We've reached the quarter checkpoint in the AFL season which is usually the period where we still don't know too much about what's going on, but also we feel like we know enough to anchor opinions on teams, players and coaches and their future. So why wait until the end of the season to dish out arbitrary awards when we can do it now? With that, don your favourite threads, roll out the red carpet and sit back because we've got 16 annoyingly early-season awards to dish out.
POTENTIALLY GOOD TEAM I STILL CAN'T BRING MYSELF TO ACCEPT YET: TIGERS
The 5-2 Tigers could very well be the second best team in the AFL if their percentage was marginally better. They could also be a 6-1 team if they got up over the Houdini Dogs. In that game it took four quarters for the reigning champions to pip the Tigers at the post in a match that was decided in the final, frantic, three minutes. Their wins have come against wishy-washy opponents: the juvenile Blues, the 2-5 Pies, an Eagles team that can't win at the M.C.G, a rebuilding Lions and a Jekyll and Hyde Demons team. They were no match for the Crows in Adelaide but in saying that, most teams that have traveled to South Australia in 2017 have been pummeled.
Moving forward the Tigers have a kind schedule: they only play the top eight teams six times in the next 15 games and could hit their bye week with a record of 8-3 with a potential loss against the Giants but wins – not guaranteed – against the Dockers, Bombers and Roos. A team with a so-so backline, stellar midfield and makeshift forward six is somehow producing results. The kind of results that make finals happen. They rank last in the competition for disposals and have the 10 th best offense but are able to keep opposition teams to 12 goals per game. If you can keep teams to 72 points a game, like the Tigers have, you're every chance to win a whole lot more than you lose.
BEST FIRST-YEAR PLAYER: SAM PETREVSKI-SETON
Yes, I know, Sam Powell-Pepper has had his nose in every contest since his debut and the AFL rankings have him listed as the no.1 first-year player right now, but there's something special about Blues young jet Sam Petrevski-Seton. He ranks first for tackles (29) and is third in total contested disposals (53). What is most eye-catching is that his production seems to be gearing up.
The 19-year old hit a career high of 21 touches against Collingwood, has kicked five goals and his clearance work is third best out of the first-year players. The Blues took him with their first pick at no.6 in the 2016 National Draft and the kid has hit the ground running. With ball winners like Gibbs, Murphy and Simpson in their twilight, this latest induction should get Blues fans excited about the future.
MOST UNDERRATED DEFENDER: ALEX RANCE
The AFL rankings have Alex Rance as the no.1 defender in the competition, so you could say the Tigers tall was an easy choice. He's been one of the AFL's hidden gem for years: stuck at a Groundhog Day club who can't break the mediocrity tag. He doesn't fill the stats sheet because his handy work is tallied in spoils, reading the play and great body on body work. The gritty defender has had an indifferent career full of peaks and troughs. This has lead to football critics snubbing the 157-gamer and thus has flown under the radar for most of his journey.
His grainy approach to defending and counter attack football isn't flashy and for a key position player he barely gets the airtime he deserves. He's ranked no.1 in the competition for one per centers, featured in the wins against the Pies and the Dogs and embodies the Tigers spirit to win ugly and to graft out success. The likes of Dustin Martin, Trent Cotchin and Jack Riewoldt has kept Rance's AFL persona largely covert, but get on board. The guy is an immense talent.
BEST SURPRISE FORWARD: TOBY GREENE
This is not an award for the standard full forward type but rather a nod to someone who's taken their attack work to whole other level. And for the first six weeks that has been the Giants' small forward and midfielder Toby Greene. He kicked 44 goals last year, which equates to 1.91 goals per game and is now sitting on 20 goals in six outings at 3.33 goals per game. He kicked five goals against the Suns and bags of four against the Swans and Port. He's also still picking up plenty of the ball with 17 touches and five marks.
He's a head case and could spend more time this year on the sidelines through inept on-field decisions and suspensions so I'm not confident he'll hold this title for the rest of the season. But think about those 20 goals he's kicked and where the Giants would be without them. He has the third best goal-kicking average in the league behind Eagle Josh Kennedy and Roo Jarrad Waite who are traditional full-forward types.That's saying something about this guy's ability and where his attack game has expanded to.
