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Built for the big time: Players who have stepped up in finals

Andrew McGrath was outstanding for Sandringham in the 2016 TAC Cup decider - AFL,Adelaide Crows,Brisbane Lions,Carlton Blues,Collingwood Magpies,Essendon Bombers,Fremantle Dockers,Geelong Cats,Gold Coast Suns,GWS Giants,Hawthorn Hawks,Melbourne Demons,North Melbourne Kangaroos,Port Adelaide Power,Richmond Tigers,St Kilda Saints,Sydney Swans,West Coast Eagles,Western Bulldogs
Andrew McGrath was outstanding for Sandringham in the 2016 TAC Cup decider

REPUTATIONS can be made - for better or worse - in finals football. And while the focus naturally narrows this week to the 44 players representing Collingwood and West Coast in the Grand Final, there are players on every list who were built to succeed when it matters most. 

Here, our staff writers reveal the players for all 18 clubs who stepped up when the spotlight was brightest before they made it to the AFL.

Siblings Matt and Brad Crouch were two of the Crows' best in last year's Grand Final loss to Richmond. Matt had 37 disposals while Brad had 29. Their ability to step up in finals was evident as youngsters with the Ballarat Swans in under-12s. Matt also played in an under-15 premiership. Brad showed he could step up in big games when, as a 16-year-old playing senior football for Beaufort, he went head-to-head with reigning premier Daylesford and the league medallist in the middle of the ground. Brad kicked five goals and didn't back down one inch. - Lee Gaskin

An untried midfielder and a top-10 draft pick have both shown they can produce on the big stage. Corey Lyons has spent two years at the Lions and is yet to play, but in the 2016 TAC Cup Grand Final displayed all the traits of a quality player with his 24 disposals and a goal more than helpful in Sandringham's win over the Bushrangers. Sam Mayes also turned heads when playing seniors for North Adelaide as a teenager. Mayes, later taken by Brisbane with the eighth pick in the draft, collected 17 disposals in a preliminary final loss to Woodville-West Torrens to show he was made of the right stuff. - Michael Whiting

It should be no surprise to Carlton fans that Charlie Curnow lit up the TAC Cup finals. Playing for Geelong in its 2015 qualifying final, Curnow was a clear best on ground in his side's narrow 12-point loss to North Ballarat. The young forward kicked four goals, but his work around the ground, athleticism and incredible marking ability were also on full display. Nick Graham is also no stranger to superb finals performances, playing out of his skin as Gippsland lost the 2012 TAC Cup Grand Final to Oakleigh. Graham had 25 disposals, nine tackles and kicked three goals. However, his side lost by the narrowest of margins following a 'golden point' from Western Bulldogs star Jackson Macrae. - Riley Beveridge

The Blues drafted Charlie Curnow with pick No.12 after his stellar TAC Cup showing. Picture: AFL Photos

Hard to go past Steele Sidebottom's performance in the 2008 TAC Cup Grand Final. Then 17 and playing across half-forward for the Murray Bushrangers, Sidebottom kicked 10 goals – more than the Dandenong Stingrays' whole team – to drive their 81-point victory. For his efforts, he won the TAC Cup medal for best on ground, becoming the third player that went on to play for Collingwood to do so. Anthony Rocca claimed the prize in 1994 while playing for North Ballarat, while Dale Thomas did the same in 2005 when he kicked four goals in the decider for Gippsland Power. - Jennifer Phelan

It might have been Andrew McGrath's finals series which gave him the edge as the Bombers' first ever No.1 pick in 2016. The rebounding half-back had an excellent under-18 championships in the middle of his season, including a memorable display against Vic Country, but saved his best for later in the year when he moved into the midfield. The Sandringham Dragons' under-18 captain was named best afield in their TAC Cup Grand Final win over the Murray Bushrangers after gathering 38 disposals and eight clearances playing more in the middle. His pace, leadership, courage and skills came to the fore in the finals and showed he enjoyed the big stage. He hasn't looked back since joining Essendon, playing 41 games in his two seasons. - Callum Twomey

Andrew McGrath took home plenty of silverware after the 2016 TAC Cup grand final. Picture: AFL Photos

Keen WAFL fans might remember Nat Fyfe bursting onto the scene in Claremont's 2009 Colts Grand Final victory over Peel. Having just turned 18, Fyfe was playing on under-18 All Australian full-back Blayne Wilson. But the future West Coast defender soon became the first to realise how hard it would be to stop Fyfe in his tracks. The now Fremantle captain kicked six goals, while racking up 20 disposals and taking 10 marks in a stunning display. Remarkably, he still somehow missed out on the Mel Whinnen Medal for best on ground. Michael Apeness has also performed on the big stage, kicking nine goals in Eastern's four TAC Cup finals matches and starring in its premiership victory back in 2013. - Riley Beveridge

