Is Josh Kennedy the player Essendon wanted Jobe Watson to be?

Is the father-son culture the most universally adored facet of footy? Even when your rivals were once snaffling generational juniors with third rounders you’d simply sigh, grin at each other with pursed lips, rejoice and share in the sentimental bliss. When the Cats selected teenage midfield superstar Joel Selwood with pick 7 and then landed the man reputed to be the next Tony Lockett with pick 41 as a Hawthorn fan I felt like everything about it was just lovely.

So, there is a kind of collective fascination with the father-son recruit that does not really occur with any others. Even when they are not playing for my team and were selected with pick 100, if I grew up watching his dad play I’ll still wonder sometimes how he’s going in the VFL.

Jobe Watson was not a bumper selection in the 2002 draft. Nor was Josh Kennedy in 2006. Both were selected with pick 40 but did not finish their draft years as highly touted prospects. However they did garner some hype due to their decorated fathers, particularly Jobe. Kennedy was drip fed into a young but accomplished Hawk midfield over the following seasons as he was simply not fit enough. Watson took ages to come good, and by the end of 2005 he had become maligned amongst some of the Bombers’ faithful, while Sheedy had toyed with the idea of slotting him in at cente half forward.

The next stages in their careers are well defined in footy folklore. Jobe got ludicrously ripped by way of a brutal boxing regime and metamorphosed from a soft-bodied no-hoper into the imposing icon of his club. He then scored the captaincy, won the Brownlow medal and was, for a time, one of the AFL’s most highly decorated players. Josh Kennedy was traded by Hawthorn to Sydney with Ben Mcglynn for a crappy second round pick which mercifully was used to select Ben Stratton. He was immediately injected into the Swans midfield of grunts and it did not take him long to impose himself.

Given their similarities in terms of draft position and slow evolutions, Josh Kennedy as a comparison to Watson is obvious. Both were slightly chubby teenagers who took about three seasons to come good, after which they would cultivate their huge rigs. Both players really improved their kicking over their careers but despite their size neither was influential as a pinch-hitting forward. They have been pretty much immovable over the footy in contests and are loping outside runners stuck in second. Watson is the silkier player, especially by hand, but Kennedy is probably the most brutish clearance mid of the era, who simply fiends after the pigskin whenever the wick gets turned up. But the starkest difference between the two starts on September 1st.

Jobe vs Josh in Finals

 

Two things. The best players column is inconsistent. I used the best players selected from the AFL website match reports from 2013 onwards. Before 2013 it is a mix of that and the Age newspaper.

But perhaps it isn't entirely fair to base Kennedy's stats over 21 games, when Watson's finals career provides such a small sample size. In the interest of fairness, here are their comparable numbers in only their first six finals each.

Jobe v Josh First 6 Finals games

 

And of course, the number of disposals does not exponentially represent a player’s impact on a game, and neither does being named in the best players as it turns out (Bontempelli was bizarrely not in the Bulldogs’ bests for the last three finals of 2016). But as your side’s premier midfielder, I believe you should be ubiquitous in both columns.

Here are other top modern midfielders who specialise in the clinches.

Mip Jobe table.png

Watson compares very unfavourably to all of them other than Parker, whose numbers are skewed due to playing as a substitute.

But why? If I had to build a prototype footballer for September success it would be a 190cm, 95kg inside midfielder who is a Brownlow medallist and has a big-match legend for a father. It is ridiculous to me that Watson is touted as one of the great leaders while having a record like this as a smudge on his CV. Here is a rundown of Jobe’s six finals:

2004 Elimination Final vs Melbourne.

Having barely played all year, his first quarter was impressive up forward. Highlights were an uncontested mark 30m out and he slotted it. Went one handed on the members wing but won the contest resulting in a goal. Beautiful gather and handball in traffic just before Matty Whelan unleashed on Hird. Second half is poor and he can’t get near it.

2004 Semi Final vs Geelong.

Very average. Stats were better but struggled until a good last term, when the bombers were mounting a comeback. His goal came off the ground and was probably touched.

2009 Elimination Final vs Adelaide.

Laughable effort and towelled up by Doughty while the Crows midfield ran amok. The Bombers famously did not select a ruckman so obviously not an ideal situation for your centre-square maestro to be fair.

2011 Elimination Final vs Carlton.

Opponent Andrew Carrazzo was borderline BOG and the Essendon midfield was once again beaten badly by its opposition, especially Murphy. Watson had been entrenched as a high-quality midfielder for a while by then and these previous two floggings reflect strongly on him.

2014 Elimination Final vs North Melbourne.

Very good. Vintage Jobe in the first half and Essendon are on top in the clearances but are then absolutely swamped after the break. Was opposed at different times to Swallow and Greenwood both of whom thoroughly ransack the Bombers’ five goal lead and by the end of this match Watson was a pylon. In the bests and this was easily his best effort in a final but ultimately it is at the coalface where this match turned and he offered little resistance to a match-winning Roos midfield avalanche. Really it is Heppell who lifts when it is required to no avail.

2017 Elimination Final vs Sydney.

Error prone and outclassed. Watson tried hard but was well past it in his final AFL match. Tellingly it is Kennedy who is most dominant in a commanding performance.

 

Watson failed as his side’s cornerstone in three finals and was below average in three others, yet he has escaped any scrutiny for his September shortcomings. Compare this with the battering Cotchin’s reputation copped after being eclipsed by Ben Jacobs’ tagging job in 2015, his third final. Sam Mitchell is one of the all-time greatest big game players but quiet Grand Finals in ’08 and ’13 were once an asterisk against his legacy. Kennedy from West Coast is another elite player who has caught some flak for the occasional dubious effort. Jack Darling, Leon Davis, Eddie Betts are others. It really does feel like Jobe’s courteous manner and admirable stoicism has seen him escape any honest assessments of his on-field career, a free-pass not afforded to other retiring players.

Watson will probably be selected for the AFL hall of fame and less-heralded contested animals like Brad Sewell and David Mundy will most likely miss out. Both players are proven finals beasts and have turned games for their respective teams with their ferocity.

Kennedy shows up wherever and whenever. He has starred in winning and losing Grand Finals, heavy losses and huge victories. At home and interstate. He has performed when heavily tagged and even in a run-with role. He was just about the Swans best player in 2016 when the Giants got hold of them, after getting cracked on the jaw by a Steve Johnson elbow and being carried off the ground with concussion. Kennedy’s sheer physical impact on the most important matches is unmatched and he is a hall-of-fame certainty.

Essendon supporters will likely pine for the old Jobe at times this season as their lack of a big body will see them rotate some odd characters through the stoppages. They are going to find it hard going in the clinches for now but in their quest to start winning footy’s toughest matches they are surely better off.

And if Sydney has Kennedy in the centre they will continue to win finals and contend for a premiership, as in that final month he transforms into arguably the greatest big-match midfielder of this century.

These players will be considered by many to have had comparable careers and that may be the case, as long as their finals records are not part of the equation. When you talk Watson v Kennedy in September, one has the performances to back it up. The other is Jobe Watson.

 

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