AFL X-factors: September’s 8 big-game hunters
FOOTBALL in 2018 is all about structures, systems and defence, but there remains a place for heroes, old and young.
These are eight players who will have the eyes of the football world on them this September.
Will they stand up or will they falter?
DANIEL RIOLI (Richmond)
THERE have been Maurice and Cyril - and Michael Long in the extended family - who are all Norm Smith Medallists, so the September gene can't be understated in the Rioli family.
It is a measure of the Riolis as big-game performers and football is the beneficiary. What is it about them as footballers?
Clearly, they see and seize the moment and instinct to compete overwhelms any fear of failure. Daniel's major footprint in finals came in last year's preliminary final.
He had 14 disposals, kicked four goals and launched from the shadows to lay six tackles against Greater Western Sydney.
In the Grand Final the following week he laid another five tackles in the forward 50m and in the final quarter busted his foot, which led to him not playing until Round 13.
It's been a slow burn - just 10 goals from 10 games and 48 tackles - but the tackle in the final 20 seconds on Essendon's Adam Saad in Round 22 was symbolic of what Rioli and Richmond base their game around.
Others will be required to play top-level football, led by Dustin Martin, Alex Rance, Jack Riewoldt, Trent Cotchin, Kane Lambert, Shane Edwards and Toby Nankervis, and the Richmond method stands above absolutely everyone, and that's where Rioli is a key with forward-half pressure and creating turnovers.
If Rioli's instincts are aroused, his 12 touches and six tackles could be as important as Martin's 30 touches.
At 21, he's the last of the Riolis in the current environment but that will soon change when the Tigers take Maurice Jr with a father-son selection at the end of the 2020 season.
Finals stat: three matches, average 11 disposals, 1.3 goals
Funky stat: Averaged 37 forward half pressure points in last year's finals series - ranked No.1
JACK DARLING (West Coast)
THE one-time boy wonder became Superman in the first half of this season before an ankle injury put him on the sidelines for six weeks.
Cast your mind back to those rollicking first nine weeks of the season. He kicked three, four, two, one, zero, three, three, four and six goals to have 26 goals and it finally heralded the arrival of the 26-year-old.
True, I was one - of the many observers I suspect - who thought Darling was a good player who would never become a dominant player.
In 2017, he kicked two goals in 13 of his 23 matches.
In 2018, he's kicked three or more goals in 10 of his 18 games. He was good consistently, but this year he was consistently elite.
He starred with Josh Kennedy in the team and without Josh Kennedy in the team, so it wasn't a situation where he flourished in Kennedy's absence.
Since his return in Round 17, he's kicked four goals twice, three goals twice, was goalless against Port Adelaide and North Melbourne and was knocked out against Melbourne.
Against Brisbane in the final home-and-away round, he looked ominously dangerous overhead and looks ready to create all sorts of problems for Collingwood.
He will relish playing in front 55,000 fans at the Eagles' home ground and would relish another crack at a Grand Final, to make amends for an error-stricken 2015 Grand Final highlighted by an the easy dropped mark in the third quarter when the Eagles were challenging.
Finals stat: 11 matches, average 10.1 disposals, 1.8 goals
Funky stat: No.1 in the AFL for contested marks after nine rounds.
JORDAN DE GOEY (Collingwood)
HE is the flamboyant forward in the Collingwood renaissance who was offered a truckload of cash from North Melbourne, reportedly $1 million a season over five seasons.
It's insane money for a 22-year-old who has played just 67 games and kicked 72 goals.
Thirty-six of those goals have come from 17 games this season and was why he was in the discussion for the All-Australian team.
He didn't make it, but if there's book running for next year, you know what to do. Still, he remains an exciting player brimming potential.
This year he has beaten up on poor teams, five goals against Brisbane (Round 7), six against St Kilda (Round 9) and four against Brisbane (Round 21).
But four-goal bags against West Coast (Round 17) and North Melbourne (Round 18) proved he could be a big-game performer and proves he's feeling the groove as finals approaches.
For all the hype he gets and satisfaction he brings, de Goey will justify his tag as the Next Big Thing with a ripping September.
