It has been apparent for a few weeks that Richmond are not going to be a major factor in this year’s finals series and that Dustin Martin was going to be no more than a bit player in September, if at all.
But now it’s official – the man who has dominated three of the last four grand finals and is the greatest finals player of this century won’t be taking his place on the big stage.
Martin’s historic three Norm Smith medals we know about, and there are three Gary Ayres medals (player of the finals as judged by the coaches) to go along with it.
Using the 2021 AFL Season Guide as a reference point, in 12 Richmond finals from 2017-2020, ten of which were wins, Dusty was named his team’s best player in seven of those matches, and another four times he was named in the best five. In only one match, the 2018 preliminary final when he was hampered by injury, was he not named in the best.
They are big shoes to fill. Who can rise up in his place?
Marcus Bontempelli and Christian Petracca tick all the boxes as the heirs apparent to Dusty’s throne.
While Bontempelli and Petracca have capable teammates in the likes of midfielders Jack Macrae and Clayton Oliver, or tall influencers such as Aaron Naughton or Max Gawn, those two alone have the mixture of being explosive in traffic, penetrating with ball in hand, and able to hit the scoreboard regularly.
They do it in different ways, of course.
Bontempelli scythes through traffic more elegantly, and puts teammates into space by hand or pinpoints a pass by foot using vision and skill that is reserved for few. He’s been there and done that before too, in 2016, but is a much more complete and powerful player now.
Petracca has never lacked ambition with his disposal, fancying himself capable of the impossible from day one, but he has learnt how to harness his immense talent in the last year and a half. Melbourne become immediately dangerous whenever he has the ball, because a scoring opportunity is never far away. The game moves to his will.
With 21 and 19 goals respectively this season, Bontempelli and Petracca are the best goal-kicking midfielders in the competition. Let’s not forget, Martin has kicked 19.2 in finals during Richmond’s back-to-back premierships of 2019-20. Goals win big matches, and in the key moments, Dusty doesn’t miss.
Bontempelli has always been shaky with set shots from simple distances and angles. In the last four seasons, Petracca has gone at 54 per cent accuracy in front of goal. Can their nerve hold up in September when the chances come?
Geelong have been playing finals for years, so it’s unlikely we’re going to see something from the Cats that we haven’t already. But could it be Jeremy Cameron ripping apart a couple of finals in the hoops? Patrick Dangerfield was a non-factor for most of last year’s grand final and will be wanting to turn that around. We know the high class level of Joel Selwood, Tom Hawkins and Tom Stewart.
Travis Boak and Robbie Gray have had the chance to carry Port all the way over their time, but haven’t been able to do it. The younger players like Connor Rozee, Zac Butters, Xavier Duursma and Will Drew probably don’t quite have the seasoning, or have been battling injury.
Ollie Wines is in his ninth year but hits finals in career-best form at 26 years old – the same age Dusty was when he took Richmond all the way in 2017. Not a noted goal-kicker across his career, he’s actually kicked multiples in four of the eight finals he’s played, with the Power winning three of those games when he’s done it. Is it his time?
Brisbane have finished second on the ladder in the last two years and not been able to progress past a preliminary final. Lachie Neale, Dayne Zorko and Jarryd Lyons haven’t been able to get the Lions to the big dance.
Is Hugh McCluggage ready? Tough for a wingman to dominate multiple finals, but he has proven he can win his own ball and hit be dangerous inside 50, albeit erratically.
Zac Bailey appeals as the Lions’ most dangerous weapon. A few weeks ago he had 15 contested possessions and nine clearances among 26 touches, complemented by three goals. It’s one thing doing it against Adelaide, but as a natural footballer he gives every indication the finals stage is going to be his domain. His after-the-siren goal against Collingwood in Round 3, when he never looked like missing, shows he has the mettle. He’s special.
Sydney hasn’t played finals in the last two seasons, but we know what we’re going to get from Luke Parker, Josh Kennedy, Dane Rampe and the other experienced heads. Does Buddy Franklin have something special in store? Could he get his thousandth on grand final day?
Callum Mills, Ollie Florent, Isaac Heeney, Jordan Dawson and Tom Papley are the next generation. You know the latter would love to kick a bag of six and win a final.
While Sam Walsh has been given rightful accolades for his rise this year, Mills isn’t far behind him in turning into a rolled gold gun. Swans fans are never happier than when Florent has the ball in his hands. Heeney promises more than he delivers, still. Jordan Dawson has one of the best legs in the game.
Could someone take their team to glory from seventh or eighth? Darcy Parish and Jake Stringer are in the form to do it for Essendon. Shai Bolton is capable of anything on a football field, and is going to need to be now that Martin is out. Jack Steele is unstoppable for St Kilda and can kick goals too.
History shows that the team playing the best football in September is most likely to hold up the premiership cup and it’s very often not the team that finishes on top. Chances are that one of the above players is going to be the spark that lights the flame to take their club to a storied flag.
For what it’s worth, my money is on Petracca and the Dees.