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Unsung Heroes of 2021

You have seen our Unsung Heroes series every week, now has discovered the players that played an underrated hand for their side throughout 2021. Whether it be a big moment in a close game, or an important role, these are our Unsung Heroes of the season.

Adelaide – Ben Keays

Delisted by Brisbane at the end of 2019, Keays was set to line up for Box Hill in the VFL in an attempt to resurrect what seemed like a fading career. But the Crows came calling, selecting the midfielder as a rookie in the weeks after his axing from the Lions. Keays clearly had a point to prove and was rewarded for a strong 2020 campaign with a fifth-place finish in Adelaide’s best and fairest. Then, when it became apparent the Crows would be without both Crouch brothers in 2021 — Brad joined St Kilda through free agency and Matt was struck down by a groin injury — the club seemed challenged by a yawning on-ball void. But Keays came to the fore, rising again to announce himself as one of the Crows’ leading midfielders in 2021 by averaging 16 kicks and five inside 50s per game. But while Keays proved himself as a damaging on-baller, it’s his work on the other side of the ledger that is most impressive. A hard defensive runner, Keays ranks as elite for tackles per game (six) and pressure acts (25). “I love that he runs uphill as hard as he does down,” Adelaide coach Matthew Nicks said earlier in the year. “He defends as well as any midfielder in the competition.”

Best game: In Adelaide’s one-point round 10 win over Melbourne, Keays collected 34 disposals, laid seven tackles and kicked two goals. He was involved in eight scoring chains, had 22 pressure acts and gained 418 metres in a complete performance.

Brisbane Lions – Mitch Robinson

At 32, Robinson’s uncompromising attack on the ball is showing no signs of slowing. Perhaps the most passionate player in the game, Robinson’s pride in pulling on the Lions jumper remains one of his admirable qualities. “I would die for my teammates,” he has previously said. The hard nut opened the season out of form, following a 10-touch game in round one with a marginally better 12 disposals the next week. But the tide turned in round three for Robinson and his Lions alike, with the winger’s 15 kicks from 23 touches pivotal in Brisbane’s after-the-siren triumph over Collingwood. He laid nine tackles in round four, before dropping under the 20-disposal mark just once in his next seven outings.

Best game: Robinson racked up 30 disposals and booted four goals as the Lions easily accounted for the Giants in round 11. He also sent the ball inside 50 nine times and took three intercept marks, while gaining 689 metres and putting in 19 pressure acts.

Carlton – Matthew Kennedy

Kennedy’s start to the year must have been frustrating. The inside midfielder featured in the Blues’ side on only three occasions in the first 13 rounds, and was the medical sub for two of those games. But a strong stint in the VFL helped Kennedy regain his confidence, and when he returned to the team in round 14, he was clearly back to his ball-winning best with 27 disposals and nine inside 50s against the Giants. The 24-year-old cemented his spot in the side thereafter, averaging 22 touches and over five tackles per game for the season’s remainder.

Best game: Kennedy was a shining light in the Blues’ darkest day of the season, combining 28 touches and a goal in a 95-point drubbing at the hands of Port Adelaide. Kennedy also laid seven tackles, took eight marks and intercepted the ball on nine occasions.

Collingwood — Chris Mayne

It was a year of instability on the field and off it for Collingwood, so the cool-headed, consistent Mayne was as crucial as ever in his 14th and final campaign. The 32-year-old veteran had 23-plus disposals in each of his last 13 games, finding form in defence and offering a soothing sense of seniority to the relatively young and inexperienced group the Pies opted for in the back half of the season. Mayne ranked as ‘elite’ for disposal efficiency (90.3 per cent), and marks (7.5 per game), and intercepted the ball six times a match.

Best game: Mayne hardly wasted any of his 25 touches against Port Adelaide in round 10, with 24 of those disposals proving effective. The Pies took it up to the premiership fancies, losing by the narrowest of margins as the veteran claimed 13 marks across half-back and showed defensive desperation through five one percenters.