It's in him, as much as it's in Melbourne's Christian Petracca, but history is littered with stories of X-factors going missing in finals.
It's also littered with stories of young men announcing themselves.
Can't wait to see de Goey one out in the goal square, leading, doubling back and zipping to the front of the one-on-one as the ball drops, and if take his marks - and Mason Cox takes his marks - the Pies are going to be difficult opponents.
Finals stat: Zero finals.
Fundy stat: Since the bye, De Goey has been targeted inside 50m 26 per cent of the time. The next highest percentage at Collingwood is Mason Cox at 19 per cent.
JAEGER O'MEARA (Hawthorn)
IN 2013, the boy wonder had Tim Watson swooning, "Jaeger O'Meara could quite well go down in history as the greatest midfielder that's ever played the game".
Then came the knee injuries, then the doubts, then the trade to trade to Hawthorn, then the questions after playing six games in 2017, and then ... well, then came back slappers.
He's played 20 of 22 games this season and although he's played in Tom Mitchell's shadow this year in ball collection, O'Meara has showed the football world he is a player of immense contribution to the Hawks.
He won't be the greatest midfielder who's ever played, but that's not the point in 2018.
What he can do is win games of football, not by a thousand cuts ala Mitchell, but by a handful of moments.
It's no coincidence the Hawks have won six of their past seven games and O'Meara has returned 18, 27, 24, 30, 33, 27, 27 (and four goals) and 28 disposals in those games.
He's not a player who will blind the game with dazzling running or huge marks.
No, he's a player who wins the hardball, will scramble a clearance in traffic and make the right decisions and deliver the ball under pressure.
He has a long, long, long way to go to even be considered to carry Michael Voss' bags through the car park, but he goes about it in a way that would impress Voss.
O'Meara's game is finals-made and what an ideal time to reward the Hawks for their confidence in the young man.
Finals stat: Zero finals.
Funky stat: Since the bye, O'Meara ranks third at Hawthorn for pressure and has kicked the second most goals of any Hawks midfielder.
MAX GAWN (Melbourne)
SO wanted to write about Christian Petracca, but an influential big man is more important than an opportunist small man.
Not since Dean Cox at West Cost and before him Simon Madden at Essendon has a ruckman been so dominant in a premiership-contending team.
Gawn is a mighty player. He won the coaches' player of the year award in an era of midfielder domination and it would not surprise anyone if he capped his season with the Brownlow Medal.
But they are individual awards. Gawn, like all players, will be judged by what he brings to the table, starting against Geelong on Friday night.
He will need to combat his direct opponent first and then handle strategies to combat his outstanding ruck work.
He will win the tap outs, but the Cats will play a part in deciding how effective they will be.
And surely they won't let him drift into defence and take intercept marks time and again, a component of his game which has rekindled an art of ruck work from another era.
If Gawn can lead his team to the premiership, he will have his season compared to Madden's in 1985.
The game has changed enormously since then, but not the influence of the ruckman.
In '85, Madden had 286 disposals, took 136 marks, kicked 19 goals and had 322 hit outs.
This year, Gawn has had 359 disposals, taken 102 marks, kicked 11 goals and had 1000 hitouts.
The differential in hitout numbers - 322 to 1000 - is staggering, but it's best to remember Madden won the Norm Smith Medal in his year.
If Gawn can do the same, it will mean the Demons have won the flag. It's not beyond him or his team.
Finals stat: Zero finals.
Funky stat: Since Round 14, Gawn has been exceptional behind the ball, taking 28 intercept marks, ranked sixth in the competition.
LANCE FRANKLIN (Sydney)
IT'S probably too simplistic to say a good or bad Franklin is the difference between Sydney winning and losing a final, but it's not too simplistic to say a good or bad Franklin is the difference between Sydney winning the premiership or missing out again.
For the Swans to go all the way, Franklin has to kick goals.
There's an argument he isn't a big-game performer, but I disagree.
Averaging three goals in finals matches can't be ignored, especially when the opposition knows Franklin is the go-to man.
