No player has taken more contested marks in the last three rounds.
It isn’t Aaron Naughton. It’s not Harry McKay. It isn’t Max Gawn, either.
The answer? Well, if you thought it was 16-game Swan Hayden McLean then you’d be correct.
With 11 contested grabs and five goals in the past three weeks, McLean has cemented his place in Sydney’s forward line alongside Lance Franklin.
The 197-centimetre key forward’s contested marking prowess could be one of the Sydney Cricket Ground’s leading allures for years to come, but it’s a trait McLean developed long ago on the quieter lawns of local ovals and the family backyard.
Growing up, he would need to fight for the ball against older brother Ben, five years his senior. To compound the age gap issue, Ben was also a permanent fixture in the backline for Beaumaris, who compete in the Victorian Amateur Football Association.
“It was always me trying to beat the older brother,” McLean told aflplayers.com.au.
“Whatever we did, we were competitive growing up. Whether it was in the backyard or with the basketball, I looked up to an older brother. You wanted to be like him, even though he was five years older, always playing at his level or doing what he was doing.
“When I got a bit older and could match it with him a bit, he was a defender and I was a forward, so we did a lot of going to the park on a Saturday or Sunday. Dad would kick the footy up and we’d just go at it.”
The competitive drive helped McLean perform as a bottom-ager for the Sandringham Dragons in 2016, when he pieced together a season impressive enough to earn the captaincy the following year.
But after a 2017 campaign which didn’t go according to plan, he went undrafted.
“Not getting drafted was frustrating,” he recalled.
“You get a bit of doubt as to whether you can do it or not. It’s a massive build-up from when you’re a kid all the way through to when you’re 18, then that one night could determine your future, whether you get drafted or not.”
Keeping in pursuit of his dream, McLean joined the St Kilda-affiliated Sandringham Zebras, and knew he would need to lift his competitiveness again.
“Missing the draft and playing in the VFL really exposed me to those older bodies and the real competitiveness that I needed,” he said.
“I think in hindsight now, missing that first draft was something that was probably good for me. To be able to play VFL against AFL-listed players and older bodies, I think I’ve really matured from that.”
McLean’s strong VFL season in 2018 didn’t go unnoticed. He took up an offer to cross to the SANFL and suit up for South Adelaide, but he had also caught the attention of Swans recruiters, who needed to fill a position on Sydney’s list that was left vacant by injury.
Yet again, McLean had to compete.
“I had a phone call saying, ‘Someone’s had an injury, we’re looking to fill a spot’.
“It was between me and another player: ‘Would you come over, do a medical and go through an interview process?’ They were always upfront, ‘It’s not guaranteed, there’s another player we’re looking at as well’. So we did all that together, and I happened to get the spot,” he recalled.
McLean’s first AFL assignment was to take on Aaron Sandilands in the ruck, sixteen years his senior, and 266 more games into his elite-level career. But McLean held his own, winning 16 hitouts and laying eight tackles.
He played three more games for the year and a further six in 2020. Then, earlier this season, was forced to surrender his spot for a fit Buddy Franklin.
“At the start I was coming in and out for him, which was frustrating, but at the same time it was the role that the team needed, and you’re happy to do that when it’s Lance Franklin coming back,” McLean said.
“But even he just said, ‘Fight your way back in another way’, so that’s what I focused on in the twos. With a little bit of injury I got the opportunity to come back in, and then it was just trying to take it with both hands and play alongside him, which has been a great experience.
“On the weekend, I think we sort of just clicked together, it seemed like it worked well.”
McLean attributes the purple patch of form — which included a goal, 18 disposals, nine marks and six tackles against Collingwood in round nine — to a pre-season uninterrupted by injury, which allowed the 22-year-old to build his running capacity and strength, as well as gain an extra four kilograms.
The blossoming Swan’s recent success can also be drawn to one of his biggest supporters and one of the game’s fiercest competitors of yesteryear, Hawthorn champion Dermott Brereton, who coached McLean in his junior years at Beaumaris.
“I don’t know if he saw a bit of potential, but we worked a lot together, whether it was after training or before training,” McLean said.
“Even after he stopped coaching, we’d still do a few things here and there, working on leading patterns or body work, or just as a forward in general. Even now, he touches base to see how I’m going and still supports me which is really good.”
On Saturday night, McLean returns to the scene of his first game.
But this time, rather than fronting up against Aaron Sandilands as a debutant, he’ll travel to Perth to face Fremantle as the league’s in-form contested marking player.