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The best player from last year's draft is not who you'd think

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Expert
8th July, 2021
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Errol Gulden is the most talented player out of the 2020 NAB AFL draft.

While many thought Braeden Campbell would be the young Swan to take the competition by storm this season, it has been Gulden who has become an important part of a finals-quality team, already proving to be a value pick at 32 in last year’s draft.

Through Sydney’s tough opening set of fixtures, Gulden was remarkable. In the first five games of the season, he averaged 19 disposals, seven marks, five inside 50s and two goal assists a game.

Natural tiring was to be expected, which forced him to play closer to goal in Sydney’s clashes against Geelong and Melbourne, where he showed his versatility to play the pressure forwards role, finishing with 11 tackles and three goal assists over those two matches.

Since returning from injury, Gulden’s game-time has been managed but it’s clear that John Longmire values the young star’s ball use, as he has been moved higher up the ground.

Against the Eagles, Gulden collected much more of the ball on the defensive side of the wing, finishing with 19 disposals, six inside 50s, 436 metres gained and two goals.

The NAB AFL Rising Star award is somewhat maligned for both its eligibility criteria, the nomination process and indeed, its prestige.

Consumers of the game are still unsure whether weekly nominations are based on individual performances or a build-up of good form. One would suspect as the season goes on, obvious players that have missed out will be squeezed into the final ballot; North Melbourne’s Tom Powell and Gold Coast’s Matt Rowell will require a vote at some stage.

Matthew Rowell of the Suns celebrates a goal

Matthew Rowell of the Suns celebrates a goal (Photo by Jono Searle/AFL Photos/via Getty Images )

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History indicates that players need to have not missed more than three games at most to win the award; only Nick Holland in 1995, who won the award having played 15 games, has been successful outside of these parameters.

Gulden was the first nominee of the season for his dominant display against Brisbane but has missed five games due to a shoulder injury.

So, while it seems increasingly likely that the Swan won’t receive many votes for the award, his injury absence should not detract from him headlining the class of 2021 debutants.

Put simply, the 18-year-old is clearly the most influential player out of all those eligible to win the 2021 Rising Star award.

With Gulden in the team, the Swans have gone 6-4 with a percentage of 118.9.

Only one of these losses exceeded ten points, the 40-point thrashing by the Suns, and the big scalps Sydney claimed during that time include Brisbane, Richmond, Geelong and most recently, West Coast.

Without Gulden, the Swans had fixtures against Collingwood, Fremantle, Carlton, St Kilda and Hawthorn, all of whom are outside finals contention and should have been easily accounted for. In that time, 3-2 with a percentage of 105.6. The average points for went down from 91.2 to 79.8.

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Of course, the entirety of the drop off isn’t individually applicable to Gulden’s absence, but the trend of his numbers certainly indicate that the 18-year-old has been vital to Sydney’s competitiveness.

When he was injured, the cohesion looked off, the forward pressure took a slight step backward and the scoreboard impact was hurt.

As a junior, the former Swans Academy member was seen as one of the most well-rounded players in his draft class, with only his 175-centimetre measurement perhaps the biggest detractor. Some experts even believed had he been of average height, Gulden would’ve been a top five-to-ten pick.

The term utility is often set aside for athletic talls who can fill a variety of key position posts as well as potentially feature through the midfield, Nik Cox for instance, but Gulden fits the footballing definition perfectly.

Through his draft year, Gulden was the main guy for his team by foot, showing off elite reading of the play and enough courage to take on the difficult kicks, even if some may have missed.

A look back at his highlights package indicate that what we’ve seen at AFL level through ten games is the bare minimum of what he can produce in the future.

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Perhaps why Gulden has proven to be so good in so few games is the awareness he has of his own game, and the understanding of how his team wants to operate.

Many players enter the system with raw ability with sky-high potential, but only very few are able to influence games and be so in-tune with their surroundings immediately; the name that keeps coming to mind in that regard is Sam Walsh, that’s how good Gulden’s fit is at Sydney.

On a surface level, comparisons to Caleb Daniel seem rudimental in nature, however truthfully, being shorter players is further down the list than the important traits that are shared.

Both players are perfectly capable of playing anywhere on the ground, precise kicking is one of the keys to their respective games, both possess a level of patience that is required to identify the correct targets and each player has the innate ability to see things that only the elite players can on the field.

Given the 24-year-old Bulldog has won a club best-and-fairest, it bodes well for the young Swan, whose debut season far exceeds that of Daniel’s.

What’s most encouraging overall about Gulden though is that, in ten games, he has shown that he can impact games in different roles and positions right from the outset.

Errol Gulden of the Swans celebrates after kicking a goal

Oh, Errol – I would do anything, just to be like him… (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Whether it’s as a small forward, a half-forward flanker or from a wing, nothing gets in the way of the second-round pick’s main objective, which is to get the ball into a stronger, offensive position.

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One would suspect that, like Daniel, the Swans will look to move their young player into the defensive half to get more precise kicking and more meaningful ball movement off halfback, particularly if Jordan Dawson leaves the club.

According to the official ratings, Gulden is rated elite in his average of 276.4 metres gained, 4.1 inside 50s, 4.8 marks and 1.3 goal assists as well as being rated above average in a myriad of statistics including kicking efficiency (65.4 per cent), tackles (3.2), ground ball gets (3.5) and score involvements (5.6).

It won’t result in an award this season; those honours will be set aside for the likes of Tom Green, James Jordon, Nik Cox or perhaps Lachie Sholl.

But from what we’ve seen in his opening act, Gulden has them all covered when it comes to impact and skill which says a lot in itself.

Hindsight suggests that maybe the experts were too harsh on a 2020 pool that was deemed to be relatively shallow, with 32 of the 59 players selected already having debuted and almost half of those coming from outside the top 30.

The ‘best’ player is always a subjective talking point without having an ability to travel into the future, but gut feel suggests it will be Denver Grainger-Barras out of the impressive group filled to the brim with talent.

Sometimes players start off strongly in their careers before it turns out they hit their peak too early, which can cause overreactions.

In Gulden however, Sydney have stumbled across a player that is both ready-made with a heap of untapped potential.

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No, the Swans landed the most talented 18-year-old in all of Australia with the 32nd pick of the National Draft to add to their super impressive young list.

It’s unlikely songs will be written about this Errol by the end of his career but one thing is for certain: there will be a lot of clubs in the future that would give everything to have a player just like him.

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