With the AFL men’s season reaching its midway point, The Inner Sanctum analyses the respective seasons so far of the top 10 selections in the 2021 draft class.
1. Jason Horne-Francis (North Melbourne)
The highly touted number one pick from last year’s draft has played in all but one of North Melbourne’s eleven games thus far this season. Having already been earmarked as a ready-made AFL footballer before the season’s commencement, Horne-Francis has showcased his remarkable strength and contest work for a player of his age.
Since making his debut in Round 1 against Hawthorn, the bullocking midfielder has averaged 18.1 disposals, 10.2 contested possessions, and 4.7 clearances per game. He currently ranks second for clearances at North Melbourne, only trailing fellow midfielder Jy Simpkin.
His first taste of AFL football against the Hawks at the MCG saw him kick his first goal at the level, finishing the day with 13 disposals and six score involvements.
But arguably his best performance so far in his short career came in Round 4 against Sydney, where the South Australian collected 23 touches (11 contested) to go with six clearances in what was a brave display from North Melbourne.
Horne-Francis has spent the majority of his time on the ground at half-forward, rolling through the midfield at various stages throughout games. His explosiveness and uncompromising attack on the football have been a trademark of his start to his AFL career.
Horne-Francis earnt a Rising Star nomination in Round 7 against Carlton, a game perhaps best remembered by his highly visible confrontation with Jack Silvagni. He gathered 20 disposals and had three score involvements for the night, giving the AFL world an indication that he isn’t one to take a backward step.
With the talented 18-year-old yet to extend his stay at Arden Street, North Melbourne will be desperate to secure Horne-Francis’ signature in the coming six to 12 months.
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2. Sam Darcy (Western Bulldogs)
Athletic key position prospect Sam Darcy is yet to feature at AFL level, having spent significant time on the sidelines overcoming a stress fracture in his foot.
The son of Western Bulldogs great Luke Darcy made his return to football through the VFL a month ago, getting through unscathed.
Standing at 205cm, Darcy has been deployed in both defence and attack in his first few games for the Western Bulldogs’ VFL side, having been traditionally accustomed to a key forward and ruck role in his junior years leading into the draft.
Darcy’s first VFL game against Collingwood saw him collect seven touches and take a couple of marks in what was limited minutes on the field. The 18-year-old has since added another two games under his belt and will be hoping for some more continuity in the back half of the year.
As an exciting long-term prospect for Luke Beveridge’s side, the Bulldogs will likely be patient with their top selection in last year’s draft.
3. Finn Callaghan (GWS)
Taken with pick three in the 2021 national draft, Callaghan has played five games for the GWS Giants since the start of the AFL season.
Entering a club that is spoilt for choice when it comes to midfielders, Callaghan has done well to earn himself an opportunity at the top level.
It was the toughest of introductions for the Sandringham Dragons midfield product, making his debut in Round 5 against none other than reigning premiers Melbourne at the MCG. Callaghan collected 13 disposals and kicked his first AFL goal late in the last quarter in what was a sombre night for his team.
The young left-footer retained his spot in the side for another four games, however, made way after a Round 9 loss to Carlton and hasn’t been selected since.
Callaghan has averaged 15 disposals in his short career thus far. Despite limited opportunity through the midfield, he has shown glimpses of his strong ability to weave in and out of traffic and free his hands under tackle pressure.
Perhaps his best performance came in Round 6 against St Kilda, where he amassed 18 disposals (seven contested) at 83 per cent efficiency.
Giants fans have plenty to be excited about in the years to come as Callaghan continues to hone his craft.
4. Nick Daicos (Collingwood)
Father-son selection Nick Daicos has transitioned seamlessly into AFL football, playing in every game till this point in the season.
Earning his debut in Round 1 against St Kilda under the Friday night lights, Daicos collected 27 touches and had 419 metres gained in what was an ultra-impressive start to his AFL career.
The son of legendary Collingwood forward Peter Daicos has continued in that vein for the entirety of the season so far, averaging 23.7 disposals, 329.5 metres gained, and 4.8 score involvements.
Daicos earnt a Rising Star nomination against Geelong in Round 3, gathering 26 disposals and kicking his first goal in the big time from the 50-metre arc. This was followed by an excellent individual performance against West Coast, accumulating 32 disposals and 10 score involvements, albeit in a losing side.
Daicos’ composure with ball in hand has been a prominent feature of his game, using his elite kicking skills off half-back to launch Collingwood into attack. Craig McRae has also given Daicos opportunities through the midfield and at half-forward this year, with his natural ball-winning ability on display wherever he is positioned.
A testament to his consistency in output, Daicos has only dipped below 20 disposals twice so far this season, with his lowest possession tally being 16.
Daicos’ impressive start to the season has him firmly in the calculations to win the 2022 Rising Star award.
5. Mac Andrew (Gold Coast)
Andrew is yet to make his AFL debut for Gold Coast, however, he has been working on his game at VFL level.
Selected at pick five in the 2021 national draft, Andrew is an exciting key position prospect, with his agility and versatility making him capable of playing at both ends of the ground, as well as in the ruck.
Andrew’s time in the VFL has seen him be deployed as a key defender and has played in every game till this point of the season, providing him with some valuable continuity. The 18-year-old gathered 20 disposals and five marks in his very first appearance for the year against the Northern Bullants. Andrew is averaging 16 disposals and 4.3 marks across eight VFL matches this season.
Andrew’s best individual performance of the season so far came in Round 3 against Carlton. Lining up in defence, Andrew amassed 23 disposals and took eight marks for the day.
