Who's Set To Lose Their All-Australian Virginity?
Last year’s All-Australian team included 12 debutants which was the highest number of first-timers since 2014.
And we’re talking about All-Australians again as this is the time of the year when AFL fans look on longingly at the NRL’s representative extravaganza – a festival of the best of the best that arrives just as the AFL’s winter lull sets in, and when minds start wondering toward which of our own players have set themselves apart.
And while of course competition will be tight for a spot in footy’s famously theoretical outfit, let’s make a team of All-Australian 'virgins', many of whom may also feature prominently in conversations for a spot on the actual team.
Daniel Rich – Since debuting for the Lions a dozen years ago, Rich has prevailed as one of the AFL’s most curious footballers, often pigeonholed for his elite kicking, but celebrated for little else. Which is a shame, as Rich’s importance to the Lions is pivotal, producing a career-best 608 meters gained per game this season which ranks fourth in the AFL, while he’s one of just three players in the competition producing at least seven rebound 50s and two inside 50s per game.
Steven May – Strangely, May’s 10 seasons of elite-level, lock-down defence have never apparently even warranted a 40-man squad selection. Surely however, that dam wall will be busted open this season as the Darwin-born and raised Demon full-back has been exceptional in 2021. In fact, May might be the most integral ingredient within the game’s most exceptional defence, continually blanketing opposition forwards, winning or breaking even in 79.2%of his contested one-on-one situations.
Jake Lever – While May takes care of the Demon’s grunt work on the last line, Lever does all the intercepting further afield, dwarfing the league with 135 intercept possessions, while also producing career-highs in pressure acts, contested marks and tackles.
Jayden Short – A two-time premiership winner, and best and fairest in Richmond’s most recent coronation, Short still somehow manages to fly under the radar. While defence has been a constant in all three of Richmond’s recent premierships, Short is at the heart of everything they do. While he leads the Tigers for total disposals averaging 23.7per game, this undrafted gem from Mill Park also leads the league for total rebound 50s. His 538.7 metres gained per game ranks eighth in the league, while he’s so far amassed the 15th most effective disposals in the AFL.
Jacob Weitering – Carlton’s 2016 number one draft pick has only improved on his standout 2020 season, when he won his first best and fairest and made his debut in the 40-man All-Australian squad. His game has gone to another level this year, perhaps establishing himself as our sport’s premier key defender in the process. He’s equal with Harris Andrews leading the league with 5.5 contested one-on-ones per game, yet he’s outperforming the brilliant Lion in the contest, winning or breaking even on 78.8% of those encounters, as opposed to Andrew’s 75.8%.
Bailey Dale – In the blink of an eye, Dale has emerged as the AFL’s most damaging attacking defender, functioning as one of the driving forces within the game’s premier offence. Dale’s ability to break the lines with both his speed and kicking penetration is causing mayhem for opposition defences, with his 2.2 score launches per game ranking third at the Dogs.
Sean Darcy – With Brodie Grundy, Max Gawn and Nic Naitanui possessing eight All-Australian gongs between them, the field of quality, yet-to-be-crowned ruckmen isn’t massive. But based on 2021 form, Fremantle’s Sean Darcy is the obvious pick. His most recent 40 hit-out, seven-clearance performance in Freo’s win over the Suns was indicative of a player who’s fast become indispensable for the Dockers.
Tom Liberatore – Already a best and fairest and premiership winner with the Bulldogs, “Libba” has only the one 40-man AA nomination to his name, yet will be banging hard on the door for a breakthrough gong this year. His work at the coalface extracting an AFL-best 8.5 clearances per game is a big reason the Bulldogs have made such massive gains this season.
Darcy Parish – Parish has taught both the Bombers, and competition at the large, a massive lesson in patience this season, producing a monstrous campaign and emerging as one of the AFL’s premier grunt midfielders in the process. Only Bulldog Tom Liberatore has amassed more clearances this season, while Parish is currently on an absolute tear, averaging 36.8touches and 9.2 clearances over his last seven games.
Sam Walsh – Walsh better soak in his All-Australian virginity, as one suspects this guy will be crowned quite routinely throughout his career. In just his third season, the 2018 No.1 draft pick has already graduated to become a 30-possession per game player, whilst completely carrying his club’s midfield. Walsh also leads the Blues for score involvements and stoppage clearances, while his 76% disposal efficiency is also an elite number for someone so prolific.
