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A new season offers second chances for 2019's recruiting flops

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Expert
7th January, 2020
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2018’s AFL trade period was arguably the biggest in the history of the comp.

It wasn’t just that a huge quantity of players changed their colours – although they did – but that so many clubs landed recruits they believed could be game-changers.

A lucky few absolutely nailed it.

Richmond’s signing of Tom Lynch – almost an anticlimax when it finally arrived, having been so thoroughly foreshadowed throughout the year – did exactly what it was supposed to do. He kicked a near-career-best 63 goals in 2019 and won a premiership.

The Tigers wouldn’t have won the flag if it weren’t for the Lynch deal – without his six goals to beat Port Adelaide off his own boot in Round 4 they’d have finished outside the top four, and likely found the mountain too hard to climb. And that’s not to mention his three against West Coast in Round 22, or five against the Cats in the preliminary final.

Further north, Lachie Neale proved just the boost Brisbane needed to convert potential into performance. He polled a career-high 26 Brownlow votes and moved Brisbane from the bottom six to top two at the end of the home-and-away season. Certainly, he wasn’t the only factor behind their improvement, but he was a significant part.

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Lynch and Neale were 2019’s biggest recruiting success stories and show why clubs around the league have become so fixated on recruiting big-name players. No single recruiting move can have so powerful an impact as that of landing the right player at the right time.

Tom Lynch

(Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos/Getty Images)

But there are also wrong players, and wrong times, and for every Lynch or Neale, there were names who arrived with just as much fanfare only to fall well short of delivering the value fans expect.

One of our most common mistakes in footy however – and I am as guilty of this is anyone – is that we deliver verdicts too soon. Such is the impetus to be the first voice heard on a hot topic that we double-down hard on our early impressions and pray they won’t be dredged up to make us look foolish in 12 months’ time.

Another is that much preseason analysis tends to assume a club’s performance in the year to come will be roughly equal to its performance the year prior, plus or minus the impact of the trade period. But instead it’s often the development of players already on the list that shape a side’s fortunes.

Consider, for example, Chad Wingard. He arrived at Hawthorn in 2019 after seven seasons and 147 games with Port Adelaide, but had an undeniably disappointing first season in brown and gold. His 14 games were the fewest he’s played in a season so far in his career, and he kicked under a goal per game for the first time in his career.

This poor return was only exacerbated by consideration of the high price paid for him. The Hawks gave up not just one of the best young players on their list in Ryan Burton, but a first-round pick eventually used to draft Xavier Duursma, who played 20 games for the Power and averaged more disposals in his debut season than Wingard did in his eighth.

The temptation is there to write it off as a bad trade – and it might well be. Hawthorn stand almost no chance of getting as many raw numbers out of what’s left of Wingard’s career as Port will from what will hopefully be ten-year-plus stints at the Power from Burton and Duursma.

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But, the Hawks didn’t recruit Wingard for weight of numbers – they recruited him for star power, of which he has much, and started to show a little particularly in the last month or so of last season.

Wingard averaged only 4.6 score involvements per game in his first eight matches, but bumped this up to 7.5 in his last six games. In his last four he averaged more than 26 disposals, had ten tackles against Gold Coast in Round 22, and then ten inside 50s against West Coast to close out the year in Round 23.

Good form to finish the season is no guarantee of good form to follow, but it doesn’t hurt his case. Wingard’s exit from Port Adelaide was clearly an unhappy one and it may simply have taken him some time to find his feet – with injury not helping.

My early tip is that he’s primed to make season 2020 a big one. He is one of the AFL’s most potent weapons when in peak form, and if a few other puzzle pieces come together, there’s no reason Hawthorn couldn’t continue to defy gravity and bounce back into top-four contention.

Chad Wingard

(Photo by Daniel Carson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

The other name that jumps out is one of 2019’s most maligned recruits – a Sydney premiership player who became a Saint, Dan Hannebery.

From the beginnning there was scepticism over whether or not St Kilda made the right move. Hannebery had a woeful 2018 and the Saints’ offer – a five-year deal believed to be worth $4 million, albeit with the last of those five years on a trigger – was seen as an act of desperation.

St Kilda copped criticism as Hannebery managed only five games, the club at one point admitting they believe he would need an entire season to rebuild his body for the rigours of AFL football. Media pundits questioned whether the trade was a disaster.

