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Why we should all be holding our horses on Horne-Francis

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15th October, 2021
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He’s the unanimous presumptive number one pick in the upcoming AFL draft.

Jason Horne-Francis has been tearing it up for the South Adelaide Panthers in the SANFL for the last two seasons and has been extremely impressive in the representative games he’s featured in too.

According to Fox Footy’s Ben Cotton, the Kangaroos rejected two eye-watering offers for the first pick. Adelaide reportedly offered pick four and two 2022 first-rounders, before Richmond offered picks seven, 15, 26 and Callum Coleman-Jones – with North saying no to both of them.

That should give some indication at the extent to which he is highly rated by all clubs, not just the holders of the top pick.

Where the cancellation of talent pathway competitions and national championships would normally have adversely affected the development of such a young player, Horne-Francis has been able to enjoy a full year playing against some of the best non-AFL level players in the country.

His sublime performances, coupled with the expectation that will almost certainly come with being North Melbourne’s first ever number one draft pick, means the hype train is already going full steam ahead.

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I’m not here to tell you that he won’t eventually fulfill those expectations. How would I know that anyway?

But I do want to tell you to ease off the expectations on his first season.

Comparisons between the AFL and big American leagues – like the NFL – get made more and more these days. While I don’t think the hype around the AFL draft will ever reach the levels it does in the States (despite the AFL’s best efforts), we are seeing an ever-increasing amount of attention being placed on the number one pick.

What gets forgotten in these comparisons, however, is that NFL draftees go through years of college sport and don’t enter the top professional competition until they’re much older than our players.

The top pick in the most recent NFL draft – Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence – is already 22. Cam Rayner, the number one pick in the 2017 AFL draft, is still only 21 and Horne-Francis was only legally allowed to have a beer and play Grand Theft Auto V not even four months ago.

If we look at the debut campaigns of the most recent top picks, it’s even more obvious that we need to give the kid plenty of time and, more importantly, time out of the spotlight to properly develop.

Jamarra Ugle-Hagan, who was picked first last offseason, was being called the next Lance Franklin long before his AFL career began and the hype reach truly ridiculous levels. Fans around the country were screaming at Luke Beveridge to put him in the side – like they knew what was best for him more than the person who actually coaches him every day. Then, those same fans had a meltdown when the 19-year-old had a ho-hum seven-disposal, goalless debut against the Swans.

Give him a break!

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Jamarra Ugle-Hagan of the Western Bulldogs in action.

(Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

Matt Rowell burst onto the scene in 2020 with three consecutive three-vote games, but has since been cruelled by shoulder and knee injuries. He actually played 11 straight games to finish off 2021, but I suspect the reason more wasn’t made of his middling impact was the fact he plays for Gold Coast and not the media agreeing to a moratorium on Rowell headlines.

Sam Walsh won the 2019 rising star award in his first campaign but, despite averaging 25 disposals and ten contested possessions a game, still had to endure endless chatter about whether he was the player Carlton should have taken with the first pick and was shockingly declared by one infamous personality as “not a matchwinner”. He just won their best and fairest, by the way.

We’ve seen this happen to players who haven’t rebounded too.

Tom Boyd left the game early citing mental health concerns. You could argue the bulk of the scrutiny in his case came about because of his trade and subsequent mega-deal – but his early drafting no doubt added to the crushing weight of expectation.

Going further back, we can’t forget the truly ridiculous amount of pressure Jack Watts was saddled with. At times it felt he was being single-handedly tasked with dragging one of the oldest professional sporting clubs in the world out of a historic malaise – no wonder it got to him.

Watts’ case worries me too, given the parallels that can be drawn to North Melbourne’s current plight and the state Melbourne were in back in 2008. The Kangaroos aren’t in quite the same hole the Demons were, but there’s no doubt they’re at their lowest in a very long time.

I hope Horne-Francis isn’t tasked by those in the media with putting North on his back from day one.

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You have to go back a long way to a player taken at number one who could be labelled a ‘bust’ and wasn’t also cruelled by injury. Even the players who haven’t reached ultra-stardom, like David Swallow or Tom Scully, both have/had perfectly solid careers that did a great service to their respective clubs.

Jason Horne-Francis may be the man to start a new North Melbourne dynasty, he (hopefully not) may have his potential robbed by injuries, or he may ‘just’ put in 200-odd serviceable games and bring plenty of smiles to the faces of North fans without becoming a quadruple Brownlow medallist.

Whatever happens, we’re not going to know the ending of his story by June, so – for everyone’s sake – let’s keep the blowtorch off him in 2022.

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