It’s the most packed Rising Star field ever.
A host of young guns across all positions on the field, from dashing half-backs to powerful key forwards, will vie on Wednesday night to be crowned the 2023 Rising Star – and unlike most years, this one can genuinely be said to be a three, four or even five-horse race.
The odds-on favourite is North Melbourne prodigy Harry Sheezel, having smashed the first-year disposals record in a magnificent debut year; but Brisbane son of a gun Will Ashcroft, St Kilda Mr Fix-It Mitch Owens and Fremantle sharpshooter Jye Amiss are all well and truly in the frame.
And they’re just the leading candidates, with Brisbane cult hero Darcy Wilmot, Adelaide stopper Max Michalanney and dashing GWS wingman Finn Callaghan among the other chances to poll votes too.
It’s a situation that calls for power rankings: we’ve listed all 24 Rising Star nominees from season 2023, and ordered them not from worst to best, but from least likely to most likely to win.
Johnson’s spot at the bottom of this list is not down to his performance across an excellent 18-game debut season, but rather that due to a suspension for an ugly tackle on Brisbane’s Dayne Zorko in his fifth game, he is ineligible for Rising Star honours and one of two nominees with absolutely zero chance of winning.
Still, it was blessed relief for Fremantle supporters when after weeks of clamouring for a nod – including a controversial overlooking after an excellent second Western Derby – Johnson was finally nominated in Round 23 for a 19-disposal effort against Port Adelaide.
Aside from his suspension and the season’s first two rounds, Johnson has not missed a game for the Dockers, and looms as an integral part of their midfield into the future.
Like with Johnson, Pedlar is ineligible for the award due to a suspension for a dangerous tackle during Adelaide’s first Showdown win over the season; he goes ahead of Johnson in this list both due to his excellent season and because his ban was a good deal more contentious.
In his third year after going at pick 11 in the 2020 draft, Pedlar found a niche as a cannonball mid-sized forward, with his attack on the ball and powerful body seeing him become a fan favourite. He’d have been among the leading contenders for votes had he been eligible.
The heartbreak story of this year’s crop, Culley, the top pick in 2022’s mid-season draft, was tracking nicely as a big-bodied forward until suffering a dreaded ruptured ACL in the opening minutes of the Eagles’ Round 8 clash with Richmond.
Earned his nomination via an outstanding four-goal haul in defeat against Port Adelaide, and at just 20 years of age, has time to recover and build into a long-term piece of the Eagles’ midfield.
Another who finds himself down the bottom of this list through no fault of his own, a serious ankle injury derailed a promising run of form from the second-year Swan, and cut short his season just when last year’s runners-up began their surge into September.
Sheldrick still showed his class with a series of eye-catching performances, most notably two goals in an honourable loss to Brisbane and 29 touches in their demolition of West Coast a week later, the latter of which earned him his nomination.
Having played the last 11 games of the season and showed some truly exciting signs, that Brisbane’s other father-son gun finds himself all the way down in second-last on this list is the strongest sign of all that the 2023 crop was truly something special.
Fletcher has remained in Brisbane’s best 22, albeit on the periphery, since an eye-catching debut against Sydney that included a memorable first goal; winning the nod with a superb performance in Round 19 against Geelong, the match in which Will Ashcroft went down, felt symbolic that the Lions could overcome their number two draft pick’s absence in September.
Perhaps the 2023 Rising Star crop’s feel-good story, Mitchell’s journey to nomination is one of persistence. Delisted by Hawthorn at the end of 2022 and then re-drafted after battling persistent ankle and shoulder injuries, he broke into the team early in the season and found a niche as a ball-winning small defender.
It took him three months to earn a nomination, but a 20-disposal effort against GWS, the same side against which he debuted, meant he could be overlooked no more, and it was a surprise to see him finish the year outside the Hawks’ best 22.
Far from the most acclaimed of North Melbourne’s crop of young guns, Ford still showed enough late in the season to think a bright future awaits in the Kangaroos’ forward line.
The pick 56 in the 2020 draft took until the very last game of his Rising Star eligibility period to be nominated, thanks to an equal career-high three-goal haul against Gold Coast in Hobart – having also booted three at the same venue against Melbourne in Round 21, Tasmania clearly agrees with the mid-sized forward.