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But criticism of the deal ignored two important considerations. The first is that, while Hannebery joined the club on a large contract, the price of the trade – ultimately being pick 36 this year for Hannebery and a move up the draft order last year – was dirt cheap.

The second and most important is that while injury may have restricted him to just five games, the games that he did manage to play were impressive.

Hannebery’s disposal and metres gained averages in 2019 were both the best he’s seen since season 2016, and he also improved his score involvement numbers on the year prior. He averaged 5.2 clearances per game, which is a career best for him, albeit off a limited sample.

The three-time All Australian had another rendezvous with injury over the offseason, suffering a broken foot while on holiday, but is already back running, and it isn’t expected to cost him any game time. Otherwise, after playing the last three games of 2019, he appears fully fit.

The potential impact of new recruits like Brad Hill, Dougal Howard and Zak Jones will be the big talking point of St Kilda’s preseason – and already many are sceptical it will be enough to push them back into the top eight.

But any discussion of Saints’ fortunes in 2020 should also consider just how significant a full season – or close to – from Hannebery could be. I like his odds of making a few pundits look silly. He hasn’t lost even a skerrick of his class.

Dan Hannebery

(Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

What of 2018’s other big-name recruits? Four others qualified for big-fish status, or were expected to.

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Dylan Shiel it would be unfair to call a recruiting flop – he put in a solid season, with most of his numbers as good or better than they’d been the year prior at Greater Western Sydney. And, unlike some of the other clubs in this discussion, Essendon made finals, albeit only to perform woefully.

That said, the jury should still be out over whether Shiel will prove worth the two first-round picks paid for him. That’s a superstar-tier trade price and the simple reality is that Shiel isn’t a superstar – not yet at least. Does he have another level to go to, or is he already at his cieling?

A simillar price was paid for Dayne Beams by Collingwood, but the four-time best-and-fairest winner played only nine games last year and is currently on indefinite leave as he tackles ongoing mental health difficulties.

The cost of recruiting Beams was not just the high price paid in draft picks, but the loss of the path they chose not to go down – missing out on Steven May, who might have filled a desperate positional need, despite reports that he wanted to join the club.

He instead landed at Melbourne and he too belongs on our list of recruits who failed to deliver. He had a season from hell, lambasted for turning up to his new club in poor shape and then caught drinking in public while injured, as the Dees struggled on the field.

May might prove the most intriguing of 2019’s recruiting flops this year as Melbourne desperately seek to put a truly horrible season behind them. It’s not just that they’re hungry for success – by trading their future first-round draft pick, they’ve ramped up the pressure on themselves to perform.

May wasn’t the only Demon to struggle with injury in 2020, but the club boasts a new world-class fitness boss in Darren Burgess (formerly of Port Adelaide and Arsenal), and May has reportedly dropped five kilos to be in the best shape of his career. He’ll be 28 by Round 1 – now is the time for him to deliver.

Steven May

(Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos)

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A little more time is left on the clock for another player weaved into this tangled web – Jesse Hogan.

He moved to Fremantle 12 months ago as the Dees sought the trade currency and salary cap space they would need to acquire May, whose poor season could’ve looked much worse if not for Hogan suffering similar strife.

Hogan struggled with both mental health and injury and managed only 13 goals from 12 games, after kicking 47 the year prior. He was ruled out for the year after Round 14, before being involved in a car accident in November while still recovering – although he miraculously avoided any serious injury.

He has suffered enough bad luck over his career to make you think he maybe once menaced a mirror factory, but Freo will be hopeful that – especially with a new coach in place – Hogan can finally get a good run at it and show off the superstar talent we all know he has.

There were many more players traded in 2018, but these eight were the game-changers – or at least they were meant to be. They were recruited to take their new clubs to the next level, and a pretty price was typically paid for that privilege.

In 2019 only two justified the expense. Dylan Shiel then came the closest, but the likes of Wingard, Hannebery, Beams, May and Hogan all for one reason or another fell well short.

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The AFL industry is one where results are everything and judgements are made quickly. But it’s also one of second chances.

For all six, the opportunity is rapidly approaching to deliver the impact we believed they could – a year behind schedule perhaps, but better late than never.

2019’s trade period was far less star-studded, with Tim Kelly and Brad Hill arguably the only in-form elite talents to move clubs.

Perhaps the window is open instead for the big fish of the previous year to steal the show.