Shai Bolton's Tiger Tale Has Been One Of 2021's Standout Stories

Shai Bolton is more than just one of the most exciting players in the AFL.

With a highlight reel that already rivals some of the greats in AFL history, Bolton has well and truly emerged as Richmond’s main point of difference, and a weapon that’s unmatched across the competition.

The 22-year-old’s rapid improvement in 2021 has seen him become a consistent, high-quality contributor to one of the greatest clubs in the modern era, playing a vital midfield/forward role.

In fact, Bolton has finished with 20 or more disposals in 9 of 10 games, kicking at least one goal in 8 matches, while only ending up with less than 4 inside-50s on one occasion.

His performance against Sydney in Round 3, finishing with just 7 possessions and 3 clangers has already proven to be an aberration, as Bolton’s offensive talents have been a vital factor in Richmond’s successes, and a major reason why they're a 69.3% chance of once again playing Finals according to the Stats Insider futures model.

There were glimpses of Bolton’s talents in 2020 where he was predominately stationed on a forward flank, finishing with 3, three-vote Brownlow games.

Only on select few occasions, when the Tigers were missing the bulk of their midfield did Bolton get opportunities in the centre last season, finishing with 24 disposals and 6 clearances against Brisbane in Round 10, and 29 disposals, 7 inside-50s, 5 clearances and a goal against the Bombers in Round 13.

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Draft experts believed that Bolton would become an exciting and damaging outside player at AFL level, predominately as a forward, and while the former second-round draft pick has followed that path, an improved fitness base, coupled with a strong work ethic, has seen him add many more strings to his bow.

There are career-highs across the board.

Bolton is averaging 21.8 disposals, 4.8 marks, 5.5 inside 50s, 4.4 clearances and 6.8 score involvements a game.

With 419.8 metres gained per match, and an average of over a goal, behind and goal assist per game, the numbers speak volumes for his impact.

At just 175 centimetres tall, he's ranked 3rd at the club for marks inside-50, and 5th for contested marks per game, indicating he's doing a lot of absolutely everything.

To prove any detractors wrong, Bolton wins 44.24% of his possessions in a contested manner, proving to be just as potent on the inside as he is damaging on the outside.

As an overall package, the Western Australian is Richmond’s most talented player and will be pushing Dustin Martinsoon to be their best player.

To label Bolton the best 22-year-old in the game currently is warranted, however to label him the best in the last decade mightn’t even be applicable within the confines of the Punt Road – Jack Riewoldt won the Coleman Medal at age 21 and Trent Cotchin won the Brownlow at 22.

Yet, it’s becoming exceedingly obvious that Bolton’s rare combination of traits will elevate him to superb heights if he stays fit and realises his potential.

The same could’ve been said for a current star out west, where the similarities are quite evident.

Michael Walters has proven to be one of Fremantle’s best players over the last decade, and will go down as one of the club’s most talented player.

A career that has been severely hampered by injuries, Walters has still managed to be Fremantle’s leading goalkicker on 5 occasions, and broke into the All-Australian team in 2019, all while playing for a team that had compiled a dismal 29-59 record over the previous 4 seasons.

Whether Victorian biases are applicable or otherwise, there's little doubt that on a better team, and with some luck in his body, Walters’ peak could’ve been legendary – he polled 37 Brownlow votes between 2017 and 2020, which came after two 40+ goal seasons.

There are definite similarities in the way in which Bolton and Walters play, particularly the contested ball work on the inside when playing midfield, and the lateral movement in offensive movement to create space for long-raking kicks.

In 2019, the 30-year-old Docker averaged 22 disposals, 4 clearances, 6.5 score involvements and inside-50s, collecting 43.63% of his possessions in a contested manner, and kicking 40 goals in the process.

These numbers are eerily similar to Bolton’s current level of performance, perhaps the main difference is that Fremantle’s star is far more of a ground level sneak inside-50, aiming to find more space and being far more goal-minded, whereas the Tiger’s approach is more kamikaze and aggressive.

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Where we had to wait 11 years for the absolute peak of midfield Michael Walters, due to both injury and necessity for him to play forward, the Tigers have been able to unlock the beginnings of Bolton’s potential in just his 5thseason, already becoming to Dustin Martin what Walters has been to Nat Fyfe.

Of course, Richmond has been afforded such luxuries by creating a system that enables players to focus on their strengths, which goes a long way to rapid development and positional obsolescence.

The small forwards push so far up the ground and run in waves that those with greater talent and ability can use space to their advantage, which is what the likes of Jake Aarts and Jason Castagna do for Richmond.

Right now, halfway through the 2021 season, the Tigers have settled on their perfect mix for Bolton, and success breeds the best form of growth.

Over the last four weeks, he's spent more time on the field, using it to rest forward and create a more 50/50 split with his midfield time.

This has allowed Richmond to always have either Martin or Bolton sitting at full forward, with both nearly unbeatable in different ways.

As for the result? Bolton has kicked 10 goals in his last four games, while Martin has kicked 8.

Opposition fans look at Richmond and lament the fact that youth enters the team and performs at such a high-level, but Bolton’s story is that of a great work ethic and landing in a successful environment, unlike Walters.

Clearly, he is an extremely talented player that will likely push for a 2021 All-Australian spot, although the half-forward spots are likely to be occupied by Marcus Bontempelli, Christian Petracca and Dayne Zorko, who also possess enormous numbers.

This year, we are just seeing him scratch the surface of his talent and sky-high potential, while it's little wonder enormous figures are being thrown about regarding his next contract.

2021 has illustrated that Richmond has found the perfect balance to maximise their young star’s current abilities, while history suggests the Tigers are best placed to nurture the young talent.

Bolton is about to get paid either way, and staying at Richmond is the best path to realising his full potential.

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Dem Panopoulos

Dem is a lover of sport with a keen eye for analytics. A passion for statistics that defies logic given his MyCricket numbers, you can see and hear him share his thoughts and views on Twitter @dempanopoulos

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