Prior to the 2020 AFL season, I asked this exact question.

Dustin Martin was coming off his second Norm Smith Medal, sitting atop the footy world and looking pretty difficult to knock off his perch. Other names that had earned the Norm Smith Medal twice read like football royalty – Gary Ayres, Andrew McLeod, Luke Hodge… the list was hardly a well-populated one.

But Martin went above and beyond in 2020, once again starring in the finals series to secure his team a place in the last game of the year. Once there, he proceeded to grab the game by the scruff of the neck and shake the life out of it. In doing so, Dusty earned an unprecedented third Norm Smith Medal, establishing him as the greatest Grand Final performer of the modern era and, perhaps, all time. To state that he widened the gap between him and those chasing would be redundant – we all saw what happened and we all recognise him as the best player the game has to offer right now. The fact is he is even better when it counts the most.

So, as we head into the 2021 season, is there anyone who can knock the king of the AFL off his throne? Is there anyone who can even bridge the gap between Dusty and the next best player in the league?

Or will we see Martin add to one of the most impressive legacies in the game? He is not yet 30 years old and with the Tigers up to their eyeballs in another tilt at a flag, and a possible three-peat of their own to become one of the true great teams of all time, Martin could end up doing something that many thought was impossible.

Could he win four Norm Smiths? Given his finals record, if Richmond are in the mix, it is not too far fetched. Would that feat institute him as the greatest player the game has seen?

Don’t laugh – this is a viable possibility given where we sit right now.

However, there are those who have him in their sights and to dismiss those players a level below him would be foolish. Sadly, in order for them to enhance their own reputations, they have to conquer the yellow and black juggernaut wearing number four.

Can they do it? Let’s explore.

 

PATRICK DANGERFIELD

Danger was considered Martin’s closest contemporary right up until around the end of 2019. With just a year between them in terms of age, they have taken turns in winning Brownlow Medals, but the finals success of Martin has been the factor that divides the pair and never wa this more apparent than in the last two finals meetings between the pair.

WHAT DOES DANGER NEED?

Has this horse already bolted? Did Patrick miss his chance?

To elevate his standing in the game, Danger needs to beat Martin in the finals.

Yes, this is a team game, and yes, team success outweighs all, but if we’re talking personal legacies, Martin has extended the gap between himself and Danger over the last couple of seasons.

Whilst Dangerfield has found himself out of the action, sitting in a forward pocket watching games against the Tigers get away from him, Martin has taken those same games over and enhanced his reputation as a big game player in the process.

So, to simply state that Danger needs to beat Dusty in the finals might be a little too simplistic. That’s because it is. Not only does he need his Cats to knock over the Tigers; he needs to be the standout player and force Damien Hardwick to try something different with his own star to combat Dangerfield’s dominance. He needs Dusty to be sent forward and he needs him to fail. All the while, Danger must be increasing the pressure on the throats of the Tigers.

Doesn’t sound too simple now, does it?

Oh, it gets better. Martin has the three flags whilst Danger has the one Grand Final loss. Not only does he need to cross paths with Martin in the finals, beat him soundly, get the team win and be one of the best players on the park… he also needs a flag to begin to even approach the level Martin is currently at.

The Cats have loaded up for this tilt and, looking at their list, it might be the last time they are able to give things a real shake for a while. It is do-or-die for Dangerfield or, as good as he is, he may always be remembered as the bloke that couldn’t get over the hump against Dustin Martin.

It is now or never for Danger. It is either his time to shine, or he will forever be relegated to stand in the huge shadow cast by Dustin Martin.

 

NAT FYFE

A second Brownlow elevated Fyfe into rarefied air and into the pantheon of modern greats, but as the best player on a consistently poor team over the past few years, he finds himself viewed as quite a way back from Martin in the current AFL pecking order.

The All-Australian captaincy in 2019 helped, and the fact he has been a leader of his team is something that Martin hasn’t achieved – officially anyway.

WHAT DOES FYFE NEED?

How does a third Brownlow change things? Or a third MVP award?

Here’s a list of names of those who have done either. Haydn Bunton, Dick Reynolds, Bob Skilton, Gary Ablett Junior and Ian Stewart. All have been elevated to Legend Status in the AFL Hall of Fame bar Ablett and once he is eligible, he will no doubt take his place amongst the best of the best. If Fyfe picks up a third, it would be hard to dispute his standing in the game. With history as our guide, Fyfe would one day be an AFL Legend. How does that sit with you?

Like Dangerfield, Fyfe has made his way to the Grand Final, but his wayward early shots at goal are probably my most vivid memory of his 2013 Grand Final appearance. A trip deep into September would help his cause greatly, but for mine, Fyfe’s best shot at surpassing Dusty comes with a third Brownlow.

