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Opinion

Darcy Parish has arrived and the AFL is taking notice

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7th June, 2021
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This is the Darcy Parish Bombers fans have been expecting.

The orchestrator of goals. The contested ball beast. Someone who can shift a game in the kind of frightening ways he’s shown us in 2021. He’s aggressive. He’s evolving into an efficient user of the ball.

Right now his ceiling is untapped and no-one knows how high the 23-year-old can go. But after a few development years where he spent more time across half forward, he’s now showing the AFL what the good to great jump can look like.

On Saturday against the reigning premiers Richmond, Parish amassed 44 disposals – a club record – and won the Yiooken Award for best afield. He clocked up 14.1 kilometres for the match and had 174 metres gained in the final quarter – the most on the ground.

He almost willed an Essendon victory. That’s made more impressive with the loss of Andrew McGrath in the first quarter. Parish stepped up and went into overdrive. Even though the Bombers lost by 39 you could see just how much impact Parish can have on a game.

“His ferocious attack on the ball, his cleanliness around the contest is really his trademark, and he showed that on Anzac Day (with a best-afield medal) why he can be one of the best midfielders in the comp,” said former number one pick and Bombers teammate Andrew McGrath back in April.

Andrew McGrath

Andrew McGrath (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

That Richmond game was just part of what he’s accomplished this year, a season littered with tremendous growth. This year he’s averaging 31.4 touches per game which puts him among AFL’s elite ball winners like Clayton Oliver and Ollie Wines. Compare that to 19.1 in 2020, and 20.2 in 2019.

He’s equal first in centre clearances with Tom Liberatore – both averaging 4.3 a game. He’s second in clearances. He’s had 93 score involvements (sixth) and is ranked sixth for inside 50s. He won the Anzac Day medal for his 42 touches and he’s on pace to claim the Crichton Medal ahead of the likes of Zach Merrett.

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In his last seven games Parish has produced the best string of disposals of his career: 44, 36, 36, 39, 35, 26, 42. The Bombers have gone 4-3 in that period with losses to Blues by 16, Giants by two, and Tigers by 39. With a bit more luck the Bombers could have made it 6-1.

After the six-goal loss to the Tigers, Ben Rutten was asked about Parish’s 44-touch game. He explained his rise in three parts: more opportunity, and a big pre-season with a focus on fitness and maturity.

“I think his form over the last six or seven weeks has been really good. His game tonight was fantastic. He was really clean. The value for his possessions is getting better and better,” said Ben Rutten at the post-match presser on the weekend.

“It was a fantastic game especially when McGrath went down, Darcy’s ability to stand up played a really important role for us.”

Ben Rutten, Senior Assistant Coach and Team Defence of the Bombers addresses his players

Ben Rutten (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Richmond coach Damien Hardwick also had high praise for Parish: “He was really, really damaging and he’s outstanding around clearance. The kid’s come on a hell of a lot,” he said after the Dreamtime clash.

There’s been buzz around the AFL on Parish’s hot form. Tim Watson spent time talking about the comparisons between him and Carlton’s apprentice to Patrick Cripps in Paddy Dow. Cal Twomey dissected who should get the bigger contract between Parish and Zach Merrett, something that would have been a no brainer at the start of this year.

Parish now sits in third for the AFL coaches’ votes behind midfield superstars Clayton Oliver and Marcus Bontempelli, who are both on finals-bound teams. PlayUp has Parish a top five Brownlow fancy at $9.00, with Dustin Martin is at $8.

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If you’re wondering if Parish could net Brownlow votes at the end of the year, the answer is yes. The question is: how far can he go?

Looking back at the start of the year, the Bombers seemingly had midfield depth. Dylan Shiel, new recruit Jye Caldwell, Andrew McGrath and Zach Merrett were developing connections. Devon Smith and Jake Stringer were doing on-ball shifts. Parish, again, was filling out a role across half forward. But once the flood of injuries came to Shiel and Caldwell – and now McGrath – Parish got his opportunity. And hasn’t looked back.

When Rutten was asked if he saw this kind of growth in Parish he responded with a definitive yes.

“It was a conversation we probably had during the pre-season. I probably felt there was 30 per cent growth in him, in his game,” he said.

Sam Landsberger reported that during games 26 to 75, Parish spent 40 per cent of his time in the midfield and more than 50 per cent in attack. Since then he has spent 70 per cent of matches in the middle, averaging 34.3 disposals in the last ten games.

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Darcy Parish

(Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

In 2017, when Parish was 19, he said he was eager to add new dimensions to his game after showing flashes of being a midfield weapon.

“We didn’t have the big bulls inside so I was getting more contested,” Parish said at the time.

“It’s a side of my game I need to improve, getting uncontested footy. I’m working on it – knowing when to impact and when to hold out.”

If you can recall, Parish only played 15 games in 2018, spent time in the VFL and struggled to keep his spot in the team. It was as if he’d already reached the crossroads of his career. But he took a big step forward in 2019 with a career-high 31 disposals against Richmond and finished the year averaging 20.6 touches a game with 12 goals.

He showed he could thrive in the midfield and there was a belief among the Bombers’ faithful that he was being wasted across half forward and as long as he was playing there his ceiling was capped. All of that is now history.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly one thing that has led to Parish becoming a midfield beast. The opportunity to be allowed to get his hands on the ball has most likely been the best thing for his career.

His aggressive attack on the ball has shades of Gary Ablett Jnr, how he’d bust open packs, or how he’d free the arms for sharp handballs in traffic.

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Gary Ablett lines up a kick

(Photo by Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)

The Bombers have been looking feverishly for an Ollie Wines-type brute but they found one in Parish. This accelerates Essendon’s rebuild.

Parish is now trending upwards in ways unimaginable if you thought about where he was at in February. The problem for Rutten is what happens when Shiel, Caldwell and McGrath – and even pinch hitters like Smith – return? Where does that put Parish?

The hope would be that Parish’s emergence keeps him in the midfield. Perhaps Caldwell moves to the half forward role Parish was playing. Maybe it’s just a case of rotations off the bench and using Parish in more critical points of the game. But I repeat: Parish’s midfield role is here to stay. It has to be.

The Bombers, like Parish, are moving forward at a rapid pace. If all hands are on deck in 2022, winning a final wouldn’t seem as crazy as it sounds. There’s going to be some intriguing conversations about the playing list in the off-season – what kind of players do the Bombers add, who gets shown the door – but none of those discussions should prevent Parish from getting the kind of contract he deserves and being a top priority for Essendon.

“He’s built some belief in his body. He’s certainly made a jump in his conditioning and his physical preparation and his running ability,” Rutten said.

“He took that to a new level through the off-season. He’s got a lot of confidence at the moment.”

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