Essendon – Jayden Laverde

Laverde’s move to defence in 2021 was a masterstroke. The former forward was one of Essendon’s three AFLPA Most Valuable Player nominees after averaging six marks, three rebound 50s and 11 effective disposals per match. “No-one gives any love to Jayden Laverde, but they should,” Essendon legend Tim Watson said in August. The 25-year-old’s greatest output in a single season before 2021 was two years ago in 2019, when he pieced together 10 games. But this season, Laverde was one of only three Bombers to play every game and formed an inspired defensive unit alongside the likes of Jordan Ridley, Dyson Heppell, Nick Hind and Mason Redman.

Best game: Laverde was immense in Essendon’s Anzac Day win over Collingwood, with 21 disposals — at 90 per cent efficiency — 13 marks (two contested) and a goal. The 191cm defender also intercepted the ball 11 times.

Fremantle — Sean Darcy

There is always intrigue surrounding Fremantle’s midfield, whether it be the developing duo of Andrew Brayshaw and Caleb Serong, the Brownlow-winning Nat Fyfe or the evergreen David Mundy, but the most crucial cog of the Dockers’ engine room might very well be its rising ruckman. Darcy had a breakout 2021 and although he might not be widely recognised alongside Max Gawn and Brodie Grundy as one of the game’s top ruckmen just yet, the numbers indicate he is already in rare air. The 23-year-old averaged 10 hitouts to advantage this season — Gawn and Grundy averaged 10.1 and 10.7 respectively — as well as 16 disposals, two contested marks and five clearances per game. The big man won 11 contested possessions per game, and despite weighing 112kg, even averaged 215 metres gained a match.

Best game: Darcy’s performance in the Dockers’ round 17 win over Hawthorn had to be seen to be believed. The 202cm giant imposed himself with six contested marks, collected 25 disposals (at 88 per cent efficiency), won five clearances, intercepted the ball nine times and somehow gained 486 metres.

Geelong — Brad Close

Close has embraced his status as one of Geelong’s more unacknowledged players: “I love kicking a goal if I can, but if it means my teammate kicks an easier goal … as a forward group, we’re all working towards one thing,” he told earlier in the year, but in the shadows of Tom Hawkins and Jeremy Cameron, he played an important small forward role throughout 2021. Close had an ‘elite’ handball rating (seven per game), and was consistently clean around the contest with 10 effective disposals a match. The long-sleeved pressure player also laid three tackles and put in 18 pressure acts per outing. He has only played 29 games after being selected by the Cats as a mature-age recruit in 2019, so his best football is likely ahead of him.

Best game: Close stood up in what was a second-against-third Friday night clash, amassing 15 effective disposals and kicking a goal as Geelong downed the Dogs after the siren in round 14. Close’s hunt-down forward role was on full display — he also laid five tackles and put in 25 pressure acts — while sending the ball inside 50 four times and having involvement in five separate scores.

Gold Coast – Charlie Ballard

Ballard might not yet be recognised by the wider football public as one of the league’s most promising key defenders — he was not picked by fans for the final AFLPA 22under22 team — but the 22-year-old shapes as one of the Suns’ most important players going forward. Ballard is settled on the Gold Coast with a contract that won’t expire until the end of 2025, and recently told about his leadership aspirations. He set a strong on-field example in 2021, averaging three intercept marks per game as a peel-off defender. Ballard’s poise was displayed through his kicking efficiency (82.4 per cent), and his aerial presence was shown by an average of five spoils and one contested mark per match. He has formed a strong defensive duo with lock-down partner Sam Collins and will be one to watch in 2022.

Best game: Ballard’s best came in the Suns’ boilover win against Richmond in round 16. Ballard took nine marks (three contested), he intercepted the ball 12 times and had 16 kicks at 88 per cent efficiency.

