When you don’t follow one of the lower-ranked teams in the league, it is easy to forget about them and what players within their ranks are accomplishing. Given that, I made sure to keep an eye on what was occurring at both North Melbourne and West Coast throughout the season.
I was pretty glad I did.
Whilst there was plenty to bag these teams out about – and didn’t the press enjoy taking that opportunity – the shining lights on the tw bottom sides were well worth the effort to watch.
Oscar Allen had a tonne of pressure on him this year, with Josh Kennedy retiring after the 2022 season and Jack Darling looking more like a good number-two forward than a number-one at this stage of his career.
And Allen answered the call.
After a couple of seasons that saw him played all over the park, and/or struggling with injuries, Allen had the jump you look for in all rising stars, taking his goals-per-game average from 1.33 in 2022 to 2.30 in 2023. That, my friends, is a player putting his stamp on a forward line and making the statement that the attack now goes through him.
Over at North, Nick Larkey – a year older than Allen – made a monster leap of his own.
I have to be honest – I have been a little critical of Larkey in years past. I thought he was a little too passive in the contest and received a little too many of his goals via free kicks. That all changed this season, as Larkey cracked in to elevate his goal average from 1.90 in 2022 to 3.09 this season.
Both Larkey and Allen are now in the driver’s seat at their respective clubs. With both teams deep in the midst of rebuilds, they will be the focal points the teams build around. In 2023, these blokes put their hands up, did their jobs, and demonstrated that they are capable of carrying the load up forward for their clubs.
Now, the rest of their teams need to follow suit.
RETURN OF THE TAGGER
I know a lot of people dislike taggers in the game, but I love seeing a great head-to-head clash between a high-quality midfielder and a bloke whose sole aim is to nullify his influence.
For whatever reason, there have not been an abundance of taggers over the last few years – probably since Matt de Boer hung up the boots. Ryan Clarke has made his name at Sydney by applying tags on half-backs (with Nick Daicos being a victim on a couple of occasions), but as far as on-ballers go, this season it was all about Hawthorn’s Finn Maginness.
The wet blanket put the clamps on several of the league’s best. He completely obliterated GWS star, Josh Kelly, with the normally prolific mid held to just six possessions, and had Nick Daicos under his thumb, with just five touches in 73 minutes before a knee injury finished the Collingwood star’s day.
He also put the brakes on Clayton Oliver, holding the Melbourne star to 14 touches – his lowest total since his fourth game in the league.
The thing about Maginness I love best is his dedication to the role and the way he has embraced the impact a tagger can have. He has an amazing tank, will not fall away late in games unless his coach instructs him to drop the job, and never strays too far from his target. I know why some prefer wide-open and free-flowing games of footy – they’re easy on the eye, and there seems to be an unspoken understanding amongst mids that they’ll run their own race and may the best man win.
Not with Maginness. If you claim a win against him, you will have damn well earned it. He does not allow easy days at the office, and I love that about him.
CHARLIE GETTING THE NOD
Coming into this season, I had to shake my head at the fact that Charlie Cameron, despite being the best small forward in the league for the last four seasons, had one All-Australian selection to his name.
This, despite totals of 57 goals in 2019, 31 in 2020 (reduced games and duration of games), 55 in 2021, and 54 in 2022. It was almost as though Charlie’s excellent form was the expectation of him and he’d have to do something special to be recognised again.
I sat back and thought that he’d probably have to kick 60 in order for the All-Australian selectors to see past the next shiny new thing and see what Cameron was providing. It turns out he only needed 59.
As Cameron went on his merry way, crowds joined in as he took them down the country roads every time he snagged a goal. Hell, even in the Grand Final, the MCG PA system pumped the John Denver classic over the speakers. The result?
Cameron kicking the first two goals of the next quarter to ignite the Lions.
Charlie now has 360 goals to his name, and at 29, is a big chance to be a 500-goal man by the end of his brilliant career. Possibly more.
When he played with Eddie Betts, the Carlton/Adelaide champ stated that Cameron could be the greatest small forward of all-time. Whilst that may be a stretch, he is still the best this generation has to offer… though Luke Breust may have something to say about that.
It was great to see Charlie receive his second All-Australian blazer – it’s been deserved for years, and I hope he gets a couple more before all is said and done.
Not enough is made of players that smash records in the AFL.
Whilst everyone lost their collective shit last year when Buddy Franklin kicked a thousand goals, he finished his career as the fourth-highest in that category, and he limped past Doug Wade to finish there.
However, we have several active players who are the best the league has seen in certain statistical categories. Not that any are more impressive than Buddy kicking a 1000 – people didn’t run onto the park to congratulate these guys when they became the number one men in these categories.
Scott Pendlebury is now the all-time leader in four stats category. He is now the best recorded in disposals, handballs, tackles, and uncontested possessions. He is also sixth all-time in inside 50s, third in goal assists, sixth in clearances, and fourth in contested possessions. There are many saying he will go onto play 400 games, and if that is the case, he may very well retire from the game as the number one player in five or six statistical categories.
The bloke is a legend of the game still playing.
Harris Andrews re-established himself as one of the most dominant contest killers the game has ever seen, moving into first place in one-percenters. He leaps several places this year to leave Josh Gibson and Dustin Fletcher in his wake. How far in front he will end up remains a mystery. He has 1746 to his name right now. The next best amongst active players is Steven May, with 1521. It’s gonna take something special over a long period to dethrone the big Lion.
Tom Hawkins is now the most prolific mark of the footy inside 50 on record, leaping over Nick Riewoldt and out-duelling Lance Franklin and Jack Riewoldt this season to finish at the top. He is also just 16 contested marks behind Nick Riewoldt for the most contested grabs in history.
Patrick Dangerfield is now the man with the most contested possessions in the game. He relegated Sydney’s Josh Kennedy, and former teammate Gary Ablett to second and third this season. He is also fourth in clearances and will likely finish his career as the number one man in that category (until Pendlebury catches him), and he sits third in inside 50s.
And, of course, Todd Goldstein continues to put distance between himself and the rest of the field as the number one hit out man the game has seen. His 9835 gives Max Gawn plenty to chase – he is on 6690.
THE CARLTON CHARGE
I’m not a Blues fan… not at all. I remember the days when they were dominant and arrogant. That shit trickled through to their fans. It was something opposition supporters didn’t much like, but whilst the Blues were winning, I suppose it was justified.
However, we are a long way removed from that and the team has been absolutely smashed for years. Last year, it was all but certain they were going to play finals – right up until they didn’t. And this year looked worse!
The Blues looked broken as we hit the halfway point of the season, but their second half of the year was inspired. It was difficult not to get caught up in the euphoria of Carlton supporters, finally getting a taste of success again – just a small taste, as the success was relatively minor. However, with Carlton once again looking like a team that belonged deep in finals, their run was met with a mixture of excitement and… relief, I suppose. The wait was finally over.
Carlton will be looking at 2023 as the step they needed to take. Where that leads them, we’ll see soon enough, but it would be a brave man to bet against them in 2024 given the way they finished this year.
Questions remain about Harry McKay, and there are a couple of concerns about their list (that’s for next year’s season preview) but the Blues have one of the best top-ends in terms of talent, and under Michael Voss, they’ve finally got them all working together.
They’re not coming anymore. They’re here.
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