MOST ANNOYING AFL THING: DELIBERATE OUT OF BOUNDS
Look, the umpires have made some almighty stuff ups with this rule. It's beyond comical. We might as well start penalizing the team that touches the ball last before rolling out of bounds because we're just about there. But, we have to let this weekly dialogue about it go. The rule is locked in for at least this season for all teams and I'm sure every team will get at least howler. A close second for annoying AFL things: the awful Suns-Power Shanghai match jumper debacle. Good. God.
THE MARK OF THE YEAR AWARD: PAUL PUOPOLO
Check. This. Out. This will hold up all year too.
COACH OF THE YEAR: DON PYKE
There are a handful of outstanding coaches that could have won this category. Ken Hinkley has turned the Power in Adelaide around, John Worsfold has got the Bombers being more competitive than their most recent years and Damian Hardwick has taken Richmond from a middle of the road team going nowhere to equal second in 12 months. Those coaches though have 98, 309 and 163 games of coaching experience respectively. My pick, is Don Pyke, a man with 30 games of senior AFL coaching under his belt.
He was appointed coach of the Crows in 2016, took them to a Semi-Final against the Swans with a 17-7 record and has now, seemingly got a premiership contender on his hands after their hot start of 6-1. And look what's happening to the Crows team. They're got the best attack in the competition lead by Eddie Betts, Taylor and Walker and Josh Jenkins; a Brownlow contender in Rory Sloane and a sneaky Andrew McCleod clone in Charlie Cameron. For a guy about to coach his 31 st game this weekend, it all seems remarkable.
THE X-FACTOR AWARD: ANTHONY MCDONALD-TIPUNGWUTI
Even when "Tipa" doesn't have the ball he moves in way where everyone wishes he did have the ball. He's been terrorizing defenders for the past six weeks pressuring them, tackling them. He's accrued 26 tackles, which is the fourth best at the Bombers but if there were a stat for perceived pressure he'd be ranked one of the best in league. He kicked four goals against the Crows, racked up seven tackles against the Pies and 17 touches against the Hawks; all of them, largely breathtaking moments. Don't take my word for it. Watch this.
THE 2017 HARD LUCK TROPHY: NIC NATANUI
The Eagle was primed to become one of the AFL's premier ruckman in 2017. He averaged a career high of 34.5 taps in 2016 and in R21 against the Giants showed us all what he's capable of with 45 hit outs, two goals and 16 disposals. Long term knee injuries really suck.
UNDERWHELMING RECRUIT OF THE YEAR: CHRIS MAYNE
In three games, the prized Pies recruit and former Docker Chris Mayne kicked two goals, taken nine marks and averaged 12 disposals. He was supposed to add maturity, forward pressure and scoreboard consistency. There was hope he'd return to his 2012-13 form where he kicked 39 and 37 goals respectively. But none of those things have panned out. He told Fox Sports News that one of the reasons for leaving the Dockers was that he felt like he was becoming part of the furniture. At least he was part of something in Western Australia. In 2017, he's shooting at 25 per cent accuracy in front of goal and hasn't played since round three.
THE "MOST LIKLEY TO BE THE FIRST COACH TO GET SACKED" AWARD: NATHAN BUCKLEY
Lions coach Chris Fagan would seem like the obvious choice because of the wooden spoon potential his club holds. But they're rebuilding, which makes him off limits for now. Other candidates include Alistair Clarkson and his fall-from-grace Hawks, John Longmire's boys and the 1-5 Swans and Brendan Bolton's baby Blues. Tracey Gaudry says Clarkson is safe and will stay a Hawk. I think the Swans will eventually turn and play finals. And Bolton's Blues will do just enough during a period where they're testing their list for the future. That leaves Nathan Buckley and his Pies. They haven't officially started a rebuild yet but signs and current form suggests they need to turn over major parts of their personnel: they need speed and a forward line.
They're currently sitting at a miserable 2-5. For me, I think the next four games will decide Buckley's future: Giants at Spotless Stadium, Hawks, Lions and Dockers in Perth. If they win three of those the optics would be good and if they keep that kind of form it will save Buckley from an immediate firing. But, if the Pies admit they are on track for a rebuild sooner than later, which they are, they'll need to start fresh in 2018 which means Buckley has to go. It's just a matter of when.
