What makes sport so special is emotion – the highs and lows, the euphoria and the heartbreak.
The AFL has plenty of superstars – players who demand your attention whenever they’re on the field.
Telling you to keep an eye on Nat Fyfe or Lance Franklin this season would just be a no-brainer. Instead, I’ve listed four players here who either fly under the radar or are ready to break out in a big way this season, starting with an old teammate of mine…
Steve Coniglio is a spiritual leader at the Giants, someone who’s very well respected for the way he goes about his footy.
He’s a little like Scott Pendlebury in that he provides great running in attack but can also shut down the opposition’s best player. That two-way ability is a real strength of his, and why he’s such an important part of the GWS set-up.
Stephen’s coming off contract this year, and while that can lead to lots of media hype – Josh Kelly in 2017 was the most pressure I’ve seen a player under – it can also motivate some guys, lead them to really focus on dotting their Is, crossing their Ts and doing everything possible to put themselves in the best shape each week. He could be in for an even better year than what we’re used to seeing.
There’s no doubt he’ll be an AFL captain at some point in his career. He’s got outstanding relationships with teammates, and he doesn’t just think about his own game, he’s willing to help others improve their game. He just has that mentality of doing anything to help the team win.
While everyone in football circles understands how good a player he is, Stephen may not get the recognition he deserves externally. That’s probably because he’s playing up in Western Sydney; if he was playing for Collingwood, Hawthorn or Richmond, he’d be a huge name in the game, and rightfully so.
He might have missed nine games last year, but Orazio Fantasia is the best small forward in the game today. With his level of ability, we’ll probably see him push into the midfield far more often in the seasons to come.
Essendon have a strong midfield, particularly now Dylan Shiel’s joined them in the off-season. But with Orazio providing another option in there, he allows those midfield runners to swap out if they need to.
It also means that, if he’s not having a big impact as a forward on any given day, he can push into the middle, get his hands on the footy and get his confidence up. When you do that as a forward, you go back up front feeling better about your game and are far more likely to have a bigger influence.
Orazio could regularly have 25 possessions and two or three goals a game, and those players don’t grow on trees. His ability to hit packs at speed, get his opponent on the lead, and finish off around goal under pressure is as good as anyone’s in the AFL today.
He kicks the flashy goals, but his work rate to get on the end of the footy is pretty important as well. He’s already a bit of a cult figure at Essendon, and the way he goes about his footy just makes you want to turn the TV on.
There’s a pretty good reason Steven May was the captain of the Gold Coast at a young age. He’s a really strong defender, and he’s really reliable.
Now having gone to Melbourne, who are looking like a strong team this year, he could be an excellent pickup for them. He’s powerful in the contest and normally beats his man one on one, while he also can be damaging with his foot skills given his composure on the ball and his good, long kick out of the backline.
Those are all critical attributes for a key defender to have.
I played a bit against May, and found he reads the play quickly, understands where the ball’s going to, and uses his body to strong effect to protect space – which is the first thing a defender should learn.
He was someone who you really have to engage as a forward, because of those skills. He’s a little bit like Jeremy McGovern given the way he reads the play, intercepts the ball, and uses it cleanly on the way out of the defensive 50.
He’s obviously learnt his craft well from a young age, and he’ll only improve having had a pre-season at a club like Melbourne.
I’m really looking forward to watching Charlie Curnow play this year, given he took such a big step in the right direction in 2018.
Like May last year, he wasn’t playing in a strong team who were winning a lot of games, but it’s the sign of a good young talent when you can still have the impact he was having, in a key position, at such a young age.
One of his big strengths is his running ability. If he’s playing on a bigger player, he’s going to use his endurance to get away, and there aren’t too many key defenders in the game who can run with him. But then, if the opposition decides to go with an undersized player who could keep up with him around the ground, he’s going to be able to beat them one on one.
He’s a dangerous prospect, and one that’s going to be really hard to man up on in the seasons to come. There’s no doubt he’s potentially an All Australian – if not this year, in the next two or three.
He reads the play really well. He’s willing to win the ball in a contest. He’s willing to work extremely hard across the ground to provide outlets up the field, and we’ve seen how good he is in a marking contest; when he stretches out, he marks the ball out in front of himself which another reason why he’s so hard to defend.
He’s got a few obvious similarities with Anthony Koutoufides, with his pace, endurance and skill at ground level for a big guy. It wouldn’t surprise me if one day he started going into centre bounces, where he’d be a very hard match-up. If he started in the middle of the ground and then pushed forward, he’d cause the opposition some serious headaches.
As that Carlton side improves, it’s only going to help him become a better player. He’s the type of player who you look forward to turning on the TV and watching.
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