How Adelaide's Senior Players Have Helped Revive The Crows
It’s hard not to admire the Adelaide Crows in 2021.
Entering the season with a just a glimmer of hope after a three-win streak towards the end of 2020, the team has proven to be largely competitive and resilient throughout 2021.
No single factor has been more defining for the Crows than the resurgence of a couple of their legendary veterans, lifting the group out of a mental rut that's plagued them since their infamous 2017 Grand Final smashing.
While a club like North Melbourne opted to let go of some experienced personnel, the Crows backed in their star veterans and it's had a clear positive effect.
Rory Sloane and Taylor Walker have been two of the club’s six best performers in 2021.
The impact these two players have had on the playing group has seen them become a more offensively efficient team with a never-say-die attitude that's intangible, yet evident.
Walker, incredibly, sits second in the Coleman Medal with 34 goals, having reluctantly been rested for one game.
The 31-year-old’s career renaissance has been incredible, ranked 1st in the competition for score involvements per game, 5th for contested marks per game, 13th for marks inside 50 and, quite astonishingly, 20th for tackles inside-50 per game.
Incredibly, Walker's never been crowned an All-Australian, yet at 31-years of age, he might have his best chance yet.
Heading into the season, Adelaide was the lowest scoring team and without a clear avenue to goal, with Riley Thilthorpe and Elliott Himmelberg expected to be relied upon.
And while Walker looked a shadow of his former self in 2020, kicking just 15 goals in 14 games, and proving largely ineffective in attack, some were even calling for an early retirement.
His impact however has been astonishing this season, and while the improvements mightn’t seem extraordinary statistically, it’s important to note that most people had this team finishing in the bottom two once again in 2021.
The Crows have gone from the lowest scoring team to the 11th highest scoring team, averaging 81.6 points per game, and having been ranked last by a long way for marks inside-50 in 2020, are now ranked 14th in the category.
Adelaide was ranked a clear last in goal assists too, they now ranked 12th off the back of Walker’s spacing and direct assists with his field kicking being utilised to much better effect. The Crows have gone from kicking a goal on 18.84% of their inside-50s entires, to a much sharper 22.35% this season.
The club’s greatest ever goal-kicker is recording numbers not seen since 2017, when he was still in his prime.
In 10 games so far, Walker is averaging 14.6 disposals, 6 marks, 1.8 tackles and 1.1 goal assists per game. His disposal efficiency of 69.9% is the second-highest in his career, and his 8.8 contested possessions per game are a career-high by nearly two.
2.5 contested marks per game is a career-high as well, much like the 9.1 score involvements and 327.2 metres gained per match, highlighting the entire package Walker is providing.
Having struck such golden form, Walker is attracting immense attention, which has allowed Thilthorpe to be eased into senior footy, kicking 12 goals in six games and developing far quicker than expected, while the likes of Shane McAdam, James Rowe and Darcy Fogarty are all rotating around to have an impact beyond staying inside-50.
The entire offensive group has been inspired by their former captain, and the mentality and positive attitude is largely attributable to their current skipper, who has thrived with better support in the midfield.
Through injury, Sloane has played only 7 of the first 11 games but has become a more attacking-minded midfielder thanks to the support of two breakout stars alongside him.
Rory Laird is averaging 30.4 disposals, 5.8 tackles and 6.7 clearances a game, while Ben Keays is collecting 28 disposals, 5.9 tackles and 5.8 clearances a game.
These two alone are accounting for a significant portion of Adelaide’s central and defensive midfield work, which has assisted Sloane to place a greater emphasis on getting the ball forward, along with a couple of veteran teammates on the wings.
In Paul Seedsman and Brodie Smith, the Crows have experienced heads who have always thrived in gaining ground and are now receiving more opportunities to do so. Add Lachie Sholl to the mix, and the Crows have gone from a ranking of 17th where metres gained per match is concerned, all the way to 6th.
Sloane himself is averaging a career-high 373.3 metres gained per game, to go with his 23.6 disposals, 5.3 tackles, 5.3 clearances and career-high 4.6 inside 50s.
The 31-year-old’s average of 6.6 score involvements is his best since 2017, while 57.3% of his possessions are contested, the second-highest rate of his career.
Without support last season, Sloane’s efforts were drowned out by his team’s uncompetitiveness and inability to produce effective disposal of the football.
Transitionally inept and shambolic in the contests, it made sense for Adelaide’s best numbers to come from tackling, given the opposition constantly had the ball.
With greater support and an inspired buy-in thanks to their leaders, the Crows have tightened up their clearance work significantly in the middle particularly, having gone from averaging four less centre clearances per game than their opponents, to breaking even in 2020.
The end result has career-high midfield disposal numbers for Rory Laird, Ben Keays and Paul Seedsman, while Seedsman and Smith have clear career-highs in metres gained, resulting in the aforementioned increase in scoring efficiency once inside 50.
Coach Matthew Nicks has put into a place a system strong enough to provide effective ball movement when the players are in full motion and at certain times, they have looked unstoppable, evidenced by their 6 goal to 3 first quarter against Richmond last Sunday.
Of course, with four wins and sitting in the bottom four, the Crows still have their issues.
If Daniel Talia had been fit and been able to provide the same support as Sloane and Walker in the other thirds of the ground, perhaps the Crows could’ve even pushed for a top-8 spot, yet instead, they’ll likely finish in the bottom-4, while their defence continues to gel.
Yet there's little doubt that the output of veteran players has helped lift the Crows out of the doldrums and into a space that provides fans with excitement for a positive environment their young players are now developing in.
Regardless of how the rest of 2021 plays out, Adelaide are back on track and look are far more accomplished team with strong potential going forward.
Rory Sloane and Taylor Walker may be in the twilight of their careers, but their resurgence in 2021 has helped give Adelaide hope.
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