Greater Western Sydney – Connor Idun

Star defender Sam Taylor missed a chunk of the season and Jack Buckley ruptured his ACL in round 16, but if there was any silver lining to the Giants’ backline blues, it was the rise of the 61st selection in the 2018 draft, Connor Idun. The 191cm Idun had played only three games before 2021, but his defensive development throughout the season flew well under the outsider’s radar. The former Geelong Falcon won 84.3 per cent of contested one-on-ones, averaged an elite 3.3 spoils per game and also effected through four one-percenters a match. Idun’s game wasn’t purely defensive, though. His kicking efficiency (82 per cent) helped the Giants carve their way out of the backline, while his 16 touches at 94 per cent against Essendon in a crucial round 19 win was proof of his poise.

Best game: Idun earned a Rising Star nomination for his round 23 performance against Carlton, but his round 14 game against the same opponents was arguably better. The rising defender had 12 kicks (at 92 per cent efficiency) took 10 marks and laid four tackles, as well as putting in three one percenters and creeping forward for a goal assist.

Hawthorn – Tim O’Brien

O’Brien’s intriguing career took a turn for the best in the back-half of 2021, when a move down back seemed to reinvent the 27-year-old in his ninth season. His best moment ironically came deep in the forward line with a spectacular mark at the top of the goal square against the Giants in round 15, but demanding recognition was his work at the opposite end of the ground. O’Brien averaged 16 disposals, seven marks (1.5 contested) and three rebound 50s in the last five rounds of the season, and played an unsung role against Melbourne in round 18 when his 10 one percenters were pivotal in forcing a draw.

Best game: O’Brien was a significant factor in the Hawks’ stunning win over the Bulldogs in round 22. He racked up 24 disposals and took three contested marks, while claiming an off-the-charts 14 intercept possessions.

Melbourne – Jack Viney

Once the main act of the Demons’ on-ball unit, Jack Viney has taken a back seat as Christian Petracca and Clayton Oliver have taken the reins. But Viney’s role has not shrunk in significance. The hard nut has become the enforcer, a high-pressure player whose defensive presence ensures a bruising affair at the stoppages for opposition midfielders. Viney is elite for tackles (seven per game) and pressure acts (27 per match), while his season heatmap shows the bulk of his possession is won in the defensive 50. The 27-year-old was still damaging on the offensive side, too, averaging 22 disposals, five score involvements and three stoppage clearances per match.

Best game: Viney put in a complete performance against Hawthorn in round 18, cracking in with 11 tackles and 31 pressure acts, while winning 17 contested possessions and advancing the ball inside 50 five times.

North Melbourne — Tarryn Thomas

Thomas’ ‘unsung’ status was recently confirmed by his non-selection in the AFLPA’s 22under22, but teammate Jy Simpkin had a theory as to why: “You look too old to be under 22,” he commented on a recent Instagram post of the bearded Thomas. Whatever the reason, it is clear that Thomas is one of the key pieces to the Roos’ rebuilding puzzle. The smooth mover became a complete player in 2021, averaging 18 disposals, five marks, four inside 50s, 355 metres gained and a goal per game. His x-factor was also on display with a pair of Mark of the Year nominations, and though the second of which escaped attention — likely because it was taken during the deadest of dead rubbers when the Roos faced Adelaide in round 23 — it was one of the most spectacular grabs of the season.

Best game: Thomas took off in North’s upset win over Carlton in round 19, booting four goals from 23 disposals (at 87 per cent efficiency), gaining 509 metres, laying five tackles and putting in 21 pressure acts.

Port Adelaide – Willem Drew

Drew’s defensive role in Port Adelaide’s midfield was largely unheralded, but it allowed the likes of Ollie Wines and Travis Boak to play with relative freedom and ensured possession would not come easily for opposition onballers. Drew was rated as ‘elite’ for tackles (seven a game) and pressure acts (25.5), while half of his possessions were won in a contested fashion. The 22-year-old, however, is no one-trick pony. He amassed 25-plus possessions on four occasions throughout the season, proving his worth as a damaging midfielder when a shutdown role was not required. Retired Power midfielder Tom Rockliff recently told that Drew has “no limit” to how good a player he can become. “His defensive side of his game is his real strength at the moment, but once he gets his offensive side up and going, he’ll be a really hard matchup for anyone,” Rockliff said.

