WELL, THAT WENT quick. It really is hard in the midst of the whirlwind of games and accompanying incidents, controversy and talking points, to believe we've already seen half this AFL season unfold.
Blink the other eye, and before you know it, it will be September and finals time. So whilst a good half-dozen clubs each week over the next three weeks have a little breather to take stock, let's indulge ourselves just a little and hand out some gongs for the 2022 AFL season to date.
THE "WOW, WASN'T EXPECTING THAT" AWARD
This is a tie between Fremantle and Carlton. The former finished 11th last year with 10 wins and is currently third on eight wins. The latter was 13th with eight wins in 2021, and is now fifth with as many victories as last year in half the time. Yes, both have had recent stumbles, but have enjoyed far more good moments, both significantly tougher outfits than previously and also, importantly, both capable of genuine excitement. In Carlton's case, that's had a lot to do with key forwards Harry McKay and (since McKay's injury) Charlie Curnow. In Fremantle's, the defensive fundamentals are now supplemented by some real X-factor through midfield and closer to goal, exemplified in last week's stunning third-quarter burst of eight goals against Melbourne. These are two clubs who have routinely promised improvement and failed to deliver. Not only have both done so in 2022, they are improvements which appear far from just a flash in the pan.
THE "BARRY CROCKER" AWARD
That's rhyming slang for shocker, of course, and the winner in our view is pretty clear-cut. Essendon's 2022 to date hasn't just been a car crash, it's been a multi-vehicle pile-up which it's hard to see not producing major fatalities, nor keeping emergency services occupied who knows how long? From literally the opening minutes of the very first game of the season against Geelong, the Bombers, whose previous game had been a final, have looked confused, flat and seemingly unwilling to work hard enough to rectify those problems. What animation they've shown has been more likely directed at each other than the opposition. But really, that disaster is merely a reflection of the car crash off-field, conflicting messaging and tone deafness the order of the day, chairman Paul Brasher's ill-timed utterances and chief executive's Xavier Campbell clandestine two-year contract extension a lightning rod for the fury of a disaffected fan base. They say the fish rots at the head. The stench of Essendon's right now is overpowering.
THE "CRÈME DE LA CRÈME" AWARD
For 2020 Brownlow medallist Lachie Neale, normal transmission has been resumed after a 2021 in which a series of injuries and the inevitable extra attention paid a winner of the game's most prestigious honour took their toll. The Brisbane midfield maestro is averaging 32 disposals, a figure he's exceeded just once in his 11-year AFL career, is ranked second for clearances, and first for contested possession, and is averaging personal bests in both tackles and inside 50 entries. The last four categories are all career bests. It's not often, indeed rarely, that a player can win a Brownlow and play better still. Neale is doing it. And the Lions, not coincidentally, are also as a result a stronger premiership chance than they were in 2020.
THE "THAT MUST HAVE BEEN SOME PRE-SEASON" AWARD
Not being able to command a regular game in a side as bog ordinary as was 16th-placed Gold Coast in 2021 isn't a great base on which to be approaching the following season. Just five games for Will Brodie for the Suns last year was some comedown from having been taken inside the top 10 picks of the 2016 national draft. But not for the first time, the Suns' loss has been someone else's gain. Brodie has been pivotal to Fremantle's superb start to 2022, a key to a deeper and higher-quality midfield group for the Dockers. His numbers are so far ahead of his previous personal bests they almost defy comparison, but take his disposal average, which has climbed from 12.8 per game to 28, as some sort of guide. The Dockers gave up only a future second and fourth round draft pick to get their hands on him and it might prove to be one of the best trade deals any club has ever executed.
THE "DIDN'T SKIP A BEAT" AWARD
Some players miss a season with injury and return to great fanfare and hype. Others just get on with the job. Fewer still do that so well it's like there was no interruption to their careers at all. That's Hawthorn's James Sicily in 2022. Perhaps it was the extra time the Hawks afforded their prize key position defender in his return from a serious knee injury suffered in August, 2020. Whatever it was, it's worked, because the livewire Hawk is right back to his intercepting, rebounding best. Not only that, his leadership in a team undergoing a serious demographic overhaul has been no less important. All with a minimal amount of fuss. That's exactly how previous coach Alastair Clarkson would have wanted it. We're confident new coach Sam Mitchell is pretty happy with how things are panning out, too.
THE "OH YEAH, THAT GUY" AWARD
Then there are those players whose AFL careers appear to be gently petering out, until ... well, until there's a reawakening. And in this category comes former Saint turned Docker Blake Acres, whose first two seasons at his second club passed much as the first six at his original club did, without much incident or impact. The contrast in 2022 has been stark, and it's not just about numbers. Acres is working harder, covering more territory, and has developed a more physical component to his game, more confident both to tackle, and to himself take on tacklers when he has the ball. This is the Acres St Kilda hoped it was getting when it drafted him back in 2013. Oh well, better late than never.
THE "COACHING BEYOND LADDER POSITION" AWARD
Plenty of contenders here, a couple in their first seasons in charge of new clubs in Michael Voss at Carlton and Craig McRae at Collingwood, Justin Longmuir at Fremantle and Brett Ratten at St Kilda. But we're going with Stuart Dew at Gold Coast. It might not be reflected in their ladder position just yet, but the Suns, who have now won three of their past four games, seem to be made of a lot sterner stuff this year, showing a rare consistency, even in defeat - only one of their six losses to date by more than 26 points. Dew has made some bold selection and tactical calls which have paid off, and the improvement has come despite the pre-season loss of spearhead Ben King for the whole year, which might have torpedoed Gold Coast's season before it had even started. This time, it really does look like it's starting to come together for the Suns, for which Dew deserves high praise.
THE "KODAK MOMENT" AWARD
Like a lot of "big" moments in today's game, Lance Franklin's 1,000th career goal for Sydney against Geelong at the SCG in Round 2 had the potential to have all the joy sucked from it in a blitz of marketing and promotional hype. But there still ended up being something delightfully unscripted and spontaneous about the whole thing, from the crowd invasion, which was unruly but very good-natured, to the "money shot" on TV which somehow featured the back of a spectator's head, to the bizarre but hilarious spectacle of Ollie Florent and Chad Warner, who'd dished off the pass which gave Franklin his milestone moment, somehow being funnelled outside the ground in all the crowd chaos and strolling, in their playing gear, along Driver Avenue. If that isn't the best shot we'll see all season, it will surely at least remain the most unusual!
Ollie Florent and Chad Warner outside the SCG after Buddy 1000.— 7AFL (@7AFL) March 26, 2022
They got lost 😂 pic.twitter.com/dzmnCyMdUg
You can read more of Rohan Connolly's work at FOOTYOLOGY.com.au