The AFL has plenty of superstars – players who demand your attention whenever they’re on the field.
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With a number of second-year players, including Nick Naitanui, retaining their eligibility, the race for this year’s Rising Star award is already looking like it will be the one of the most hotly-contested since the award began.
Contesting the award alongside the second-year players will be a number of 2009 draftees that look set to make an early impact.
In recent years, the award has been the domain of the first-year players. In fact, the previous three winners have all eerily been the No. 7 draft pick from the year before – Joel Selwood (2007), Rhys Palmer (2008) and Daniel Rich (2009).
(For the record, last year’s No. 7 draft pick was Brad Sheppard, who went to West Coast. He is considered an outside chance at this stage, however.)
Nick Naitanui (West Coast)
Naitanui is the one candidate most likely to burst out of the blocks early on and never be caught up to. In fact, if the award was solely for flashes of brilliance, or for simply dominating games at an age they’re not supposed to, they could hold the ceremony before the season begins.
But before you start jumping up and down yelling “why the heck wouldn’t Naitanui win it?” consider this: Since the award began in 1993, there’s only been one “ruckman” to win it, and that’s Justin Koschitzke, who never really thrived as a ruck.
That’s not to say Naitanui can’t match Kosi in the versatility stakes. He can. It does suggest, however, that winning the award mightn’t be such a cakewalk and that Naitanui will need to improve his consistency to go all the way. Still, you have to like his chances.
Dustin Martin (Richmond)
2005 was the last time a top three draft pick took out the award. It’s a long time when you consider that at the turn of the century, high draft picks were really starting to get the job done. Paul Haselby, a No. 2 pick, took out the award in 2000, as did Koschitzke a year later. Nick Riewoldt, a No. 1 pick, got it the year after that.
If pre-season form and hype are anything to go by – a scary thing at Richmond, I know – then Martin could be the drought-breaker. The No. 3 overall pick from last year has slotted straight into the team and has seen plenty of the ball already.
Better still, a bit like Rich last year and Selwood two years before that, the midfielder won’t get anywhere near the opposition’s best tagger, considering he’s got Ben Cousins and Brett Deledio to hide behind.
Tom Scully and Jack Trengove (Melbourne)
Scully and Trengove are the AFL’s conjoined twins. They cannot be separated, especially not in a column about who will win the Rising Star award. For those who think that’s a cop out, the Demons said they were too close to split when they drafted them with picks No. 1 and 2 last year and since then, nothing has changed.
They both played all four pre-season games. They both played okay, without setting the world on fire. They both improved steadily as the weeks progressed. Heck, even in that completely accurate statistical analysis known as Dream Team points, they both scored practically the same each week (one ended up with an average of 66, the other with an average of 67).
It would not surprise me in the slightest if they became the first ever joint winners of the award. Which has to be possible, given that they are set to get plenty of game time and have been talked about so highly since their drafting. Time will tell whether they can match it with the other contenders. Just don’t ask me to separate them. Ever.
Jack Ziebell (North Melbourne)
Ziebell is another of the second-year crew that (just) hung on to eligibility. The kid burst on to the scene in the first seven rounds last season before injury set in and eventually made him miss the second half of the year.
If he can re-capture that form of early 2009, it won’t take very long at all for the youngster to earn another Rising Star nomination. His pre-season form hasn’t been overly impressive, but there’s a lot to like about his chances if he gets going.
Michael Hurley (Essendon)
If Matthew Knights and whoever else at the Bombers is involved in deciding such things can ever forgive Hurley for a certain off-field indiscretion and eventually let him on the park, then he’s got to be a contender for the Rising Star award.
The versatile key position player earned a lot of praise for his phenomenal job on Riewoldt in his side’s incredible round 20 victory over St Kilda last year. Two weeks later he won praise again, this time as a forward, kicking 4.2 in the Bombers’ finals-clinching win against Hawthorn.
As if it wasn’t tight enough already, Hurley’s presence – when he is finally allowed to play – makes the Rising Star race even more tighter.