Best game: Drew was monumental in the Power’s tight showdown win in round 21, combining a game-high 10 tackles with 27 pressure acts. The ball-winner also claimed 15 contested possessions and seven clearances in a display of how damaging he can be.

Richmond – Jack Graham

The future of the Tigers’ midfield could rest largely in the hands of Graham, who took another step up this season despite flying under the radar. It is easy to see why Graham led South Australia at under-18 level; he set the Tigers an example with his two-way running, having averaged over five tackles and 26 pressure acts per match. He also hurt the opposition in attack with a blend of 19 disposals and 305 metres gained per outing, as well as sending the ball inside 50 four times a match. At 23, Graham is primed to become one of the game’s next elite midfielders.

Best game: Graham needed only 17 touches to haunt the Saints in round five as he laid a game-high 12 tackles and booted three goals. The rising Tiger also impacted with a goal assist, four clearances and three tackles inside 50.

St Kilda – Callum Wilkie

Wilkie has become one of the Saints’ most important defenders, and had another season deserving of recognition in 2021. He averaged four spoils and six marks (two intercepts) per game, but also showcased his playmaking ability through his kicks (11 a match) and elite-level disposal efficiency (87.4 per cent). The former accountant was drafted as a 22-year-old, so it can be easy to forget it was only his third season. Wilkie will look to further strengthen his defensive partnership with Dougal Howard in 2022 as the Saints plot a return to the top eight.

Best game: Wilkie’s round-eight performance against the Suns was clearly a career-best. A staggering 24 of his 25 disposals effective, he took 14 marks (two contested), intercepted the ball nine times and impacted with seven one percenters as the Saints claimed a nine-point victory.

Sydney Swans – Tom Hickey

Not many would have predicted a career-best season for the 30-year-old Hickey as he joined his fourth club in 2021. But in his 11th campaign, it’s exactly what the veteran ruckman did. The big man won more than 20 disposals on four occasions throughout the season and averaged eight hit-outs to advantage per contest. Hickey even played like an additional onballer at times — evidenced through an average of five clearances a game — and despite standing at 202cm, gained 249 metres a match. Hickey’s season was rewarded with a sixth-place finish in the Swans’ best and fairest, proof that he was a bargain recruit after arriving from West Coast during last year’s trade period.

Best game: Hickey wasted no time impressing his teammates and Swans fans alike with a barnstorming performance against Brisbane at the Gabba in round one. The ruckman claimed 14 contested possessions and nine clearances, won 24 hitouts and sent the ball inside 50 on five occasions.

West Coast Eagles – Jamie Cripps

Cripps has long played as the unsung hero in the Eagles’ powerful forward line, and 2021 was no exception. The numbers say he played his small-forward role to perfection, averaging a goal a game as well as an elite two inside-50 tackles and 21 pressure acts per outing. The 29-year-old laid seven tackles or more four times throughout the season and he kicked multiple goals on eight occasions. Cripps took a particular liking to Adelaide, collecting 25 disposals on both occasions and even taking 10 marks in the initial meeting.

Best game: Cripps’ second day out against the Crows was his best, with a combination of five goals and 25 disposals complemented by five inside 50s and four tackles.

Western Bulldogs – Alex Keath

Keath’s back-half of the year was particularly noteworthy. From round 14, the key defender matched up on Tom Hawkins, Josh J Kennedy, Lance Franklin, Ben King, Charlie Dixon, Peter Wright and Joe Daniher. Remarkably, those forwards combined for a paltry total of just five goals against Keath, who is in his second season as a Dog and fifth in total after joining the Adelaide Crows as a former cricketer in 2017. Keath missed the preliminary final clash against Port Adelaide with a hamstring issue, but the Bulldogs seem likely to regain their defensive rock for the decider against Melbourne next week. It is possible Keath will take on Ben Brown in one of the most important matchups of the Grand Final.

Best game: Keath had only nine disposals in the Bulldogs’ thrilling win over the Lions in the semi-final, but played a crucial role in restricting Joe Daniher to a meagre six disposals and two marks.