Despite his best season to date at AFL level, free agent Luke Dunstan has been given his marching orders by the Saints.
Since breaking his way into the senior side off the back of undeniable form with Sandringham, the 26-year-old produced for St Kilda in the midfield on his way to claiming 11 votes in the Brownlow Medal from just 12 matches, good for just under one vote per game.
Dunstan averaged 25 disposals and 5.8 clearances to go with 4.9 tackles as an on-baller alongside Jack Steele and Brad Crouch. He added grunt to a Saints midfield that needed another contested ball winner and showed off much-improved fitness in running games out.
Taken with pick 18 in the 2013 draft, Dunstan’s talent is undoubted after 116 games with the Saints.
However, the question marks on his football have always centred around the South Australian’s ball use and decision making. He used the ball at 66 per cent and went at just 51 per cent by foot in 2021.
Does the poor ball use outweigh his ceiling as a player? Dunstan recorded 23.8 pressure acts per game as well as five inside 50s and 4.5 score involvements to illustrate his well-rounded game.
In Round 15 Dunstan enjoyed a day out against the reigning premiers with 32 disposals (17 contested), 11 clearances and a goal. On a wet and windy night – where his 667 metres gained was more valuable than precise foot skills – he was the best player on the ground, winning the Ian Stewart Medal.
If he can string together consistency with a coaching staff that believes in his ability as an on-baller, Luke Dunstan could maximise his delisted free agent status and elevate his game at another club in 2022.
Which club should take a punt on the gut-running contested midfielder next season? The Inner Sanctum has considered the delisted free agent’s options.
Speaking openly about his future and the disappointment of not being offered another contract by the Saints, Dunstan named Essendon as a destination that would suit him.
The Dons produced a great season in the first year of Ben Rutten’s tenure. In the midfield, Darcy Parish had a top-five Brownlow finish and Zach Merrett re-committed with a six year contract on his way to rarified air with a third Crichton Medal.
Jake Stringer attended the most centre bounces of his career in a new-look version of himself, but on-ball depth was hard to come by past with injuries to Dylan Shiel and Jye Caldwell hampering the Bombers’ first-choice rotation. Kyle Langford spent considerable time in the engine room, while Dylan Clarke and Devon Smith produced cameos.
Despite the injuries to key players, the Dons were ranked first in the competition for disposal efficiency at 75 per cent for the season.
On the flip side, they ranked in the bottom six for contested possessions and clearances despite featuring two All-Australian midfielders.
There’s no doubting Dunstan’s inclusion makes the outfit better in those contested areas. His elite clearance and contested possession numbers indicate his proficiency, but can he fit into Rutten’s system of smart, precise ball movement?
With a fully fit midfield brigade including Parish, Merrett, Stringer, Shiel, Caldwell and Langford, ex-Saint Luke Dunstan may only be added depth for the Bombers, but that could be valuable insurance in 2022.
With Adam Cerra requesting a trade to Carlton, the Dockers have a void to fill in the engine room that won’t be immediately remedied in the draft.
At 26 years of age Dunstan bridges the gap between veterans David Mundy (36 years old) and Nat Fyfe (30), and young guns Caleb Serong (20) and Andrew Brayshaw (21).
The former two are continuing to spend more time outside of the centre square when the opportunities arise. The only genuine obstacle to Fyfe becoming a permanent forward is his yips in front of goal, while the evergreen Mundy can’t keep flying the flag in the middle, despite his age-defying exploits in 2021.
Dunstan immediately remedies issues with Fremantle’s pressure around the football. The club ranked 17th in tackles and gave up the fourth-most uncontested possessions per contest. In 2021 Dunstan averaged more tackles and pressure acts than all of Mundy, Fyfe, Serong, Brayshaw and Cerra.
His intensity at the coalface is a trait the Dockers could have used when missing components of their full-strength midfield. He adds defensive pressure to the in-and-under work of Serong and the gut running of Brayshaw.
On the flip side, a one-paced midfield isn’t aided by the former Saint. Highlighted by centre bounce exposure to small forwards Sam Switkowski and Mitch Crowden late in the season, Justin Longmuir attempted to add a different element to the on-ball brigade that found itself wanting in immediate spread from stoppages.
