It's that time of year again where we assess form and select our halfway-point All-Australian team.
In choosing a mid-year team, there are always several stiff omissions. Huge apologies go out to Daniel Rich, David Mundy, Jarryd Lyons, Cam Guthrie, Harris Andrews, Jacob Weitering, Ben King, Josh Bruce and Brodie Grundy, who we couldn't quite squeeze into the side.
Balance was key for us here, meaning the 22 players selected closely resemble a genuine team, including negating defenders, small and key forwards as well as a mix of inside and outside midfielders. It also features Melbourne's Simon Goodwin as coach of the year (so far).
So without further ado, here's ESPN's mid-year All-Australian team:
FB: B. Starcevich (BRIS), S. May (MEL), J. Lever (MEL)
HB: C. Salem (MEL), D. Moore (COLL), B. Dale (WB)
C: H. McCluggage (BRIS), T. Liberatore (WB), J. Macrae (WB)
HF: M. Bontempelli (WB), T. Walker (ADE), T. Greene (GWS)
FF: J. Darling (WCE), H. McKay (CARL), A. McDonald-Tipgungwuti (ESS)
R: M. Gawn (MEL), C. Petracca (MEL), C. Oliver (MEL)
I/C: S. Walsh (CARL), O. Wines (PA), D. Parish (ESS), B. Fritsch (MEL)
Brandon Starcevich (Brisbane): The 21-year-old has become one of the competition's premier lockdown defenders, with the fierce competitor keeping the likes of Dustin Martin, Robbie Gray and Tom Papley goalless this season. A medium-sized defender, Starcevich has been invaluable to Brisbane's defensive penchant in 2021 and is one of the first backman selected in this side.
Steven May (Melbourne): Had he not been subbed out early of Melbourne's Round 5 clash, May would be averaging career-high disposal numbers. While nothing overly impressive on paper, it's how he uses the footy that has been particularly noticeable. An excellent defender, May's damaging left boot has been a noticeable weapon for the Dees this season.
Jake Lever (Melbourne): Once again leading the competition for intercept marks (49), Lever, like May, has been a goliath for Melbourne in defence so far this season. His vocal leadership -- and leadership through what he does -- has been noticeable, and his teammates clearly walk taller with him in the side and firing on all cylinders. It's so good to see him fit.
Christian Salem (Melbourne): For a defender, Salem is rated as elite for disposals, intercept possessions, ground ball gets, score involvements and contested possessions, so it's no wonder he was keen to sign an extension with the Dees earlier this season. Averaging 26.5 touches per game is easily a career-high for Salem, too. Oh, and did we mention he's an elite ball user, too?
Darcy Moore (Collingwood): Nathan Buckley experimented with Moore as a forward, but it's pretty clear he must be played in the back line. Moore has been a colossus for the Magpies in the first half of the year, taking intercept marks at will and rebounding with authority. It's scary to think where Collingwood might be without him inn the side...
Bailey Dale (Western Bulldogs): What a year it's been for Dale and the Dogs and it's certainly not crazy to suggest he's the most improved player in the league, having jumped from nine touches per game in 2020 to almost 25 this year. Dale has been mostly deployed off half back but has been moved into the midfield at times to cover the injured Josh Dunkley and Adam Treloar.
Hugh McCluggage (Brisbane): 23-year-old McCluggage continues to grow in stature as one of the best midfielders in the competition. Averaging 25 touches per game, McCluggage is ranked elite for score assists as a midfielder, and above average for metres gained and both inside and rebound 50s. He's likely leading the Lions' best and fairest at the halfay point of the year.
Tom Liberatore (Western Bulldogs): There's probably no better true centre in the game right now than 'Libba'. He leads the league in clearances and does his best work in tight, feeding the ball out to some of the competition's most elite outside users. An absolute lock in the mid-year All Australian side.
Jackson Macrae (Western Bulldogs): One of those A-graders on the outside for Liberatore is Macrae, who continues to rack the ball up at will. Through 11 games, Macrae is averaging 35 touches per outing, the most of any player in the league. He's also managed to contribute six clearances, five inside 50s and five tackles per game, all the while shortening to one of the 2021 Brownlow Medal fancies.