It should be simple, right? I mean, he’s already done it twice.

With a developing Fremantle midfield around him, Fyfe was given licence in 2020 to go forward. Whilst the move was also necessitated by a troublesome hamstring, Fyfe’s overhead ability and creativity with the footy make him a potent weapon around the 50 metre arc.

Having notched 20+ goals just once in his stellar career, Fyfe would need to hit the scoreboard heavily to justify removing his talents from the middle. Whilst the kids are coming along nicely, his presence in the guts makes Freo a better team, and without injuries, a big year from Fyfe and a finals reappearance, could see people re-evaluating where he sits, all-time.

 

LACHIE NEALE

The move from Fremantle to Brisbane served Neale well. Despite averaging 30+ possessions twice before whilst at Fremantle, Neale’s move to Brisbane, coinciding with their leap up the ladder in 2019 established him as a genuine star of the game and moved him out of the imposing shadow of Nat Fyfe.

2020 became his year, with the former Docker taking home the Brownlow Medal in convincing fashion before his team fell short in the finals to the Cats.

WHAT DOES NEALE NEED TO DO?

As a Brownlow and Leigh Matthews Medallist, Neale has made the leap into superstardom and in early 2020, he started taking a leaf out of Martin’s book, going forward more often to get involved in play inside 50.

With ten goals from his first nine games, Neale was going above and beyond to ensure that anyone who was ready to level the “his possessions don’t hurt” argument were looking like idiots. He was potent, dangerous and he was a machine early in the season, but the AFL season is a marathon – even in 2020, it was at least a half-marathon. It is not a sprint, and although Neale was strong all season, the goals dried up in the second half of the year. From Round 11 onwards, he scored just four goals, two of which came in that loss against Geelong.

A second Brownlow would give Neale some ammunition, but finals success is something that would put him into the frame. With two of the big three AFL awards (Brownlow and MVP) to his name, a Norm Smith Medal is the next step for the Brisbane star. And on most occasions, that is accompanied by a premiership medallion as well.

He came to Brisbane and aided in ushering in a new era for a team that has struggled for a while. His tenure there has been spectacularly good, but to truly become great, he needs to put this team on his back when it matters most and drag them over the line, kicking and screaming if need be.

Given some of the listless efforts from players in the finals – hello to Dan McStay and Cam Rayner – he may have to.

 

ELLIOT YEO

Yeo faltered in 2020 as his body let him down, but after a couple of best and fairest wins at West Coast, he was primed to move into a bracket of stardom in his own right.

Plus, he has never shirked the challenge of going head-to-head with Martin.

WHAT YEO NEEDS TO DO?

There are as many difference in Yeo’s game when compared to that of Martin as there are similarities.

Martin is an offensive weapon who doesn’t particularly worry too much about the defensive side of the game. Yeo is an accountable mid who takes just as much pride in burying an opponent as he does winning the footy, himself.

If you’re looking for reasons that the Eagles fell over in 2020, look no further than the absence of Elliot Yeo. His drive, ruthless attack on the ball and player, and willingness to sacrifice his own game make him the ideal player to put the brakes on a rampant Dustin Martin.

One of my favourite games of the past few years has been the Tigers visiting Perth to play the Eagles in 2018. Yeo was hurt during the game but came back on with the intent of stopping Dusty. And by god, he did it.

After a blistering start by Martin, Yeo re-entered the fray a driven man and in the second half, the Eagles overran the Tigers.

So, am I saying the Yeo can get to Dusty’s level? No… that would be silly. But what I am saying is there is a way that Yeo can establish himself as THE rival for Dusty, and it could happen in 2021.

Picture this; West Coast and Richmond meet once in the home and away season. Yeo goes to Dusty and keeps him quiet. The two exchange pleasantries and whilst a little is made of it in the aftermath, those who love footy take note. Fast forward to the finals and the two lock horns again – at this stage, the media has started talking about what happened last time. The pressure mounts. It’s Yeo v Dusty again and the stakes are much higher.

Yeo doesn’t have to beat Martin. He doesn’t have to be the best player on the ground and he doesn’t have to dominate in front of goals. He just has to hold Dusty down.

And he has shown he is capable.

If his body and circumstance allows in 2021, a couple of Martin v Yeo clashes would be like football porn for purists. Yeo is a proud man and one of the few capable of matching strength with Martin. Throw him the challenge, let him go to work and see if he can grow his own reputation at the expense of the three-time Norm Smith Medallist.

