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Why Sam Walsh is the AFL's best young player

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Expert
16th August, 2020
18
1662 Reads

Sam Walsh is the best young player in the competition.

In any other period of time this would be an obvious call given Walsh was the first pick of the 2018 national draft.

Given the impending mega-draft status the 2018 crop will be receiving – if it hasn’t already – there has been an inordinate amount of talk about redrafting and reranking the quality of players.

And while Connor Rozee has the potential to be the league’s best player, the King twins are incredibly exciting and Gold Coast duo Jack Lukosius and Izak Rankine light up the league, Walsh doesn’t deserve to be overlooked.

Player-to-player comparison doesn’t work in a linear fashion given players like Bailey Smith and Matt Rowell are different from Walsh.

Clearly Rowell has shown signs of being a generational talent, but having played only four full games, let’s settle and ease the pressure on the young midfielder.

Sam Walsh has proven to be an above-average AFL standard midfielder from the outset of his career and has been a consistent presence on the outside for Carlton.

And as the team has improved throughout 2020, particularly throughout the middle parts of the season, Walsh has stood out.

Sam Walsh

(Darrian Traynor/AFL Media/Getty Images)

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In terms of a ‘footy frenzy’ MVP for Carlton, look no further than the 20-year-old.

Criticism was levelled at the second-year midfielder for his kicking and inability to impact on games early in the season.

Perhaps averaging an extraordinary 25 disposals and five marks a game in his first season meant Walsh was destined for perceived failure if he couldn’t match those expectations.

While the likes of Rowell, Rozee and Smith started off the season exceptionally well, Walsh played football that was realistically fine for an AFL player but a couple of levels below his young rivals.

Carlton’s overall improvement has come from greater team balance and a strong mix from many contributors, which has resulted in more even output all-round.

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Walsh had been allowed to settle more on the outside in the first few matches after the restart while the likes of Michael Gibbons, David Cuningham and Will Setterfield helped Patrick Cripps, with Matt Kennedy coming in a little later.

There was disappointment in his ball use, but Walsh was playing okay football in his second season, which wasn’t good enough for pundits and seemingly warranted criticism.

Since the competition became condensed, with short turnarounds and crammed fixtures, very little has been spoken about the early season redrafting and the exploits of those who thrived early.

Connor Rozee has dropped off completely, turning his A-grade output in the opening three rounds into a serious case of second-year blues before his injury.

Perhaps Port Adelaide felt it was too early to rely on their young star for an entire season, although Zak Butters has impressively stood up since.

Sam Walsh

Sam Walsh of the Blues (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

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Bailey Smith started as a key member of the Bulldogs centre bounce group, applying plenty of pressure and getting a decent amount of contested ball, but as the season has gone on, he looks a little fatigued and has settled into the role of a midfielder-forward, rotating through the guts rather than continuing on as a key centreman.

The Kings and Rankine are still exciting in spurts, Caleb Serong has emerged as a good player for Fremantle and Nick Coffield deserves to be mentioned for his role across St Kilda’s defence.

But as fatigue sets in across the competition, it’s Sam Walsh who has thrived and taken his game back up to an elite level.

Streets ahead of any other player under the age of 21 during this period of time, Walsh’s fitness and desire to work hard has been a staple as to what to expect from Carlton.

Perhaps the turning point was the Port Adelaide game pre-frenzy and in particular the incredible courage backing into the pack in front of Charlie Dixon.

In the opening six games of the season Walsh averaged 18.2 disposals, 3.8 marks, 1.5 clearances, 4.2 inside 50s, one rebound 50 and 5.3 turnovers per game.

He kicked no goals and collected 35.7 per cent of his possessions in a contested manner during that time.

Sam Walsh runs with the ball

(Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

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Over his past five games Walsh has averaged 18.6 disposals, 4.2 marks, 3.6 clearances, 3.4 inside 50s, 2.2 rebound 50s and a decreased 4.2 turnovers per game.

Adding five goals in those five games and an improved 45.7 per cent of his possessions being contested, Walsh has been all over the ground for Carlton and been far more damaging in the contest.

While the turnovers are still on the high side, playing more on the inside lends itself to an increased likelihood of clangers.

The 20-year-old is getting to almost every contest when he’s on the field and spreading into space more and more as the players around him get tired.

It means he can work harder between the arcs and provide assistance offensively and defensively, which Carlton highlight reels will show viewers.

His impressive form culminated in a near best-afield performance against Fremantle in Round 12’s incredible win, finishing with 24 disposals, seven clearances, 11 contested possessions and a goal.

Hopefully this can be a turning point in universal opinions and acknowledgment of what Carlton fans already know: that they have a star at 20 years of age.

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In the most unique period of time seen in AFL history, in a season initially defined by shortened quarters and putting question marks on the influence of players with strong fitness bases, Walsh has risen above most other players in the competition regardless of age.

Holding players to a high standard is a great sign of their respect and talent, but letting a small sample size define them and subsequently lead to criticism is another example of continued recency bias that seems to be the pillar of modern analysis.

Sam Walsh was the best first-year player in 2019 by far and after 12 rounds in 2020 has proven to be just as good and arguably more influential on Carlton when footy has become difficult.

Until we see an extended period of Matt Rowell or a sustained run of excellent footy from any other recent draftee, this fact is undisputed.

No-one else is rivalling his first 33 games, and no-one will for a long time.

Sam Walsh is the best young player in the competition and it’s time we started appreciating him.

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