It takes many good players for any AFL team to be capable of winning the premiership flag, regardless of the saying that a champion team will always beat a team of champions.
Like any team sport, there are the exceptional players that will lead by example, will produce numerous brilliant and match-winning efforts, and can maintain great intensity throughout a game and season.
Going into the 2021 AFL finals series next week, there will be many great players in the eight sides, too numerous to list here.
But the one player that has impressed me the most this season is Clayton Oliver, no doubt one of the best inside midfielders of recent years.
I do not recall a player at centre bounces winning so many 50-50 balls.
Very often, even at times when the opposition looks like winning possession of the ball, the tenacious and brilliant Oliver will use immense pressure and skill to grasp the ball and burst away to either handball or kick the Demons into attack.
Oliver (187cm and 85kg) has come a long way since the 2015 AFL draft when he was noted for his contested work, ball winning ability, overhead marking and scoreboard impact, yet was perceived to have average speed and endurance.
However, while it was noted that Oliver’s 3km time trial of 10:45 needed improvement, his perceived lack of straight-line speed was offset by him having the third best agility test with 8.11 seconds, a task more relevant to football field speed where changing direction quickly is crucial.
Oliver has obviously since done the necessary fitness work to become a star since his AFL debut in 2016.
Going into the finals series next week, given that Melbourne has already secured the double finals chance regardless of the result of the last home-and-away match against Geelong, Oliver’s determination and ability to get the hard ball will be crucial to Melbourne’s bid to win the 2021 premiership flag.
Playing all 21 games this year, Oliver has the eight highest disposals per game in the AFL with 31, is ranked number one for contested possessions with over 17 per game, and is fourth best in terms of winning centre clearances at 7.5 per game.
But it is his importance to Melbourne that makes him a crucial player this final series as he leads the next Melbourne player by 56 in terms of disposals, tackles by 14, clearances by 28, and contested possessions by 75.
But Oliver is much more than a star player with great stats.
The way he plays also shows how committed he is to his team through his dedication and determination.
Oliver is indeed the type of player every AFL club needs.
As noted in 2019, Oliver’s desire to maximise his contribution led him to follow his teammate Brendan McCartney’s advice to emulate the most professional player at the club Bill Stretch for a couple of months in terms of diet and training.
From that experience, Oliver went from playing in the reserves in Round 23 of his first season (2016), to winning the club’s best and fairest award twice (2017 and 2019), with regular swimming now an important part of his dedicated training regime that has reduced his body fat levels and enhanced his fitness.
Clayton Oliver. (Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)
His passion for the club was expressed in 2019 by the happiness he gets from “seeing the crowd and seeing the fans”, and his belief that his fellow team players are his “best mates, they’re your brothers for life”.
Of Oliver’s play, while he is sometimes noted for wayward kicking in terms of clangers, with an average of five clangers per game in 2021 (fourth highest in the AFL), this is indeed reflective of being an inside midfielder who must operate and react quickly in crowded spaces with kicks often made under great pressure.
While Oliver would indeed be striving to improve his kicking disposal and efficiency, it is well known that the best AFL kickers tend to be defenders who have “more time on their hands to hit targets” with midfielders and forwards “well down the rankings”.
Of course, Oliver alone cannot win the 2021 premiership by himself.
With Melbourne’s perceived strengths being its defence and midfield, it may well be that Melbourne’s key forwards will have to step up and kick enough goals.
Melbourne indeed has many talented players that can kick enough goals to win the key matches, as evident by its great record against top four sides throughout the 2021 season, only losing to the Western Bulldogs in one of its two clashes and beating Brisbane, Port Adelaide and Geelong.
In addition to Ben Brown now kicking a few goals in recent weeks, there is Bayley Fritsch (46 goals for the season), Kysaiah Pickett (32), Tom McDonald (30) and Christian Petracca (24).
But, with Oliver leading from the front in 2021 with regard to many facets of the game, especially the hard ball get, it may well be that Oliver’s many gutsy and explosive efforts will inspire his team to win enough clearances and generate enough inside 50s to win the flag.
For myself, Clayton Oliver is the key player for Melbourne. If he is on, I suspect Melbourne will go very close to winning the 2021 flag.