Genuine question: are you ineligible for the Rising Star if your suspension is a club-imposed one?
The 2021 top pick’s season started badly, with the Suns handing Andrew a pair of bans, first for an off-season DUI charge and then for missing a recovery session in May. From there, though, he bedded down a spot as an intercept-marking backman with plenty of promise, the highlight a seven-mark (three contested) performance in the Suns’ upset QClash victory.
Don’t be fooled by Ginbey’s relatively low position in the pecking order – the West Coast tyro could easily become one of this crop’s biggest stars in the years to come.
With responsibility thrust on the pick 9 from the moment he debuted due to the Eagles’ injury crisis, the teenager was even required to play key defender at times in his debut year, which prevented him from truly cashing in on a strong first three games as a pure midfielder, which included a 20-disposal effort in the year’s first Derby that earned him his nomination.
It says something about Hewett’s electric impact on the Eagles in the latter stages of the year that he’s now no longer known as the teenager who Jordan De Goey ironed out and sparked a massive off-field reaction from the footy world.
A young gun who oozes X-factor, Hewett was controversially nominated in Round 22 for a gallant 20-disposal effort in a 100-point Derby shellacking, but he’d well and truly proved himself as a star on the rise by then, with his craftiness matched only by the excitement generated from his crowd-frenzying goal celebrations.
He’s only played eight games and is yet to feature in a win at the highest level, but Wardlaw showed just why some at the Kangaroos think he’ll be an even better player than Sheezel when he reaches his peak.
An old-school midfield battering ram with silky skills to match, a 22-disposal effort against GWS in Round 13 that included his first goal capped off a superb first month of footy that had him spoken about as a major contender despite missing the season’s first nine games. Hamstring issues put paid to that as the Roos took a conservative approach, but his tenacity has already seen him become a fan favourite both inside and outside his club.
First-season fatigue might have set in to cost Humphrey a higher place on this list, but the Gold Coast future star was, at stages during the middle of the season, seen as a huge contender not just for votes, but for the Rising Star award itself.
Nominated for a 20-disposal breakout game against West Coast, Humphrey’s star rose even higher a week later with 26 touches against the might of Brisbane in the QClash, before slotting a brilliant winning goal against the Western Bulldogs just seven days on. Throw in a pair of goals in an upset win over Adelaide the next week, and that month-long stretch was as good as any of the other nominees’ best footy, Sheezel included.
Yet another whose position on this list is reflective of the strength of the crop as a whole, Hollands has been a staple in the Blues’ best 22 since Round 1, with only a mid-season shoulder injury that cost him six games preventing him from ranking even higher.
A smooth-moving wingman who runs all day and won acclaim as much for his defensive acts as for his precise ball use, it took Hollands until Round 21 to earn his nomination via a match-turning 20-disposal performance against St Kilda that included a career-high 10 contested possessions. Who said wingmen can’t win the hard ball?
A fan favourite from the moment he made his long-awaited debut in Round 3, the ‘Roo’ chant has been a feature of Melbourne games all season long.
Three goals in his first game earmarked van Rooyen as a star on the rise, and with 28 goals, including seven in two games against Richmond, only Amiss of his fellow nominees hit the scoreboard more in 2023 – and perhaps only Owens of this year’s crop looms larger in September.
Whether it’s the flying mullet or the dashing runs from defence, Weddle has instantly become a Hawthorn cult hero – and for good reason.
In many ways the embodiment of the Hawks’ remarkable late-season surge, Weddle took just four games to win a nomination via a 28-disposal, two-goal effort against West Coast. Having played 17 consecutive matches since forcing his way into the team in Round 7, he showed exactly why the Hawks moved heaven and earth to get themselves up last year’s draft order to secure his services.
For a long time in 2023, the 2021 draft’s pick 3 was the sleeping giant of this year’s crop… no pun intended.
A silky-smooth wingman who rivals Sheezel as the best pick of the nominees, Callaghan missing five of the Giants’ last seven games due to an Achilles issue is the sole reason he finds himself down in ninth: averaging 21 disposals per game, third behind Sheezel and Ashcroft this season, and using the ball beautifully throughout, this 20-year old is an absolute jet. The Giants will be praying he’s available for their elimination final.
