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Opinion

Compromise and pandemic define the 2020 AFL Draft

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Expert
29th November, 2020
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There never has been and, let’s hope, never will be another AFL draft like 2020. The combination of compromise and pandemic will define this draft as likely the most complex and uncertain in AFL history.

A common past criticism of the AFL draft has been that the top ten is often telegraphed well in advance, taking away some of the theatre and turning those much-awaited early picks into a predictable anti-climax.

Not so in 2020, or at least so far, as the identity of Adelaide’s No.1 draft selection – or any of the picks set to follow – remains shrouded in mystery, and even this close to the draft the Crows themselves appear genuinely undecided.

It’s not scientific, but I ran a Twitter poll last week asking followers who they’d like their club to take in that position – and WA key forward Logan McDonald stands out above the rest as the leading contender.

But there is a group of nearly four in ten voters who would not take McDonald with the first selection, albeit one that does not possess a clear consensus on which prospect to select instead.

Like just about everything else in this year’s draft, the pick 1 decision will be impacted by the presence of some very talented father-son and academy players in the pool. For 12 months now it has been called the most compromised draft in history.

By some measures it could be just that. It seems likely that 2020 will break the record for the most bids made in a draft, currently held by the 12 bids total from the 2016 event.

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And, there’s a good chance the bid for Jamarra Ugle-Hagan will become the earliest made in the draft’s history. Under the current system Melbourne’s bid of pick 3 on Callum Mills is the earliest we’ve seen, Ugle-Hagan is likely to outdo that.

That said, many of the bids are likely to come in the second half of the draft, on players who’ve shown some promise but are not standouts.

Ugle-Hagan could feasibly be the only bid made inside the top ten and it’s possible we’ll only see three bids made in the top 20, with Lachie Jones and Braeden Campbell the other names to watch out for.

Compare that to 2015 when no less than five bids were made inside the first 16 picks, and seven in the top 25. It would be a surprise to see the 2020 draft match those numbers.

So, the most-compromised-ever tag is debatable. What’s more clear is that 2020 should (hopefully) be the last of the severely compromised drafts.

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The AFL has already announced a significant scaling back of the generous NGA access over the next two years which will see clubs only able to match bids for pre-tied players if they come outside the top 40 selections (or top 20 in 2021).

Northern states academies and the father-son rule will continue, and the draft will no doubt always remain compromised to some degree. But perhaps some compromise is needed in the interests of the competition, and that seems a manageable load to bear.

Ugle-Hagan could well make history as the first pre-tied played ever bid on with pick 1 – that’s a decision for the Crows to make, and like many it’s made more difficult by the unequal impact of COVID-19.

Many consider him this year’s best talent – but like every other Victorian prospect he’s played little to no football this year, while others like Logan McDonald have had the chance to shine.

Jamarra Ugle-Hagan of Oakleigh

Jamarra Ugle-Hagan. (Photo by Martin Keep/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

McDonald’s season – finishing only two goals behind the leading WAFL goalkicker and being named in the league’s 2020 team of the year – is, relative to the circumstances, one of the most impressive we’ve ever seen. Some consider him a generational talent.

Who’s to say Ugle-Hagan would not have been just as impressive given the same opportunity? On the other hand, what are the odds he might’ve played a 2020 season that was just ok, allowing McDonald to overtake him and become the clear No.1?

A similar narrative surrounds Victorian midfielder Archie Perkins, who in the final weeks before the draft is threatening to jump from being a likely early teens pick to perhaps the top five.

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Perkins – again, like every Victorian – hasn’t been able to show his wares this season, but tested very well athletically and could play that dual midfield-forward role that so many of the most valued current AFL players fill.

Hawthorn are reportedly looking at drafting him with pick 4, which would be higher than his body of work suggests – but bodies of work are so hard to judge by in 2020.

Every year we see players break out in their under-18 season and who knows – had it gone ahead as planned, complete with a national championships, perhaps the 2020 competition would’ve seen Perkins do just that.

Adding one last layer to the uncertainty is live trading, which after two years of action is a tool that AFL clubs are becoming more comfortable with.

Whereas in previous years the draft order was locked from a long way out and clubs could feel more confident sharing intel with those unlikely to influence their picks, now it’s dangerous to let anyone know what you might be planning.

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In particular there’s plenty of speculation around the possibility of clubs trading to move up the order – like Gold Coast did on draft night last year for example, swapping two later first-rounders to get pick 11 from Carlton and draft Sam Flanders.

The difficulty in that deal is that it takes two to tango and while the likes of Essendon (6, 7, 8), Collingwood (14, 16) and GWS (10, 13, 15, 20) might all like to trade up, that relies on finding a team willing to trade down.

It’s hard to see a club in this year’s top five wanting to trade out of it – in a draft of uncertainty, there’s a comforting level of confidence in those top five prospects that the clubs likely to land them will be reticent to give up.

But, stranger things have happened. And as the 2020 AFL Draft grows nearer but not clearer, all the can be said for sure is it will be one to watch – and undoubtedly fascinating to look back on in years to come.