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No need to wait – the AFL’s next generation has already arrived

No need to wait - the AFL's next generation has already arrived

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By the 13-minute mark of the third quarter, Bulldogs forward goal sneak Cody Weightman had just booted his fourth goal.

The 20-year-old was bumped off the ball by Zach Merrett over the forward pocket boundary line and immediately the umpire blew his whistle.

In the teeming rain, Weightman, almost casually, sized up the goal and snapped truly giving the Bulldogs a valuable 13-point lead. It was a miraculous kick given the state of the game and horrendous weather. Not to mentioned that Weightman has played only 17 games and this was a cutthroat final.

“He’s such a live-wire forward in the critical moments,” said Gerard Whateley on AFL 360.

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Anyone watching the Essendon-Bulldogs elimination final would know that all of Weightman’s goals came from free kicks. But what those fans missed, was a clever and wily forward who was able to get his body into a contested position where a free kick could be called which is a mentality and IQ that is beyond his years.

“If he’s getting free kicks it means he’s putting himself in the right position at times,” said Jason Dunstall who described Weightman as a player full of “sass”. “He’s come in and played this great role.”

Dunstall was right. Weightman’s role had massive impact.

He booted four goals in the wet from 12 disposals with 25 pressure acts and five score involvements. He was a big reason why the Bulldogs defeated Essendon. He stood up when the game was hanging in the balance.

We’ve just put the first week of finals to bed which saw a one-point thriller, a solid number one seed emerge, a wet weather mauling, and an ageing team misfire.

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Amid the carnage, the pressure, the joy, if you watched all four games on the weekend, you would’ve seen something special take place: the next generation of AFL stars standing tall when it mattered most on the big stage.

Cody Weightman was just one example.

There were plenty more.

In the same game as Weightman’s heroics, Essendon’s ruckman Sam Draper, a 22-year-old who’s only played 21 games and already gone through the agony of an ACL recovery, played arguably his best game.

He did everything he could in the wet to win the ball forward, win the contest, take marks. His 44 hit outs were mostly to advantage. He had 18 touches, took five marks, laid four tackles and gained 407 metres. The result will still be smarting but he just unlocked a version of myself that could see him in an All Australian blazer a few years from now.

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Sam Draper of the Bombers in action

(Photo by Rob Blakers/Getty Images)

Giants role player Zach Sproule created a big impact from a small sample size. The 23-year old had 11 touches, seven marks, four tackles, ten pressure acts and kicked two long-bomb goals at 91 per cent efficiency. Just when the Giants needed a forward make repeated contests, Sproule stood up and ultimately he was a defining figure in a thrilling final.

On Friday night during Port Adelaide’s 43-point demolition job on Geelong, it took young midfielder Xavier Duursma 11 seconds to get his first contested touch. In the third quarter he chased down Luke Dalhaus and stopped him from rebounding on the Power’s 50-metre arc. He finished with 24 touches, seven marks, four tackles at 91 per cent efficiency. We came to know Duursma as the guy who uses a bow-and-arrow to celebrate his goals but his quick evolution has given him a maturity not seen in many 21-year-olds who’ve played 45 games.

The Cats don’t have many kids on their list but 23-year old Jack Henry defended like a seasoned campaigner. When experienced players like 31-year-old Lachie Henderson were dropping chest marks, at times Henry seemed like the only reliable figure deep in defence, where he claimed nine marks and gathered 15 touches. The way he reads the ball reminds me of a hybrid version of Matthew Scarlett and Corey Enright.

The raw gut running from Sydney’s Errol Gulden was impressive. It was his first final at 19 years-old. He racked up 473 metres, third best for the Swans behind Dane Rampe and Jake Llyod — seventh best on ground. This tireless work ethic so early in his career will only lead to more contests, more touches, and a refined approach to decision-making. He finished with 14 touches and five marks.

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There’s been high praise already for Brisbane’s Huge McCluggage throughout his 105 games. Against the Demons, a tough 33-point loss couldn’t hide his all-round effort and contributions of 24 disposals, one goal, 28 pressure acts, 11 contested possessions, and 443 metres gained at 79 per cent efficiency. He feels like a Brownlow medallist in waiting. He oozes calm, poise, high football IQ, and he’s only 23 years-old.

As the Demons marched into their preliminary final berth with a convincing win, there was a long list of best-on-ground performers: Bayley Fritsch, Christian Petracca, Clayton Oliver, Max Gawn, Jake Lever, Trent Rivers. But it’s been their young role players that have had great impact: 18-year-old Jake Bowey showed dash off half back with 14 touches; Tom Sparrow, 21, had 21 disposals as a midfielder, who kicked a goal; and Charlie Spargo, 21, was impactful as a creative forward who forces pressure in low nine disposal game with four tackles and 1.1.

So now we reload.

This weekend of finals marks another week where the AFL kids of tomorrow will get another opportunity on a big stage to make a name for themselves. We can sometimes get lost in the wins and losses, the coaches presser statements, the tribunal hearings, the Instagram highlights of the games best talent, but there’s a new wave of young stars breaking new ground. We don’t have to wait until the AFL’s next-gen talent is fully developed because they’re here right now.

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