What was Charlie Ballard meant to do?
There’s no doubting that in terms of football fascination the most notable of AFL results in Round 2 was the Gold Coast Suns’ stunning 44-point upset win over the West Coast Eagles.
And while every member of Gold Coast’s 22 should be celebrated for their contribution to what many feel is the best win in the club’s history, one player stood head and shoulders above the rest.
The 2019 number one draft pick Matt Rowell was the clear best on ground in a display that some are lauding as the greatest ever played by a second-gamer.
Of course, whether or not that is true is a question with no objective answer – there’s no universally agreed-upon way to rank one player’s efforts against another and even if there were, we lack the data to follow it through beyond the most recent decades.
Still, that doesn’t mean we can’t dive into the stats a bit to provide some context to the discussion, and remember some famous and infamous second-gamers in the process.
What should be noted at the outset regarding Rowell is that his second game came in the unusual circumstances of shortened 16-minute quarters, and as such he didn’t have as much as time as others to rack up the stats.
Still, if we judge him on two key stats for his role as an inside midfielder, we can see that his disposal and contested possession numbers are up there with the highest we’ve seen from a player in game number two.
There’s some impressive names of current and past players in that same zone as Rowell (and again, we have to consider that his numbers might have been even more outstanding had 20-minute quarters been in effect).
However the clear runaway leader on the chart is also the least-known of the names featured: former Demon James Magner, whose second AFL game proved to be his peak, and one of just 19 before he was eventually delisted.
Magner also boasts the record for the most clearances in a second AFL game with 11, a fair distance above the others on the podium – Dustin Martin and Sam Powell-Pepper, both with eight.
Of course while disposals and contested possessions are good things to have, they fall a long way from telling the full story. One of the AFL’s newer stats, score involvements, is arguably a better measure of impact on the game.
Rowell’s six score involvements on Saturday night was an impressive accumulation, but doesn’t quite approach the record. Tim Kelly and James Parsons can both boast 12 score involvements in their second AFL games.
Kelly’s performance – coming just two years ago in a narrow Easter Monday loss to Hawthorn – deserves some further praise.
He also recorded 27 disposals (20 kicks), seven inside 50s and a goal, yet astoundingly did not pick up a single Brownlow vote.
That provides us with perhaps a more equitable method by which to judge the best second-gamers. We’re expecting Matt Rowell to pick up three Brownlow votes for this one when the count rolls around. Who else has soared that high so early?
If Gillon does indeed call out “M Rowell, three votes” one Monday night some distance from now, it will be the first time in 18 years that a second-gamer has been judged best-on-ground by the umpires.
The last to do it was Mark McGough, who had a team-high 24 disposals for Collingwood on Anzac Day 2002, and in addition to the Brownlow votes was also awarded the Anzac Medal.
That made five Brownlow votes total for McGough in his first two matches, and eight in his first season, the most by any player from the 2001 draft – a trend that would not continue as his star faded and likes of Gary Ablett and Chris Judd surged past.
McGough aside, five other players since 1990 have won three Brownlow votes in their first AFL game: Scott Camporeale, Shane Crawford, Brett Heady, Matthew Mansfield and Adrian McAdam.
McAdam possesses another notable honour: the highest AFL fantasy score on record by a second-gamer, 178 points. His ten goals is the third best mark, behind Doug Strang (14) and George Moloney (12).
A fantasy score arguably offers a more holistic way to measure a player’s performance in a single stat, but it’s fair to say that the basic score – which makes no distinction for example between a good kick or a bad kick – can be problematic.
A better version is the Supercoach score, particularly for this exercise. These scores follow a more complex formula that takes into effect the outcomes of a player’s involvement in the game, and not just their raw stats.
More importantly, the same number of Supercoach points are awarded in every game – so Supercoach scores from 2020 are easily compared to previous years, despite the shortened quarters.
It’s here where Rowell stands without peer. His 171 Supercoach points on Saturday night is the most by a second-gamer in the past ten years (beyond which data is not easily accessible), and blows the next best score – Michael Barlow’s 139 – out of the water.
So is Matt Rowell the AFL’s GOAT second-gamer? There’s no right or wrong answer, but he’s in the mix. Undoubtedly his performance this past weekend was as good as we’ve seen from a second-gamer in recent memory.
For mine, it’s hard to go past Doug Strang’s 14 goals for Richmond against North Melbourne back in 1931 as the GOAT second-game performance. Sure, it was a different era, but 14 goals is 14 goals.
Perhaps what’s most interesting for Rowell is the mixed fates of his cohort. His remarkable early form puts him in the same breath as Brownlow Medallists like Shane Crawford and Tom Mitchell, as well as flashes in the pan like Mark McGough and James Magner.
Footy is as ever an unpredictable game and there remains an abundance of hurdles in front of Rowell before he reaches the heights some have prophesied following his breakout performance.
Still, the consistency and professionalism that made him a number one draft pick suggest he’s far more likely to land among the stars than to fall by footy’s wayside.
Here’s looking forward to many good years from what looks like a special player to come.