Shai Bolton – While already a two-time premiership player, Bolton entered season 2021 with just 47 games under his belt and a season-best average of just 15.8 touches. His explosion this season has been something to behold, emerging as possibly Richmond’s second-best midfielder outside of Dustin Martin, while also having a similar impact to the Tigers’ multi-premiership, multi-Norm Smith-winning giant of the game. Bolton is the epitome of a damaging midfielder, producing career-bests in disposals and clearances, yet also causing mayhem up forward, ranking 10th in the league for total inside 50s, while his 14goal assists not only lead the Tigers, but ranks seventh in the AFL.
Jarryd Lyons – Perhaps vying with Darcy Parish for the game’s most improved player, like Parish, Lyons has gone from very good to excellent in short time. Lyons’ rapid elevation has also come at a time when the pressure was at its most intense owing to Lachie Neale’s ankle surgery, with Lyons quickly filling the void and emerging as the team leader in disposals, clearances and tackles.
Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti – Yet another season of improvement and plenty of goals too, McDonald-Tipungwuti is one of the most dangerous small forwards in the competition, and perhaps the most vital competent on an Essendon forward line that ranks second only to the Bulldogs for points scored. Of the 22 names here, he'd be one of the surest bets to graduate to his first All-Australian team.
Taylor Walker – It’s kind of staggering that “Tex” has never been awarded an All-Australian spot previously, despite a deep resume of excellence. Walker is producing perhaps his best campaign yet, in both season 13 and at the age of 31, ranking top-ten in the league for goals, contested marks and marks inside 50.
Kysaiah Pickett – At this fictitious function for a fictitious team, Pickett and Walsh ought to make plans to catch up at real All-Australian celebrations for years to come. What Pickett has done this season has been extraordinary, quickly emerging as one of the league’s most exciting players as well as the ladder leader’s most crucial cog up forward. Pickett leads the Demons with 40 total scoring shots, while his 21 tackles inside 50 is the second-best number in the AFL.
Tom Papley – Averaging 1.5 goals and three tackles per game across his career, Papley is firmly positioned as one of the game’s best small forwards, yet he's just a solitary 40-man AA squad nomination to show for his years of excellence. While Papley hasn’t been off-the-charts good this season, 2021 hasn’t been a bumper crop for small forwards, with the big guys hogging most of the limelight.
Harry McKay – A flip of the coin favourite for the Coleman Medal, Carlton’s Harry McKay has been a revelation this season, perhaps already establishing himself as the game’s best key forward, and at just 23. McKay is one of just two players in the league ranked top-five for both contested marks and marks inside-50. The other bloke is …
Aaron Naughton – Quite simply, the Bulldogs haven’t had this kind of key forward talent on their hands since the early 1990s when Chris Grant was emerging. In a team that’s positioned as the game’s best attack, Naughton is probably its most crucial component, dominating aerially and having a massive scoreboard impact. Like McKay, what’s most satisfying for his fans, club and AFL at large, is that he’s doing all of this at just 21.
Christian Salem – One of four Demons in our team of AA virgins, and also a player firmly eyeing an actual All-Australian spot, the former top-10 pick has exploded in his eighth season at AFL level, averaging a career-high 25.4touches across half back. Salem’s also doing so with an elite 73.9% kicking efficiency, while posting his first 440-plus metres gained per match number.
Hugh McCluggage – McCluggage placed third in the Lions’ best and fairest last season in an excellent team, and has only improved again this season. His 25 touches per game is a career-high, yet it’s his versatility and skill which separates him, ranking second at Brisbane for goal assists and total score involvements, while his own 22 total scoring shots ranks fourth at the club.
Ben Cunnington – Most reasonable football fans would agree that it’s beyond egregious that Ben Cunnington has never previously won All-Australian honours. Why he’s suffered from North’s relative obscurity, Cunnington would be a walk-up start in all 18 teams, while it could also be argued he’s currently enjoying his best season yet, collecting career-highs in disposals, clearances and score involvements. Speaking of clearances, Cunnington is just 21shy of breaking North’s all-time record, currently held by Adam Simpson, who played 75 more games.
Mitch Duncan – The Cats have 11 players on their list who have either been crowned All-Australians, or at least made the 40-man squad, yet somehow Mitch Duncan isn’t a part of this group. For 12seasons now, Duncan has been integral to the Cats midfield, this year placed second only to Cam Guthrie for possessions per game, with the West Australian also ranking top-three at Geelong for inside 50s and score involvements. His club-best eight marks per game is indicative of a player who epitomises just how Geelong prefers to play.
Did you enjoy this article? Join our free mailing list to get the best content delivered straight to your inbox, or join the conversation by leaving a comment below or on the Stats Insider Twitter or Facebook page.