As the 2021 AFL season got underway over the weekend, with fans returning to the sport in Victoria for the first time in more than a year, aflplayers.com.au discovered the players that played an underrated hand for their side from the first weekend of footy. Whether it be a big moment in a close game, or an important role, these are the Unsung Heroes.
Richmond – Noah Balta
Noah Balta was the only player to take to the field for Richmond in last year’s Grand Final without a premiership next to his name. He was one of the stars of their 2020 campaign and started this year right where he left off. Balta has slotted seamlessly into the role vacated by Alex Rance following his retirement ahead of the 2020 season. The 21-year-old had 11 disposals, four marks and four score involvements in Richmond’s 25-point win over Carlton, but most impressively he played with the trademark desperation we’ve come to know from the Tigers.
Western Bulldogs – Stefan Martin
In his first game for the Bulldogs, ruckman Stefan Martin demonstrated why the Dogs were so happy to acquire him in last year’s trade period. Providing support for Tim English, the Dogs’ one-two combination quelled Brodie Grundy’s influence around-the-ground. Despite Grundy’s 39 hit-outs, he lacked impact compared to his previous outings against the Dogs. Martin finished with 15 touches, six clearances, five score involvements and a goal.
Melbourne – Tom McDonald
After a quiet 2020 season Tom McDonald returned to form against the Dockers with an 18 disposal, two-goal performance. McDonald made the most of his opportunities and the depleted Dockers’ side, finishing the game with nine marks and six score involvements.
Adelaide – Jordon Butts
The young defender had a huge task of containing last year’s Coleman medallist and he did a superb job on Tom Hawkins. Butts kept Hawkins to just three disposals at half time and beat him in a number of one-on-one contests. Hawkins kicked two goals by the end of the game, but was well down on his usual output.
Hawthorn – Liam Shiels
With Zach Merrett running rampant in the first half against Hawthorn, the veteran midfielder was swung onto the Bombers’ architect to stifle his influence in a highly-focussed run with role. Merrett still had 31 disposals to be one of the Bombers’ best, but Shiels did not afford him the space he was enjoying in the first half and played a key role in Hawthorn’s tremendous come-from-behind victory.
Sydney – Tom Hickey
After Oscar McInerney took the lead early in their ruck battle, Swans recruit Tom Hickey settled into his role. Hickey was a significant contributor in the Swans gaining control, finishing the game with 24 hit-outs, 23 disposals and nine clearances.
Port Adelaide – Aliir Aliir
Part of Port Adelaide’s off-season recruiting drive, Aliir Aliir looks to be one of the missing link in the Power’s quest for a premiership. Aliir was dominant across half-back, setting up the Powers’ defensive plays while collecting 14 disposals, including nine intercept possessions, and six rebound 50s.
St Kilda – Tom Highmore
Playing in his first game for the Saints, Highmore looked assured and dependable in the back half in a stirring first-up win over the Giants. The 23-year-old – taken at pick No. 45 from the 2020 National Draft – is an important player in the Saints’ backline with veteran recruit James Frawley still injured.
West Coast – Oscar Allen
While much of the attention is lumped on Josh Kennedy and Jack Darling, West Coast’s third tall forward Oscar Allen is developing nicely in the background. The versatile tall booted four goals in West Coast’s 25-point win over Gold Coast and was as influential as any player on the ground in the Eagles’ season opener.