This Rising Star award is among the most hotly debated AFL honours, but the eventual winner has, for all intents and purposes, already been decided.
Hear me out.
For the past 27 years, the winner of the award has often already been nominated by this stage of the season. Since the Rising Star’s inception, 21 of the 27 recipients were nominated during or before Round 8, and another two got the nod in Round 9.
Only four rookies – Ben Cousins in 1996 (nominated in Round 12), Justin Koschitzke in 2001 (Round 14), Daniel Talia in 2012 (Round 12) and Callum Mills in 2016 (Round 16) – have won the award after being nominated later.
This isn’t surprising. Logic dictates that higher-ranked draftees debut earlier in seasons, and those debutants tend to showcase their considerable talent in one of these early games. Unlike the Brownlow Medal, where contenders fluctuate throughout the season, the Rising Star’s heavy reliance on early form seemingly allows the favourites at the beginning of the season to remain favourites by the conclusion of the season.
So it’s incredibly likely that the award will be bestowed upon one of the four Suns, two Dockers, or the lone Giant or Kangaroo who have been nominated thus far.
In that group, there’s a clear frontrunner: Izak Rankine.
Even amongst an impressive group of rookies at the Suns, the small forward clearly stands out.
Gold Coast have locked in half of the nominations so far this year, with all four of their 2020 debutants already nominated. That is by far the best record in the competition and unlikely to be beaten (Freo has two from five, while Adelaide and the Bulldogs currently have had zero nominations from their five debutants apiece).
Two of their debutants have played every game this season. Connor Budarick and Noah Anderson were the second and fourth Suns to revive Rising Star nods. The former, nominated in Round 3, has averaged 11 possessions in an improved midfield group. Anderson is better; he’s averaged 15 touches and leads the competition’s young crop in effective disposals.
If Budarick and Anderson are good, though, both have easily been eclipsed by a pair of teammates: Rankine and Matt Rowell. If I wrote this piece a month ago, the latter would’ve been the focus.
Rowell was enveloped in so much media fanaticism during the early weeks of the season that he seemed unbeatable in these sweeps – and probably would’ve been. 2019’s top draftee was earning his praise, his nominated game a 25-touch, two-goal endeavour. Statistically, Rowell was behind only Eagle Andrew Gaff in total possessions, and closely behind Elliot Yeo in the trenches with 14 contested possessions.
It was only his second career game.
His third and fourth games were similarly sensational; two goals and a truckload of the footy in each. When his match-up in Freo’s Nat Fyfe was injured in a Round 5 clash, it was an ominous sign of what was to come the following Saturday: Rowell himself was curtailed by a shoulder injury that would wipe him out for the year.
Rowell’s ailed shoulder has opened the door for Rankine – and propelled him into media infatuation. Making his debut the week after his teammates’ injury, he has managed to become the new leading contender for the award.
Rankine has been in the system longer than his trio of teammates, but injuries disrupted the South Australian’s efforts to get on the field in last year. His talent was blindingly obvious from anybody who followed his development in Adelaide’s footy leagues, and despite a horror 2019 with injury, he debuted to much anticipation in Round 6.
Three goals – a stronger opening bag than Rowell – saw him secure his nomination in his debut game and in the three games since then, he has excelled. Rankine has channelled the disrupted beginning to his career into genuine brilliance.
The Sun is currently the top player in the league in terms of score involvements and has the equal-sixth highest goals-per-game average (that’s a higher goals-per-game average than Dan Butler, Jeremy Cameron and Tom Hawkins, for those playing along at home).
Rankine hasn’t yet quite overcome Rowell’s lofty heights in terms of average disposals or clearances, but he is averaging more goals per game – an area that appears to be his specialty.
Leading Gold Coast in average goals-per-game, Rankine has kicked more majors than any debutant from any club this year – in fewer appearances than many. He is behind only Lachlan Vandemeer (who has played in all but one of the Western Bulldogs’ clashes this year), but is equal with the Power’s Mitch Georgiades (who booted three majors in his third game on Thursday night).
The Suns’ dominance in the Rising Star stakes this year is so prominent that the four remaining nominees are often forgotten.
Freo and North Melbourne have had mediocre, two-win seasons thus far, and both are also weathering injury crises. These crises are typically firm ground for younger players to make a mark in depressed sides, and both teams have handed out a number of debuts (Freo with 5, North 2).
For the Dockers, this has helped Sam Sturt and Caleb Serong receive nominations. Sturt’s Round 1 nod is of so little note that he remains behind injured and nomination-less teammate Hayden Young in the betting markets, but Serong remains a favourite. The Victorian product has been thrust into a patchwork midfield for much of the season.
Monday night’s clash against Geelong saw him comfortably Freo’s best player in just his fifth game. Thurst by Justin Longmuir into a midfield baptism of fire against Patrick Dangerfield, he accumulated plenty of the football and bested the Cats champion. It also helped that he kicked 50 per cent of Freo’s goals with a superb effort on his non-prefered foot in the final stages of the monsoonal clash.
North’s Curtis Taylor earned a nod in Round 5 with, echoing Serong, a great performance in a big loss. Unlike Serong, though, Taylor has played every game this season and become a mainstay in the Kangaroos forward line; he has the third most marks out of any player in the squad, and his five goals to date make him North’s third most prolific goalkicker this season.
As for Giant Tom Green, he has joined a weirdly specific club.
Since 2017, the player who has been crowned the league’s Rising Star has been nominated in Round 4. Andrew McGrath in 2017, for a 28-disposal game in a Dons’ win over Adelaide. Jaidyn Stephenson, for a five-goal effort for the Pies. And Sam Walsh, for a classy 28-possession, seven-score involvement performance in a losing Blues side.
This year, Green was nominated with an 18-touch, one-goal effort during a crucial win for the Giants over the Pies. Again, in Round 4.
There are others I haven’t mentioned: Port’s Georgiades, the Saints’ Ben King and Brisbane’s Tom Berry are three acclaimed players who are yet to receive a nomination and are likely to soon.
But that trio – as well as Green, Taylor, Sturt, Budarick, Anderson and Serong – cannot match the favourite, Rankine. History, form and Rowell’s injury means the Rising Star is his to lose.