Every player has pressure on him to perform, but very few players - and not one civilian - would have any idea what it would be like to be Buddy in September.
This one and every preview will feature him prominently.
Opposition teams will have Franklin strategies.
Swans teammates will seek him out at most opportunities.
Swans coach John Longmire will say he's just one player, but will pray to God every night hoping for Buddy's best.
If he dominates games, fans will applaud. If the Swans lose and Buddy plays poorly, it will be his fault.
The spectre of Buddy is absolute. It's altogether exciting, foreboding and perhaps even overwhelming but perhaps Buddy doesn't even think like that.
He's the best forward - or is that the best player? - since Wayne Carey and with that comes probably a self belief which overrides all kinds of pressure and expectation.
Clearly, he's in good head space.
He was announced captain of the All-Australian team last week and when asked what instructions he would have for his all-star teammates, he smiled and said: "Kick it to me." That's a player who knows what he's capable of.
Finals stat: 23 matches, average 15.2 disposals, 3.0 goals.
Funky stat: Since playing his first final in 2007, Franklin has kicked 27 more goals than any other player in finals. He has only been goalless twice, one of those matches was in last year's semi-final loss and the other was against the Giants in 2016.
JEREMY CAMERON (Greater Western Sydney)
THE million-dollar spearhead is grappling with his natural instincts to compete.
We're sports psychologist from afar, but the Jeremy Cameron post Harris Andrews hit is not the same as Jeremy Cameron pre-Harris hit.
It was more than noted by the On The Couch boys on Fox Footy last Monday night when Jonathan Brown, Garry Lyon and Paul Roos were pointed in their criticism of one of the Giants' most important players.
The confidence overhead and timing is a little misplaced, his defensive work is so-so and, dare we say it, he's not hitting the packs with the same ferocity we've come to expect and admire.
Putting a bloke in hospital with a brain bleed, plus the suspension, seems to have made him second-guess his instincts.
In his four matches since returning from his five-week suspension, he has kicked four, two, one and one goals.
The four came against Carlton in Round 20, but even that was disappointing because the Giants kicked 23 and won by 105 points.
He kicked just the one goal against Sydney and Melbourne.
In his first 12 games, he kicked 35 goals. He's a star, Cameron, and he and coach Leon Cameron need to unlock the mental cage in which he seems to be playing.
Show him highlights of the 2016 qualifying final against Sydney, where he was ferocious, hungry and had the opposition mindful of his presence.
That's the Cameron we love. That's the Cameron the Giants need.
Finals stat: Three matches, average 8.3 disposals, 1.3 goals
Funky stat: Has been goalless in two finals, but was dominant in the other final against Sydney, recording eight shots at goal, kicking a game high four goals.
GARY ABLETT (Geelong)
AT the end of the 2010 season, he took the cash - how could he not? - and gave up the one thing that all footballers aspire to do, and that's play finals.
His last final was the 2010 preliminary against Collingwood, when he gathered 40 disposals.
He returned to Geelong, he said, to play finals.
His 2018 season was proppy early because he played, at times, too safe, but from about Round 17 has produced the kind of football many expected.
The narrative began with the fairytale - the return of the favourite son - but now it's all about delivering performance.
What a story it would be if Gazza could help the Cats win the premiership from eighth.
It will be difficult because the Cats are inconsistent, unbalanced in terms of top-end talent and bottom-six performers, and need to win four in a row.
Their best this season is three (Carlton, Gold Coast and North Melbourne in Rounds 10-12), so the question is: Can they flick the switch in September?
The spotlight will be immense on Ablett for three reasons: he is Gazza, he was lured home and if the Cats fail it will be viewed as a disappointing season.
But enough of the negatives. He is a generational player, probably one day a Hall of Fame legend, who could further underscore his greatness with a stunning and successful month of football.
As fairytales go, this has the potential to be one of the iconic stories in AFL history.
Finals stats: 17 matches, average 26.1 disposals 1.0 goals
Funky stat: Has dominated September in his 17 matches, averaging 127 ranking points. Only Chris Judd has averaged more ranking points in finals during this time.