THE "RETIRE NOW" MEDAL: TRAVIS CLOKE
Cloke's 2017 looks like this: injured ribs, five goals from four games, averaging 13 disposals. It's not shabby, but it's not fire breathing. The other thing too is that the Dogs are winning games without him. When you say the words Bontempelli, Stringer, Hunter, Boyd, Picken and McLean, the need for a Cloke dwindles.
But it would be unfair to say Cloke was the only mature age player above 30 that should hang up the boots. He has some mates: Drew Petrie (played one game in 2017), the 245 gamer and injury prone Daniel Wells (injured, played two games, then was rested), 33-yer old Josh Gibson (doesn't have the same impact and cast around him anymore) and Steve Johnson (his output is down; kicked 43 goals in 2016 and averages one goal per game in 2017).
THE BEST VETERAN AWARD: NICK RIEWOLDT
Next year would be his 18 th AFL season. He just doesn't look any slower or worse than when he was drafted by the Saints in 2000. At 34, he's averaging 19 disposals, two goals and seven marks per game. Enough said.
BROWNLOW MEDAL FANCY THAT ISN'T DANGERFIELD: MARCUS BONTEMPELLI
I'm probably going to receive death threats on Twitter for this, but Bontempelli, for me, is right up there for the Brownlow. He reminds me of an Anthony Koutifides type of player, the kind that can turn games in minutes. He has that bounding style of run, the ability to crash packs, play tall, squeeze handballs through arms and legs and kick telling goals. He did all this against the Giants and looked super impressive.
His disposal volume of 24 per game isn't significant, largely due to the great supporting cast around him eating up possessions, but his work rate, ability to get to contests and tackle (9-7-7 in his last three matches) means his value isn't one-dimensional. He's kicked 11 goals which is the same as Crows key forward Tom Lynch and one more than Patrick Dangerfield and will continue to change the momentum of matches as the season progresses.
THE STORY LINE TO WATCH IN THE COMING MONTHS: THE 4-3 SAINTS
After seven weeks of football two-thirds of the clubs are still chasing the hope of a premiership. Some have started strongly while others have corrected poor starts. The Saints looked shot early. They lost their first two by 30 and 19, won two then got smashed by the Cats in a quarter. I don't know what it is about them right now but they seem to be playing OK football. To the point where I'm starting to think they could become a top five team.
This year looks and feels different. They have a good crop of superstars in the making in Seb Ross, 24, Blake Acres, 21, Jack Billings, 21, Patrick McCartin, 21 and Jack Steele, 21. It seems like they are coming on quicker than expected which should worry other clubs. It makes their potency real. They have speed, marking talls and versatile mature-aged players in Jack Stevens, Nick Riewoldt, Leigh Montagna, Sam Gilbert, Nathan Brown and David Armitage. They've got a healthy mix of grunt and skill, ranked fifth for tackles averaging 70 per game and ranked third for marks inside 50 with 13 of those each match. Watch this space.
BOLD PREDICTION: SWANS TO PLAY FINALS
For VICE I wrote about the how the Swans will still make finals even after their dismal start to their 2017 campaign. I still think the Swans are foxing. I'm going to stick to that feeling even if it kills me. Sure they're 1-6, but so what. They're a club that was built on playing against the odds. They love being the underdogs. Being 1-6 is the perfect position to be in to provide a catalyst for a surge of some kind, a flurry of wins that will ultimately fling them deep into finals. There have been too many factors working against them to suggest the Swans can't make finals: injuries and lots of them, form slumps from more than one key player, weird injuries (see: Dane Rampe), the loss of Tom Mitchell, the re-introduction of Sam Reid, the what-is-happening-with Kurt-Tippett space.
If John Longmire is hopeful and calm during his pressers, which he has been for the most part, then that's good enough for me. An upgrade to their 1-6 situation will need a push in the midfield to get more hands on the ball (ranked 16 th for disposals), a push to be more accurate with the ball (ranked 18 th for disposal efficiency) and a production that involves less turnovers and less errors (ranked eighth for clangers). If they can shift their current output to a more cohesive effort, more like the Swans of old, you'll see them in September.