Forget second-year syndrome, here are the AFL’s third-year bolters

Patrick McGeoch Roar Guru

By , Patrick McGeoch is a Roar Guru

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    Dermott Brereton recently noted on SEN that “anyone who’s going to be bona-fide superstar will take off in their third year of football”.

    At first it seemed like a throwaway line, but there are some examples some all-time greats following this path.

    Lance Franklin kicked 73 goals in his third year, including bags of nine against Essendon and seven in elimination final. Chris Judd polled 30 Brownlow votes to secure the first of his two Brownlow medals in his third year. Matthew Pavlich earned the first of his six All-Australian jumpers in his third year.

    Last season it was Marcus Bontempelli; he entered the 2016 season as a prodigious talent, and left as an All-Australian, premiership player, midfield powerhouse and superstar of the competition.

    His game went to next level, averaging 24.4 possessions, five tackles, and five clearances to go with 26 goals. His 22 possessions in the grand final were almost flawless, and he was one of the most influential players on the ground.

    Western Bulldogs player Marcus Bontempelli

    So I have gone back to the 2014 national draft to see who is most likely to follow in these footsteps. It’s a pretty strong group, so this was a difficult process, but I have nominated the five players who can have the biggest impact.

    Before we get to the five, some honourable mentions. Angus Brayshaw’s first year was arguably the most impressive of all players from this draft, while Patty McCartin has bucket hands and is already showing signs this pre-season that he’s on the verge of consistent football.

    And if you were judging the crop purely on achievement to date, Caleb Daniel has more runs on the board than anyone. All were unlucky not to feature.

    Isaac Heeney
    The beast from Sydney’s academy has an inside game to match most opponents, and he complements that with a polish and poise that can hurt teams on the outside.

    Last year, 45 per cent of Heeney’s possessions were contested, comparing favourably to players like Dan Hannebury and Jack Steven, and showing he isn’t reliant on anyone to find the ball. Expect to see this number climb, along with his overall possession rate, as Heeney spends more time in the middle of the ground.

    Heeney is also a dangerous forward, as accomplished in the air as he is on the ground, going at better than a goal a game for his career. He also adds a defensive pressure that allows the Swans to lock the ball in their forward half.

    In short, he is already a proven match-winner.

    He will have a delayed start to the year due to a bout of glandular fever, but he was flying before that. If he can increase his ball-winning output through the midfield, and remain a match-up headache when pushing inside 50, Heeney could be one of the premier ‘high half forwards’ in the game by season’s end.

    Christian Petracca
    Technically entering just his second year due to 2015 being wiped out by a knee injury, Petracca has the world at his feet.

    He has all the physical attributes you look for in a modern midfielder: power, pace, agility, and endurance. Add this to a basketballer’s leap and he also becomes a nightmare match-up when playing forward.

    Petracca showed glimpses last year, forcing his way into the improving Melbourne side to play the final 17 games. He had 20 possessions or better in five of those, but with only 12 goals, perhaps didn’t hit the scoreboard as much as he would have liked.

    We may look back in years to come at his match against Carlton in the JLT series as the breakout game of his career. Although it wasn’t for points, it was the sort of performance that the Demons will be hoping becomes typical from Petracca: 19 possessions, ten of which were contested, six marks, four goals and an assist. He was a weapon across half forward and there was little the Blues could do about it.

    The body of work is still small for Petracca, but as the Demons improve, he will have more freedom to influence games and become a match winner.

    Christian Petracca and Angus Brayshaw

    Darcy Moore
    There is a popular debate in the media about who the best of the up-and-coming key forwards is. While that is still an unanswered question (Jesse Hogan gets the nod for me), Moore is perhaps the most reliable kick of the group, and has more tools at his disposal athletically.

    After a learning year in 2015 where he was exposed to different roles across the ground, Moore settled up forward in 2016, where he progressively shouldered more and more responsibility as the form of players around him faltered.

    He was on the way to a career-defining performance when he was forced from the ground midway through the second quarter against West Coast late last year, having taken five contested marks and kicked 3.2 from his five shots on goal. The Eagles’ defence had no answer to his pace off the mark and leap at the ball.

    Moore is sure to get greater opportunity as he becomes the spearhead of the forward line, and should also benefit from improved delivery of Collingwood’s midfield. Averaging less than ten touches a games in 2016, a third preseason should provide greater capacity to get up the ground and avoid drifting in and out of games.

    The challenges will come; a summer of analysis will help teams identify areas of Moore’s game that he currently leans on, so he needs to develop more strings to his bow. If he can, he may become one of the best key forwards in the game.

    Peter Wright
    Make no mistake, if Peter Wright had found his way onto a Victorian club’s list, there would be much more fanfare around this kid.

    Playing outside of the football bubble has instead allowed him to grow into his role without the added scrutiny, and he may just be ready to blossom.

    After getting a taste of it in 2015, ‘Two-metre Peter’ cemented his spot in the Gold Coast line-up early in 2016 and never looked back.

    He had some monster performances; his 20 possession, 12-mark, five-goal best on ground showing against the Lions being the scariest among them. He was able to hit scoreboard consistently, finishing the season with 27 goals.

    Wright builds his game around his strong contested marking close to goal, and a solid aerobic base, which allows him to push up the ground and shake off opponents. He also has a cannon of a right foot, and has proven himself more than capable as ruck support.

    The horrific injury to Sam Day means Wright will be the key support role for Tom Lynch in the Gold Coast forward line. The Suns will be better as well, and despite losing Jaeger O’Meara and Dion Prestia, forwards should still expect to see better service from their new-look midfield.

    All this points towards greater opportunities for Wright to develop his game further and become an important player for Gold Coast.

    Clubs are constantly searching for key forwards who can relieve ruckmen without hurting clearance output, and Wright has the potential to be the best of that breed.

    Peter Wright Gold Coast Suns AFL 2016

    Jake Lever
    He won’t make as many headlines as the other four players on the list, but in just two short years, Jake Lever has become a vital member of the Adelaide defence.

    Today’s football dictates that you need players across half back that can read the play well and defend, but can also flick the switch and rebound to set up counterattacks. Lever fits that bill.

    According to Champion Data, Lever rates either ‘above average’ or ‘elite’ for intercept possessions, intercept marks, uncontested possessions, and metres gained. When you couple these numbers with a disposal efficiency of 77 per cent, it gives you an understanding of just how effective Lever has already been.

    Lever also benefits from his versatility. He is 194cm but plays taller than that, yet is also nimble enough to play on small forwards. He does his best work in Adelaide’s zone structure that allows him to peel off and use his smarts to affect as many contests as possible.

    Adelaide’s stellar forward line means we haven’t seen what he can do up forward, in years to come he could develop into a swing man. This year though, he will be critical to Adelaide’s top-four hopes, and given a good run with injury he will be right in the frame for All Australian honours.

    Verdict
    Heeney’s the man.

    He has already shown himself capable of winning matches and has plenty of runs on the board, while the others are largely trading on potential. Also, playing for the Swans means he is virtually guaranteed a chance to make his reputation in finals.

    Petracca will have games where he blows the opposition off the park, but it’s too early to say whether this will be a regular feature of his season or not. Of this group, he has the skill set that most closely resembles Heeney’s.

    I am tipping big things for all five this season, and it wouldn’t surprise me if any or all of these players take the step to “bona-fide superstar” in 2017.