1. Sam Draper - Adventurous
What a win for the Essendon Football Club. For a team that some people had finishing in the bottom four, this year has been an absolute success, regardless of a finals appearance or not. Whilst we were incredibly tempted to write a piece on Peter Wright after his 7 goal dismantling of the Bulldogs, the progression of Essendon's top ruckman since returning from injury is arguably a bigger story.
Sam Draper (#2) continues to develop both as a tap ruckman and a dangerous marking option around the ground. His duel with up and coming star and recent FTP addition Tim English was enthralling to watch. One of the things that we flagged with English was that for all of his strengths at ground level and in the air, he struggles in the ruck. Draper took full advantage of this, amassing 4 clearances and 39 hit outs including 14 hit outs to advantage (career high). What I loved most was that Draper and Essendon were adventurous with their taps and leveraged his dominance to their advantage. This was especially the case against backup ruck men Naughton and Bruce. Here are two instances of ruck dominance and smart midfield set ups:
The ideal midfield set up works as a defensive triangle. The go-to midfielder in a normal scenario here is either Stringer or Parish. They set up either side of the ruckman working into either a 3 o'clock or 9 o'clock hit depending on Draper's favoured side (Most of the time a 9 o'clock hit given Draper's right handed). Parish sharks the oppositions hit to spot. Usually in this setup, Shiel assumes the sweeper role and protects the front of the stoppage - the most important area to protect given it's direct access to goal. Draper knows he has the advantage in the ruck to generate a long hit out of the bubble (and over the Bulldog's sweeper) and Shiel is Essendon's quickest midfielder. Shiel and Stringer swap positions. Stringer now assumes the sweeper role. Dunkley follows Stringer given in most scenario's he would be the go to. Shiel rolls around past Dunkley and times his run perfectly.
Same thing again instead Parish assumes the role of Stringer. Liberatore actually goes to Shiel initially before deciding to hunt the ball. Parish goes into the sweeper role to protect against a Bulldog's win whilst Shiel is given free reign to get on the move again.
Does it remind you of anyone? It's almost Nic-Nat like. For Draper to possess a soft touch like that and hit it perfectly is a big tick even if against back up ruckmen. It's worth noting that Draper beat English in ruck contests around the ground.
The Draper soccer connection is an interesting one. Draper played predominantly soccer throughout his teenage years. It's not uncommon for big athletes that play soccer to translate to another ball sport possessing great touch and finesse. The immediate examples that come to mind are Hakeem Olajuwon and Joel Embiid - who are all time NBA bigs that notoriously took up to basketball late. Once again, the quirky NBA-AFL comparisons continue at FTP...
But the point stands true - Draper is becoming a more sophisticated tap ruckman. This kind of tap work is one of the best things about the AFL as it's two players who are in complete cohesion. The names in Essendon's midfield (Merrett, Parish, McGrath, Perkins, Cox, Shiel) to pair with Draper is an incredible core to build a team around. Whether it's this year or the next, Essendon are building a list that will do damage in the finals and could challenge as a premiership contender sooner rather than later. But make no mistake about it, Sam Draper is the head of the snake for this exciting, new built Essendon midfield.
2. Josh Honey
Josh Honey (#36) for Carlton has shown a few nice things in his return to the seniors the last few weeks. Honey is a mid sized forward picked up in the 2020 rookie draft. He debuted for one game in 2020 but Honey has solidified his spot in the last couple of weeks. At 184cm, Honey plays well above his height. He's strong over head because of his athleticism - allowing him to launch in the air and get separation on his leads.
I'd describe Honey as a dynamic player with impressive athleticism. He's always on the move, which makes him dangerous in a forward 50 scenario when the ball is in dispute. He's rewarded with a goal assist here simply because he doesn't give up on the play and stays on the move.
10 minutes later, he has the strength to drive through the tackle and set up another goal.
He knows where the goals are and puts himself in dangerous positions to hit up at the football or be there at ground level to rove packs. When he gets his shot on goal, he rarely wastes them. He has a beautiful and compact set shot, allowing him to kick through ball.
Honey's kicked 4 goals and had 3 goal assists in the last two weeks. That's a great return for a mid-sized forward. Obviously it's a small sample size and unsustainable but it's a step in the right direction for a player considered quite raw coming into the AFL. Honey is currently in the role assumed by Gibbons who is out for the year. It'll be interesting to see where Carlton use Honey from here. On this form, he's a clear best 22 player with upside to develop into anything given his athleticism and size . Honey could grow into a midfielder later down the track and given how thin Carlton's midfield is outside of Walsh and Cripps, it may be worth seeing Honey in that role before the season ends.
3. Trey Ruscoe the defender
When Robert Harvey took over from Nathan Buckley after Round 12, he made some positional decisions and changes for a few players that have been quite interesting. Outside of more foreseeable decisions (De Goey as a full time midfielder, Crisp moved back to a permanent defender role), one of those changes has been Trey Ruscoe (#21) to the backline. Ruscoe is relatively unknown outside of Collingwood circles. You may remember him from the video of his phone call to his mother where even she was shocked he was debuting. But the results from his move have been promising - I've enjoyed what he's provided.
Initially, Ruscoe played as a small forward. Outside of the goal, he struggled to acclimatise to the standard and was often fumbly with the ball. His forward pressure wasn't to the standard that was required or even better than other small forward options like McReery. Sometimes the traits of a player are hidden or unable to be seen merely because they are restricted by their position. Ruscoe has shown things as a defender that naturally we couldn't see as a forward.
Firstly, his ball use. It's an odd, hunched over kicking style but it works. Ruscoe provides plenty of run and carry off half back but is smart with his kicks. He sees little kick opportunities and is great at generating a mark from a short distance that other players wouldn't see. Collingwood is able to control the momentum and pace of the game with a mark because of Ruscoe's smarts.
Here, he shrugs the tackle before finding Thomas through the corridor You can what we mean with these little kicks where it relieves all pressure for Collingwood.
Another kick relieving pressure:
Secondly, Ruscoe's composure. It wasn't overly apparent with his time as a small forward. He's shown a capability to assess the situation around him and make the right decision by foot and hand. He doesn't always execute his actions to a high standard but often makes the right decision. Maybe it's the fact that he has the game in front of him as a defender but he's more methodical in making his decisions.
He's finding the football enough to have a meaningful impact on games with his decision making. He's averaged 17 disposals since his move to the backline (including a game being the medical sub) so this isn't just a small sample size. Ruscoe's starting to make these correct decisions weekly and it adds another element to a Collingwood backline that has struggled for offensive generation at times. With Crisp, Ruscoe, Quaynor and Moore, Collingwood have four players who can generate offensive counter attack opportunities whilst also giving them more flexibility to possibly push a Maynard into the midfield next year (assuming he stays).
It's a timely showing for Ruscoe, who is uncontracted at the end of this year and seemed likely to be delisted. He looks settled across half back and is starting to carve out a nice role for himself. Hopefully for Ruscoe's sake, Collingwood's new coach will see the potential he's shown as a half back flank. We certainly have.
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