-bash style. There is still a fair way to go – Horne-Francis gave away the most free kicks in the league this season, a good percentage of them for being caught with the footy whilst trying to crash through tackles, but the fact that he takes the game on and refuses to accept that someone is going to bring him down has made him one of the most watchable stoppage players in the game.
This is a bloke who is not going to get worse. He has a drive about him; something that almost makes you want to barrack from him to break that tackle and take on another one. Hey, I said “almost” – I do hear the boos that come his way.
Anyway, Horne-Francis is about two years away from being a complete monster in this league. He is smashing through first tackles at age 20. By the time he turns 22 and had a couple more years of strength training behind him, he is going to be making a lot of would-be tacklers wish they had decided to corral him instead.
Boo all you like – this kid is the real deal.
Something I have always subscribed to is that the difference between being a good AFL player and a delisted player who never made is an opportunity.
Let’s face it – at this level, every bloke out there can play. Many of you will have witnessed what happens when an AFL player goes back to play at local level, right?
It’s carnage – they are just so much better than everyone else out there that they make them look like witches’ hats.
So, when a star, or a valued player goes down injured and the footy world goes into meltdown, I always look at the next cab off the rank to see how the team is equipped to cover the loss. Thing is, most teams have players just begging for a chance.
This season saw Jack Payne step up in a big way when Marcus Adams was forced to sit the season out due to lingering concussion issues. Many people were saying it was the undoing of the Lions, but Payne had a fantastic season working with our Defensive Player of the Year, and Brisbane Best and Fairest, Harris Andrews.
Similarly, when Sam Taylor was hurt at GWS, it was Jack Buckley stepping up to take on more responsibility, and he was able to do that with remarkable ease. Not that it was easy… that’s not what I mean. I mean that he was good and ready for the responsibility when it came. He just needed the opportunity.
Others who really shined when their number was called were Mitch Hinge at Adelaide, Kieren Briggs at GWS, Mason Wood at St Kilda (who continues to build on a career that looked all but over after he left Arden Street, and Conor McKenna, after he strolled back to Australia after a lay off back in Ireland for a while.
It was great to see these guys take control of their own destiny when the opportunity arose.
I’ve got another handful of loves before I get onto the hates. If you have any loves of your own, by all means, chime in and let me know – might jog a memory, or two.
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