Stats and Trends: What Makes A Norm Smith Medalist?

To be a Norm Smith Medalist is an honour that etches a player’s name into the brains of club supporters, as well as the history books.

Winning such an award as the best player in a Grand Final holds great weight in legacy discussions, with only four players having received the honour in a losing team.

So, looking at the upcoming 2021 Grand Final, we must consider, what makes a Norm Smith Medalist?

Despite there being more scope for unpredictability, the winner of the Norm Smith is generally a midfielder.

When Steve Johnson, Luke Hodge and Paul Chapman won consecutively between 2007 and 2009 from peripheral positions, there appeared to be hope. 

However, since 2010, including the two medals handed out that year, only 3 of the 12 winners have come from outside the midfield with Brian Lake in 2013, Cyril Rioli in 2015 and Jason Johanissen in 2016 walking off the MCG with multiple pieces of jewellery.

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To win the award, one must have a standout game, which generally means that a player is either going to need to be dominant in the heat of the battle, usually the midfield, or their offensive output is irrefutably strong. Defensive efforts have usually earned minor recognition.

Out of the 9 midfielders since 2010 to have won the award, only Scott Pendlebury in Collingwood’s and Ryan O’Keefe in 2012 didn’t hit the scoreboard. The former finished with 11 tackles in his performance and the latter, a record 15 tackles in a Grand Final.

From the remaining 7, all players registered at least two scoring shots, with Lenny Hayes in 2010 and Luke Shuey in 2018 finishing with a goal and behind each.

3 of the last 4 medals have been given to Dustin Martin alone – despite calls of bias in 2020, his Grand Final record has him averaging 24 disposals, 15 contested possessions and kicking 10 goals, as well as having 5 goal assists in these 3 games.

The Richmond legend is a bit of an anomaly himself; no player had finished in the top 10 of the Brownlow medal and won the Norm Smith Medal since 2010 when both Hayes and Pendlebury did it.

In fact, since the turn of the century, only James Hird (2000), Chris Judd (2005) and the aforementioned trio have finished in the top 10 of the Brownlow in the same year they won the Norm Smith Medal. 

Only Pendlebury and Martin have finished in the top 5.

And what made Lake, Rioli and Johanissen stand out the most in their successful seasons?

For Lake, no midfielder kicked multiple goals when he won it, and he was one of only 5 Hawks to finish with 20+ disposals. With 10 marks, three of them contested, and 9 one-percenters, his effort from full-back stood out and pipped teammate Jack Gunston by one vote.

Rioli’s game was arguably his most influential, finishing with 2 goals and a further 4 goal assists, standing up in crunch time. Johanissen pipped cult hero Tom Boyd and the prolific Josh P Kennedy with his blistering pace breaking open the field for the Bulldogs, finishing with 9 rebounds, 7 inside 50s and a gargantuan 876 metres gained.

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Therefore, it’s clear that if a midfielder isn’t going to win this award, it’ll go to someone with the most eye-catching display of football on the day.

What do we take from all of this information?

First, it tells us that Dustin Martin is a freakish, generational talent that will go down as one of the greatest finals players of all time.

In terms of this weekend, however, it does give us a little indication as to what to expect from the judges.

Clayton Oliver, Christian Petracca and Marcus Bontempelli will be the three players deemed most likely to be voted best-on-ground. All three had high finishes in the Brownlow Medal, with the former having his strengths in tackling and around the clearances, while the other two are the best goal-kicking midfielders in the competition. Their top games will win a Premiership for their clubs.

If we’re to believe the trends though, and that Martin owns a trilogy of aberrations, these players might be the most favoured, but the winner will come outside of them. 

If Melbourne were to win, Max Gawn will be a popular choice. He’s a media favourite, he has dominated the ruck between these two teams and he hit the scoreboard in the Preliminary final. He’d have a decent chance of being the first ruckman since Simon Madden in 1985 to win the award.

Jake Lever would be the other most suitable winner of the award, if he can withstand the Josh Schache tag. The 25-year-old broke all sorts of intercepting records in 2021 and given how well these teams match up, a strong aerial display would push him to the front of the line, in a similar ilk to Lake’s success.

The Bulldogs’ contenders seem more straightforward. Jack Macrae was under-appreciated on Brownlow night and that will be a popular narrative if he continues on his merry, ball-winning ways. Bailey Smith’s goal-kicking form is a definite point of difference, particularly if he can snag a couple and his skipper doesn’t.

Or perhaps another Bulldogs flag would bring forward a second bucking of the Norm Smith trend. Caleb Daniel is the wildcard to watch, we know his incredible field kicking and decision making is well-regarded in the media, so a 30-disposal game with his quality would catch the eye.

What faces us is one of the better Grand Final matchups in recent memory, with the all the numbers pointing towards an evenly-matched classic.

Whoever manages to win the honour of the 2021 Norm Smith Medal will have fully earned it and are fully deserving of their spot in history.

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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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