 

PATRICK CRIPPS

Already the career leader for average contested possessions per game (15.03 to Clayton Oliver’s 14.73) the Carlton powerhouse is just 25 years old and has an AFLPA MVP under his belt.

His 2020 saw him finally falter a little under the weight of carrying the Carlton midfield but, despite being “disappointing” by his standards, Cripps was able to lead the league in both clearances and centre clearances.

Disappointing, they say?

WHAT DOES CRIPPS NEED TO DO?

All the Carlton co-captain needs to do is play his natural game – it is up to those around him to come along for the ride and allow him to do what he does for a successful team.

I ask you – how would Dusty be viewed if he played for the Blues and they retained the level of success they’ve had for the last few years?

Here’s a start that may see Cripps start to work his way to the level Martin has achieved.

It’s Round One, 2021 and the AFL have once again decreed that Richmond and Carlton will open the season. As it stands right now, the two teams will clash on Thursday, March 18th and I hope like hell we’ll have a big crowd here.

The game goes as you’d expect – Carlton get the jump, Richmond reel them in and power away and Carlton starts to give a yelp late in the game. Is that the formula?

Time to change it up.

If Carlton are to be better, they cannot just continue to do things as they have always done, and if it takes Cripps to put his foot down, make a stand and say “enough!” as the Tiger start their comeback, then that is the step Cripps needs to take.

There will be plenty of markers along the way for Cripps to tick off, but the first one needs to be done in order for the others to line up – beat Richmond in Round One and don’t take their shit yet again.

 

MARCUS BONTEMPELLI

Unlike his peer above, Bont has already sealed the deal as a premiership superstar. However, as good as he is, questions remain about Bont’s toughness and ability to deal with a tag.

As we head into 2021, Bont is at the helm of the Dogs for the second season and with three AA selections and three club best and fairest awards to his name, the 25 year old is primed to take the next step.

WHAT DOES BONT NEED TO DO?

We are aboit to be seven years into the Bontempelli era at the Whitten Oval, with many Dogs fans still basking in the glow of the 2016 success, but five years removed from that glorious day, Bont has yet to lead this team back past the first week of finals. What was thought of as a potential Dogs dynasty has made way for that of Tiger Time.

Is there any part of Bontempelli that looks at Martin’s success and feels it should have been him? He got the headstart. He was a premiership star before Dusty, and here we are with the Tigers winning three of the next four flags?

Unlike Cripps, Bont has the ability to stream forward and hurt the opposition with raking long kicks. Martin’s main weapon is his adaptability to move from the middle to deep forward. Bont has shown that he has the ability to get the footy close to goal, but his finishing has let him down.

Martin has hit 30+ goals in four seasons, including three of the past four. Bont has a career high of 26. The Bulldog skipper has all the tools to become a potent scorer, but his accuracy (which I suppose is the most important tool) lets him down.

Averaging 16.5 touches in his two final since that 2016 flag, Bont needs two things to start to climb Mount Dusty. One – 30+ goals in a season. Two – a big finals series.

And even then, that might just get him to base camp.

 

LANCE FRANKLIN

I haven’t forgotten about you, Buddy. Many have dismissed you, but I want one more set of highlights. The memories of what you were able to do are still relatively fresh in my mind.

But you haven’t done much for me lately, have you?

WHAT DOES BUDDY NEED TO DO?

Whilst Franklin’s best footy is well and truly behind him, he is already a two-time premiership player and one of the biggest attractions the game has seen. The last player to kick a ton, Buddy is a joy to watch when he is in full flight.

And therein lays the problem.

In an ideal world, Franklin would already have 1000 goals to his name. He would have already cemented his name alongside those of Lockett, Dunstall, Titus, Coventry and Ablett – the true elite forwards of our game.

But his body has not permitted that.

With just ten games to his name in the past two seasons and injuries that seem to be worsening every time one is reported, what was once considered a formality – the 1000-goal mark – is now starting to look quite unlikely.

Still, with 56 goals the target, Franklin could still do it. It might not be in 2021, particularly if he cannot get some kilometres into his legs (and stomach), but going down as a 1000-goal kicker in an age when it has never been tougher for forwards… this may see Buddy sit level with Dusty when people look back at the true greats of this period of AFL footy.

With 2.7 goals per game in 2019 as our guide, Buddy would need to play 21 games to hit that mark.

Unfortunately, I think we know he probably won’t get there this season, at least.

I hope I’m wrong.

 

There’s an old saying that the wolf climbing the hill is always hungrier than the one on top. Right now, Dustin Martin sits atop the hill as the best player in the game. Who, if anyone, has the ability to knock him off? Who has the potential to even come close?

Feel free to chime in with your own selections.

 

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