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

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

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

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

In the pouring rain, Weightman, almost casually, grabbed the target and the Bulldogs really snapped a valuable 13-point lead. It was an amazing kick considering the state of the game and the terrible weather. Not to mention that Weightman has only played 17 games and this was a killer final.

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

Anyone watching the Essendon-Bulldogs elimination final knows that all Weightman’s goals came from free kicks. But what those fans lacked was a smart and cunning attacker who was able to get his body into a contentious position where it could be called a free kick, a mentality and IQ beyond his age.

“When he gets free kicks, it means he sometimes puts himself in the right position,” said Jason Dunstall, who described Weightman as a player full of “sass”. “He came in and played this amazing role.”

Dunstall was right. Weightman’s role had a huge impact.

He scored four goals in the wet from 12 disposals with 25 pressures and five goals. He was a major reason why the Bulldogs defeated Essendon. He got up when the game was in the balance.

We’ve just put to bed the first week of the finals, which saw a one-point thriller, a solid number one seed, wet weather-shattering weather, and an aging team that failed.

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

Cody Weightman was just one example.

There were many more.

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

He did everything he could in the wet to win the ball forward, win the game, take points. His 44 hits were mostly in favour. He had 18 touches, took five marks, made four tackles and won 407 yards. The result will still be harrowing, but he just unlocked a version of myself that could see him in an All Australian blazer in a few years.

(Photo by Rob Blakers/Getty Images)

Giants role player Zach Sproule created a big impact with a small sample size. The 23-year-old had 11 hits, seven marks, four tackles, ten press moves and kicked two long-bomb goals with 91 percent efficiency. Just when the Giants needed a game forward, Sproule stood up and eventually was a defining figure in a thrilling final.

On Friday night during Port Adelaide’s 43-point demolition job at Geelong, it took young midfielder Xavier Duursma 11 seconds to get his first controversial touch. In the third quarter, he chased Luke Dalhaus and prevented him from bouncing off the Power’s 50m arc. He finished with 24 touches, seven points, four tackles with a 91 percent efficiency. We’ve come to know Duursma as the man who uses bows and arrows to celebrate his goals, but his rapid evolution has given him a maturity not seen in many 21-year-olds who have 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 veteran players like 31-year-old Lachie Henderson dropped chest marks, Henry sometimes seemed the only reliable figure deep in defence, claiming nine points and racking up 15 touches. The way he reads the ball reminds me of a hybrid version of Matthew Scarlett and Corey Enright.

The raw gut that ran out of Sydney’s Errol Gulden was impressive. It was his first final at the age of 19. He reached 473 meters, third best for the Swans behind Dane Rampe and Jake Llyod – seventh best on the ground. This tireless work ethic so early in his career will only lead to more matches, more touches and a refined approach to decision making. He finished with 14 touches and five points.

There has already been a lot of praise for Brisbane’s Huge McCluggage throughout his 105 appearances. Against the Demons, a heavy 33 point loss couldn’t hide his overall effort and contributions of 24 disposals, one goal, 28 pressure measures, 11 contested possession and 443 yards gain with a 79 percent efficiency. He feels like a Brownlow medalist in anticipation. He exudes calmness, poise, high football IQ, and he is only 23 years old.

As the Demons marched into their provisional final berth with a convincing win, there was a long list of top performers: Bayley Fritsch, Christian Petracca, Clayton Oliver, Max Gawn, Jake Lever, Trent Rivers. But it’s their young role-players who have made a big impact: 18-year-old Jake Bowey showed half the back with 14 touches; Tom Sparrow, 21, had 21 disposals as a midfielder, who kicked a goal; and Charlie Spargo, 21, was impressive as a creative striker who put pressure on a low nines game with four tackles and 1.1.

So now we’re going to reload.

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

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