It’s lost in his narrative, but Jack Darling was the most dominant force through the early parts of 2018 and this could be the year he puts it all together to deliver his masterpiece.
It’s a brilliant tale, the story of Jack Darling. A man child who dominated juniors but fell out of favour and down the draft rankings thanks to questions about his discipline and maturity.
Darling eventually fell all the way to his hometown West Coast Eagles at pick 26 in the 2010 draft, behind the likes of Daniel Gorringe, Lucas Cook, Seb Tape, Matthew Watson, Jayden Pitt and Jed Lamb.
Darling made an immediate impact as a key forward thrust into the league at the right time. He was built like Wayne Carey but chased with the appetite of Cyril Rioli. A centre half forward as likely to take a pack mark as he was to chase down an opponent. In 2012, just his second season, Darling kicked 50+ goals for an Eagles side that finished fifth.
It seemed like the sky was the limit.
But the tale of young Jack Darling, loveable larrikin that became a draft steal began to fade. In fact since the 2012 season, Jack is yet to kick 50 goals and the young forward with the world at his feet seemed to plateau into mature age mediocrity.
Jack Darling of the Eagles celebrates a goal (Photo by Daniel Carson/AFL Media/Getty Images)
If you traded in Jack Darling stock, the market crashed in the 2015 grand final when his irrelevant ten disposals included four clangers and “that” dropped mark.
Having faded out of discussions about ‘up and coming stars’ Darling went about developing both on and off the field. Much has been made about the settling effect of Jack’s marriage and the birth of his children and the flow on into his play on-field.
The evidence of his growth is in his start to the 2018 season.
Through the opening ten weeks of the season, Darling was on pace to give the Coleman Medal a shake. His 28 goals in the weeks prior to his Rd.11 injury that saw him miss a month and a half of the season had him on pace for 61 goals, tied with Ben Brown and only four goals behind winner Jack Reiwoldt.
Through that ten-week stretch to the end of May, Darling averaged 7.8 marks which would have placed him fourth overall and the highest placed forward. In Round 11, Darling suffered a significant ankle injury that curtailed is form.
Even with his slow return from mid-season injury, Darling finished the 2018 season second in contested marks, behind only his teammate Jeremy McGovern. Darling like never before had found a way to impose himself on the game.
It all led of course, to the final Saturday of September where Darling had to face his grand final day demons.
The naysayers will point to a lack of impact in the first half and a dropped chest mark in the goal square late in the fourth quarter that could have robbed Dom Sheed of his claims to a match-winning goal if not for the speed of Willie Rioli to come in and lay a tackle that prevented the Magpies rebounding to Premiership glory.
But in reality Darling toiled, presented and halved the contest throughout a disappointing first half of the grand final before he ignited the third quarter of the biggest game of his life.
The official AFL Player rankings placed Darling as the best on ground for the third quarter.
Darling would finish the 11th-ranked player despite little impact in the rest of the match. In a game decided by a kick, his impact was easily overlooked. Without Darling’s contested marking prowess, the Eagles are runners up.
All this leads to the 2019 season where Darling has had an uninterrupted preseason and now finds himself shouldering the burden in an youthful Eagles forward line. The baton has been passed from incumbent star, Josh Kennedy to Darling.
Jack Darling and Josh Kennedy of the Eagles (Photo by Will Russell/AFL Media/Getty Images)
While Kennedy is a goal-kicking machine with his sticky hands that hold onto anything kicked in his direction, Darling is a forward for the modern era, a tireless worker that can get up and back as well as take the contested pack mark when necessary.
A Coleman candidate in his own right, Kennedy has managed only 28 home-and-away appearances in the last two seasons since winning the award in 2016 with a massive 80 goals (a number last bested by Brendan Fevola in 2009).
Once again, Kennedy’s 2019 season is looking limited with the star likely to miss the opening rounds of the season and the club likely to manage him through to the business end of the season. For the Eagles, Darling must carry this load.
Darling will also have the benefit of a level of service not experienced before as the Eagles have assembled the most balanced midfield of his career. Gone are the one paced midfields of the Matthew Priddis era as the Eagles now have the most midfield depth since their 2006 premiership midfield that featured a hall of fame ensemble of Cox-Judd-Kerr-Cousins.
The key forward now approaches the golden numbers, this year Darling will turn 27 the prime of his physical capabilities and he approaches the 200-game mark that he will hit in 2020 having already become a true veteran who’s seen it all. In 2019, Darling is at the peak of his powers.
So while Buddy breaks down at the 300-game mark, Tom Lynch and Jack Reiwoldt spread the goals at Tigerland and Big Ben Brown is capped by the team around him at North Melbourne, Jack Darling flies under the radar as the Coleman favourite hiding in the shadows with some betting agencies pay as much as $21 for those willing to take the punt.
So while the narrative of Darling has had it’s twists and turns, 2019 is shaping as the year where Jack writes his third act and arrives in the AFL landscape as it’s new king – the All Australian Coleman Medalist.