The Dockers’ premiership window is emerging within the next few years. A final flag tilt for two-time Brownlow Medallist Nat Fyfe is on the horizon, and Dunstan’s timeline fits in with what the Dockers are trying to achieve.
Falling short at the preliminary final stage again, Port Adelaide came up empty in pursuit of Jordan Dawson as it looks to bolster its squad while the premiership window remains ajar.
Its midfield often batted only four deep, with Brownlow Medallist Ollie Wines joined by Travis Boak and Willem Drew for the majority of centre bounces as the season progressed. Karl Amon added a different dimension to that mix, while injuries to Zak Butters and Connor Rozee curtailed potential moves into the engine room.
Robbie Gray emerged as a midfield go-to for Ken Hinkley in finals, but at 33 years of age his prime on-ball days are behind him. Contributing to the shallow mix that the Power rotated is the injuries and now retirement of Tom Rockliff.
A Woodville-West Torrens junior, Dunstan has played a similar role to that of the contested bull in past years – both players often choosing to move the ball by hand to outside runners with better foot skills.
That type of player could have been used when the chips were in the middle during Port’s home preliminary final against the Western Bulldogs. The club found themselves chasing from the start, giving up clearances 35 to 41 and contested possessions 136 to 166 for the game.
Those counts are Dunstan’s bread and butter, mixing inside and outside work to get the ball going forward so the 48 to 60 inside 50s count of the final isn’t so lopsided.
There’s a spot on the Port Adelaide list for another contested midfielder, and Dunstan fits the billing. It may be his best shot at a flag, too.
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Sydney showed it’s on the verge of contending, but its off-season hasn’t started off on the right foot. The likely loss of Jordan Dawson to South Australia is a big blow, and the rumoured move of George Hewett to Carlton via free agency dents the Swans’ midfield rotation.
Luke Parker and Callum Mills were dominant for the swans, while Josh Kennedy is in his twilight years and James Rowbottom has been unable to cement a spot in the rotation. Mills’ late-season injury saw John Longmire tinker with centre bounce lineups which resulted in Tom Papley and Isaac Heeney shifted out of the forward line to help Parker and Hewett.
With Dawson off the books relieving a reported cap squeeze, a cut-price Luke Dunstan can come in and perform a similar defensive role to Hewett’s in the midfield.
Both turning 26 years of age in 2021, they have led remarkably similar careers up to this point. Hewett has played an extra four games since debuting in 2016, averaging similar numbers in contested possessions (8.7 to Dunstan’s 9.0), clearances (3.1 to 4.1), tackles (4.0 to 4.5) and pressure acts (16.3 to 18.9).
The aspect that separates Hewett is his defensive capacity outside of stoppages. In Round 3 he helped nullify the influence of Dustin Martin by following him into the Tigers’ forward line. Dunstan hasn’t shown that level of defensive application, but does offer more than the Swan forward of centre.
Can Dunstan add that level of defensive ability to his contested game if the Swans do come calling?
With a young group juggling the now and future, John Longmire may be keeping an eye on development by readying Rowbottom to claim that defensive role with a strong pre-season. Despite the potential for Dunstan to stunt the development of some younger Bloods, he suits Sydney’s timeline to a tee and adds an immediate replacement for Hewett if he does depart.
The Pies are going into year two of a full-blown rebuild, which may initially make the addition of Dunstan seem counterintuitive. But this is a club that gained little from a poor 2021 finish having traded out their first round pick, and still finished 17th.
New coach Craig McRae needs to find something that works in the midfield. The club ranked 15th for contested possessions and 17th for clearances, leading to lowest number of inside 50s for any club per game. Just one year prior the Pies finished fourth in contested possessions per game, a trademark of the club that helped it through an unlikely elimination final win in the West.
Given the salary cap squeeze that the club is dealing with, Dunstan presents as the best available contested midfielder in the competition at the price of a delisted free agent.
Bridging the gap between Scott Pendlebury and Steele Sidebottom to the growing crop of youngsters is a group including Taylor Adams, Jordan De Goey and Jack Crisp. Dunstan helps relieve the skewing demographic in the list with another player entering his prime, and comes at a price that can still see the likes of Finlay Macrae and Jay Rantall play ahead of him in on-ball when McRae sees the opportunity.
A winning culture is vital for rebuilds, and the cut-price Luke Dunstan undoubtedly slots straight into Collingwood’s best 22 in Round 1, 2022.
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