Marcus Bontempelli (Western Bulldogs): Don't abuse us, the Bont can definitely line up on the half-forward line and push into the midfield, as needed. Bontempelli has perhaps been the best player of the 2021 season, with some expecting him to have already polled around 17 Brownlow Medal votes. His class on the outside and ability forward of centre make him a dangerous proposition for any opposition.
Taylor Walker (Adelaide): He may very well have started the season with three consecutive best on grounds, and who can honestly say they saw that coming!? The Texan has booted 34 goals so far in 2021, and even missed one game through injury. His contested marking and work at ground level hasn't gone unnoticed, and is a key reason as to why he holds an unexpected place in the team at the mid-point of the season.
Toby Greene (GWS): We're not sure there's a more exciting, dynamic player in the competition than Greene, and even though he's missed a couple of games through injury, he still holds a place in the mid-year All-Australian team. Through his nine games, Greene averaged 18 touches, five inside 50s and two and a half goals per game. He was also leading GWS with authority in the absence of Stephen Coniglio and Phil Davis.
Jack Darling (West Coast): Averaging 2.5 goals per game and 2.2 contested marks per game, Darling continues to fly under the radar as one of the league's premier big men. Surprisingly, for a key forward, Darling is also ranked elite for pressure acts, illustrating how well-rounded his game has become. When he's on, there's no stopping him, as the Crows discovered earlier in the year when he booted five goals in the second term.
Harry McKay (Carlton): We're starting to see why Harry McKay was taken with pick No. 10 in the 2015 draft. He's a monster target in the Blues' forward line, and is incredibly difficult to defend in both one-on-ones and on the lead. He sits atop the Coleman Medal standings with 38 goals -- four ahead of Taylor Walker who is second on the list -- and could have been further in front with better accuracy.
Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti (Essendon): There's not much we enjoy watching more than Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti playing footy. A genuine match-winner, AMT is elite for goals, score involvements, goal assists and kicking efficiency. He has 27 goals on the season so far, and could crack 50 by the end of the year.
Max Gawn (Melbourne): Rated elite for disposals, metres gained, score involvements and above average for hitouts and hitouts to advantage, Gawn is a premier ruckman whose influence around the ground -- especially as a contested mark (also ranked elite) -- cannot be understated. A true leader and possibly a future premiership skipper...
Christian Petracca (Melbourne): Averaging 28 disposals and a goal per outing, Petracca is a tough competitor and a hard player to stop when he's on song. His ability to influence games around the stoppage as well as in the forward half is matched only by a handful of players.
Clayton Oliver (Melbourne): What a sensational first half of the year Oliver has had. He averages a staggering 32 disposals, six tackles and more than seven clearances per game, and is rated elite in both inside 50s and rebound 50s, score involvements and tackles. Our Brownlow Medal predictor suggests he could have polled six best on grounds in the opening 11 games!
Sam Walsh (Carlton): He's only just played his 50th game and finds himself firmly in the hunt for a starting spot in the All-Australian team. Walsh has gone from strength to strength since his debut back in 2019, and is arguably Carlton's No. 1 player. He has added the inside work to his hard-running game and is one of the most complete midfielders going around. Crazy he's still just 20 years old!
Ollie Wines (Port Adelaide): The Power bull is enjoying a career-best season with averages of 31 disposals, 14 contested possessions, five inside 50s, five clearances and four tackles per game. So good has Wines been in the first half of the year, we currently have him placed third in our Brownlow Medal predictor.
Darcy Parish (Essendon): Averaging 30 touches, almost six inside 50s and eight clearances per game in 2021 (and after a slow start to the season), Parish has grown into his midfield role beautifully. His influence on games is enormous, and will no doubt be a centre square feature at the Bombers for the rest of the year ... and beyond.
Bayley Fritsch (Melbourne): A genuine medium (or, in Champion Data's eyes, general) forward, Fritsch's decision-making, skills and silky set shot routine make him a tough player to defend. Rangey, but not genuine key forward height, he's a difficult matchup, and is rated elite for marks inside 50, marks on a lead, score involvements, and goals (having kicked 25 on the year so far from his 10 games).
Simon Goodwin (Melbourne): Who seriously had the Demons 10-1 as we head into the bye weeks? If you've got your hand up, we know you're lying! Full credit has to go to Goodwin and the entire coaching staff for building a list which has serious premiership capabilities.