In a lesser crop, McVee’s standing as one of the only debutants this year to play every game, and his vital role in Melbourne’s defence, would have him as a smoky for this award.
Nowhere near as eye-catching as the top nominees, the no-nonsense backman has hardly put a foot wrong since a surprise Round 1 debut; so without fuss were his performances that it took until Round 18 for Rising Star judges to remember he exists, rewarding him not so much for his tidy display against Brisbane as for the 16 weeks that preceded it.
Like McVee, Phillipou played every game in 2023, and where the Demon was solid as a rock, the Saint was class personified.
Perhaps the holder of the highest ceiling of the crop of ’23, the pick 10 of last year’s draft has been as crucial as anyone to St Kilda’s surprise rise into the finals, with his booming boot and undoubted X-factor adding a different dimension to the Saints’ often undermanned forward line. In a shallower pool, he’d be a top-three lock.
The Lions rated this popular youngster highly enough to make him just the second finals debutant in 30 years late in 2022, and in 2023 Wilmot showed exactly why.
Whether at half-back or off a wing, the 19-year old has excelled in a variety of roles, and along with Keidean Coleman, left veteran Daniel Rich surplus to requirements at the Lions in the latter stages of this season. Is seriously stiff to miss out on the top five, but if Brisban are to go all the way in September, Wilmot will play a key role.
Like McVee, Michalanney’s outstanding debut season has flown under the radar, with the first-year backman already handed plenty of responsibility in curtailing the best small forwards in the league.
Nominated in Gather Round, the father-son gun impressed both for his lockdown skills and his intercept ability, and only Charlie Cameron and Toby Greene could truly be said to have got the better of him this year – no shame in that, and even given the role on that pair so early in his career is remarkable.
Touted in some corners (okay, just by me) as 2023’s most important teenager, Amiss’ first full season at AFL level was a superb one.
As Freo’s number one forward target for much of the year, the youngster excelled on a team in which scoring was often a challenge, going goalless just three times on his way to a club-best 41 majors for the season, with his accurate set-shot kicking a highlight throughout.
A three-goal, match-winning haul against Melbourne at the MCG was enough for his nomination – dare we say it won’t be the last time Amiss turns it on on the hallowed turf.
The stats don’t paint a picture of just how brilliant Owens’ second season has been.
Saints fans will be relieved just seven games in his debut season left the Academy gun still eligible for the Rising Star in 2023, because while Sheezel and Ashcroft are the frontrunners, Owens is a certainty to poll and poll well. Nominated for a dominant 27-touch, two-goal effort in Round 4 against Gold Coast, his case has grown stronger by the week, with his aerial excellence, goal nous and contested ball-winning all unmatched in this year’s crop.
The Saints wouldn’t have made it to September, let alone earned a final, without him.
The greatest shame of the 2023 crop is that Ashcroft’s season-ending knee injury in Round 19 will likely cost him the Rising Star award, in what was looming as a thrilling tussle for top honours between the Lions father-son gun and Sheezel.
Nevertheless, having instantly stepped into Brisbane’s star-studded midfield and become indispensable, with a 31-disposal effort in just his second game against Melbourne earning him both his nomination and a superstar reputation that he still carries despite the ACL blow.
Even having missed the last five games, only Sheezel of his fellow nominees won more disposals, and none had more clearances. If this author was among the voters, Ashcroft would be getting the maximum five – and even if he doesn’t, he’s surely got the Goal of the Year sewn up, right?
In all honesty, Sheezel is the Rising Star favourite for a reason, and is a near-certainty to claim the honours on Wednesday night. Breaking the AFL record for disposals in a debut season, the favourite for North Melbourne’s best and fairest has a case to right now be the Kangaroos’ best player already.
A half-back star, expect him to make a similar move to the midfield as last year’s winner Nick Daicos in the years to come: with him and Wardlaw, the Roos have the young talent they need to begin their slow push up the ladder.
As for my take that he should be third behind Ashcroft and Owens? Well, I’m still standing by that, though I can recognise a lost cause when I see it. And barring a shock, Sheezel’s crowning on Wednesday night will be thoroughly deserved.