Time and time again we have seen young players have a significant impact on their team in their first few seasons at the club. Recent examples, such as Tom Mitchell, Jaeger O’Meara and Ollie Wines, have not just come in and stayed on the fringe of their side, unsure whether they will get picked the next week, but have cemented a spot in the side and impacted games significantly. All three remarkably average over 20 possessions a game despite only being in their first year, a feat which should not be undervalued when taking into account the tough contested style of football teams have to contend with in the modern game.
The AFL has a myriad of talented young players and the effect that these players have is increasing as the game evolves. Just recently, we have seen O’Meara have a near best on ground performance against Essendon. On top of that, Wines, who happened to start as the sub in round 14 against Collingwood, picked up an enormous 26 possessions, 16 of which came in the last quarter, an achievement that would be immense for any player in the competition, let alone an 18-year-old who spent a mere 55% of the game on the field. We haven’t seen such a performance since Tom Scully’s gutsy attempt to drag Melbourne over the line against a then dominant Bulldogs outfit, when he finished with 39 disposals.
Although possession numbers have inflated over the past decade, the number of rising stars picking up big numbers is noteworthy. In 2012, 17 players eligible for the Rising Star award averaged 15 or more possessions. In contrast, only four players were able to achieve that feat 10 years earlier, which surely has to be an indication that either coaches are playing more fledgling youngsters or the quality of the players has improved. Along with the under 18 systems increasing professionalism and growing number of kids taking up football as their sport of choice it’s most likely a mixture of both.
Players beginning their transition have been selected increasingly in recent times. Teams such have Collingwood and Geelong have been able to maintain their spots in the top eight whilst blooding numerous youngsters, not only giving them crucial development, but also observing whether they have what it takes to make it at the highest level. When the two sides last met, they had 12 players under the age of 22 on the field. When considering players are usually drafted at 18 and 19, you’re looking at first to third-year players playing a significant role for two top eight sides.
The impact of the new generation players makes Carlton coach Mick Malthouse’s decision to refrain from playing younger team members even more perplexing. Malthouse brought in Troy Menzel and Dylan Buckley only to drop both of them almost immediately after their debuts, a treatment particularly harsh when taking into account the fact that both of them started as the sub in two out of the three games they played. Extraordinarily, Carlton have only given 44 games to players born in 90s. When taking into account the amount of players that field the ground every week and the fact that Grand Finalists such as Sydney and Hawthorn have fielded 65 and 79 respectively, it’s clear that 44 games is just too insufficient.
Exposing young players is certainly no problem for future juggernauts Greater Western Sydney and Gold Coast, who have surely broken records regarding age of players to take the field. With the amount of first round draft picks and unique talents that come with them, it’s easy to see why people think these two teams are going to dominate the competition in the not-too-distant future.