A product of the Dandenong Stingrays in the NAB league, Andrew has plenty of upside and will take time to fully develop. Despite not featuring at AFL level yet, the Suns will be pleased that Andrew has recommitted to the club for a further two years, ensuring he is a contracted player until at least 2025.
6. Josh Rachele (Adelaide)
Drafted from the Murray Bushrangers in the NAB league, Josh Rachele has hit the ground running for Adelaide this season, showcasing his talents as a dangerous medium-sized forward. Pick six in the 2021 national draft, Rachele has played in 10 of a possible 11 games at AFL level this season, with a goal tally of 15.
It was a hot start for Rachele, kicking five goals on debut against Fremantle in Round 1 to almost drag his side over the line. The 19-year-old is averaging 12.5 disposals, 1.5 goals, 5.1 score involvements, and 3.5 shots at goal per game across the opening half of the season.
Rachele has shown terrific instincts in front of goals and has been an accurate set shot goal kicker in the early part of his career. He’s also not short of confidence for a young player, willing to shoulder the responsibility in pressure moments as evidenced by some crucial late goals against Richmond in Round 5.
Rachele’s impressive start to the season was recognised with a Rising Star nomination in Round 4 against Essendon, where the uber-talented forward collected 19 disposals, seven score involvements, and slotted three goals, albeit in a losing side.
Rachele missed last weekend’s clash with Geelong due to being managed and having sustained a corked thigh the week prior.
All early indications suggest that Rachele is a future star of the competition, with plenty more highlights in store for Crows fans to savour.
7. Josh Ward (Hawthorn)
A Hawthorn supporter growing up, Josh Ward fulfilled his childhood dream in Round 1, making his debut for the Hawks against North Melbourne at the MCG.
The young midfielder has since played another six matches at AFL level, averaging 15.4 disposals and 2.7 clearances till this point in the season.
With Hawthorn searching for its next crop of midfielders to carry the club forward into the future, Ward has been thrown into the mix at centre bounces and stoppages around the ground so far at AFL level.
In a Round 2 win over Port Adelaide away from home, Ward kicked his first goal for the club, also amassing a season-best 20 disposals. However, arguably his most influential performance was on Easter Monday against Geelong, where the Northern Knights product collected 18 disposals at an impressive 83 per cent disposal efficiency.
Ward hasn’t been sighted at AFL level since Round 8, with his potential return to the side halted by a concussion sustained in the VFL a couple of weeks ago due to a collision with Richmond listed player, Sydney Stack.
Ward has no doubt shown glimpses of his potential in the opening half of the season and will continue to develop his game with more minutes under his belt.
8. Jye Amiss (Fremantle)
Drafted from East Perth, promising key forward Jye Amiss has received one opportunity at AFL level so far this season.
Fremantle’s strong early season form has made it difficult for the 18-year-old to break into the senior side, however, he has been a strong performer in the WAFL for Peel Thunder so far this year, kicking 11 goals and averaging 4.5 marks across four appearances.
A standout performance the week before his AFL debut saw him boot five goals and clunk eight marks against West Perth, which was ultimately rewarded by coach Justin Longmuir.
Amiss’ debut against North Melbourne in Round 8 culminated in the 196cm forward slotting two goals from five marks, celebrating his first win as a Docker. Despite losing his spot in the side the next week, Amiss showed glimpses of his strong work rate and capacity to lead up at the footy.
In unfortunate news, Amiss is currently recovering from a serious kidney injury sustained in the WAFL a couple of weeks ago, caused by a heavy collision. Amiss required surgery to repair the damage and is now set for a lengthy spell on the sidelines.
9. Josh Gibcus (Richmond)
Compared to some of his fellow top draftees, Josh Gibcus has somewhat flown under the radar this season. An intercepting defender drafted from the Greater Western Victoria Rebels, Gibcus has looked at home in Richmond’s backline during the early stages of the season.
Earning his AFL debut in Round 1, Gibcus has averaged 11.4 disposals, 5.6 spoils, and 4.7 marks across the first half of the season.
Gibcus’ best performance so far this season arguably came in Richmond’s Anzac Day Eve clash against Melbourne. The 19-year-old gathered 18 disposals at 89 per cent disposal efficiency and took 12 marks along with six intercept possessions.
A key feature of Gibcus’ game has been his ability to intercept and read the ball in the air, complementing the likes of fellow defenders Dylan Grimes, Nick Vlastuin and Robbie Tarrant.
In a show of faith from coach Damien Hardwick, Gibcus was handed the responsibility to mark Lance Franklin in Richmond’s clash against Sydney in Round 11. Whilst the champion forward got a hold of the young defender in the end, Gibcus battled commendably for a player in only his ninth AFL game.
Yet to receive a Rising Star nomination, consistent opportunities at AFL level for Gibcus will likely see him earn one in no time.
10. Neil Erasmus (Fremantle)
Closing out the top 10 selections in last year’s draft is Neil Erasmus, who has been in and out of Fremantle’s side throughout the season.
Drafted from Subiaco, Erasmus received his AFL debut in Round 3 in the local derby clash with West Coast, collecting 18 disposals and seven score involvements.
The agile midfielder has since secured another four AFL games under his belt and is averaging 10.8 disposals. However, this isn’t the greatest indication of Erasmus’ performances at AFL level, having been used as the medical sub on three occasions.
Erasmus has been impressive for Peel Thunder in the WAFL, highlighted by 34 disposals and seven tackles against West Perth early in the season.
With the Dockers flying at the moment and the return of captain Nathan Fyfe imminent, Erasmus may have to bide his time before breaking into Fremantle’s AFL side again.
There has been a further 26 players across the 2021 AFL national draft, 2022 rookie draft and 2022 pre-season supplemental selection period who have made their debut at AFL level so far this season.
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