Rookie sensation Jamaine Jones was just 16 and the smallest player on the ground when he was adjudged the best player in Heywood's 2015 South West District League premiership. Just 13 days later on the other side of the country, current teammate Sam Menegola tasted success with Subiaco in the WAFL. Collecting 30 disposals and booting one goal in front of more than 13,000 at Subiaco, the former Fremantle and Hawthorn-listed midfielder was en route to being selected by the Cats less than two months later. Livewire forward Gryan Miers announced himself in the 2017 TAC Cup Grand Final, snagging seven majors as his Geelong Falcons snatched victory from Sandringham Dragons. All Australian defender Tom Stewart played in back-to-back flags at Geelong Football League club South Barwon in 2012 and 2013, the latter alongside Cats champion and current backline coach Matthew Scarlett. - Mitch Cleary

The Suns have a number of players that have excelled on the big stage as juniors, but none moreso than Jack Martin. As a 15-year-old he turned heads for Towns in the Great Northern Football League Grand Final in Geraldton, almost pinching the flag from his future teammate Jaeger O'Meara (Railways). Two years later Martin took another step, kicking six goals, winning the Guardian Medal as best afield and helping his team to victory. Jack Scrimshaw (24 touches and a goal) was excellent in Sandringham's 2016 TAC Cup Grand Final win, while opponent Will Brodie (21 and six clearances) shone for the Murray Bushrangers. - Michael Whiting  

Star midfielder Stephen Coniglio was only 16 years old when he kicked four goals from 17 possessions to help Swan Districts defeat Claremont by a solitary point to win the 2010 WAFL Grand Final. In what is widely regarded as the best decider in recent history, the youngster showed he was destined to be a big-game performer. Toby Greene gathered 34 possessions for Oakleigh Chargers but couldn't help his side stop Sandringham Dragons from winning the 2011 TAC Cup by eight points, while Tim Taranto starred with 30 touches and 11 tackles for the Dragons when they beat Murray Bushrangers in 2016. - Adam Curley  

The Giants took plenty of notice of Stephen Coniglio's WAFL finals form. Picture: AFL Photos

The TAC Cup is where most of the AFL's talent comes from, and the Hawks clearly took notice of the under-18 competition deciders. Blake Hardwick was already on the radar by that stage in his 2015 draft year, but another three goals in Eastern Ranges' 12-point Grand Final loss to Oakleigh proved he was a big-game player. Hardwick led the TAC Cup with 56 majors that season, but is now a key playmaker down back. It was a similar story for two of his Hawthorn teammates, James Cousins (20 disposals, four tackles) and Harry Morrison (16, four marks), who featured in Murray Bushrangers' best players in a losing Grand Final cause against TAC Cup rival Sandringham in 2016. James Worpel performed well in Geelong Falcons' successful finals campaign last year. - Marc McGowan

Coming off a limited base, co-captain Jack Viney was among the Demons' most consistent performers across this year's finals series. Despite his lack of preparation – Viney missed games between rounds 16 and 23 – his impact in big games should come as little surprise. As a 17-year-old, the tough midfielder was named best afield in the 2011 TAC Cup Grand Final in the Oakleigh Chargers' eight-point loss to the Sandringham Dragons.  The following year, Viney was praised for his efforts while playing for the AIS AFL Academy in their mid-year game against Box Hill, gathering 16 disposals (10 contested), six tackles and six clearances. In the same season, Viney played for Vic Metro in its final two NAB AFL Championships games, including the winning final against Western Australia, after coming back from a broken jaw he suffered while playing for Casey in the VFL after Melbourne sought permission for him to play in the game. – Ben Guthrie

Jack Viney stepped up for Vic Metro in the 2012 NAB AFL Under 18 Championship decider. Picture: AFL Photos

North Melbourne is expected to be busy in this year's player movement period and will be aiming to make the 2019 finals. If that eventuates, the Roos shouldn't be afraid to trust 2017 draftees Luke Davies-Uniacke and Will Walker. Walker did everything he could to lift Sandringham to the TAC Cup flag, gathering 19 disposals and kicking two goals as his Dragons suffered an after-the-siren two-point Grand Final loss to Geelong Falcons. Davies-Uniacke's Dandenong Stingrays fell to the Falcons a week earlier, with the No.4 draft pick racking up 22 touches and six tackles. Davies-Uniacke was also the Stingrays' best player in their finals defeat of the Eastern Ranges the previous week. - Marc McGowan

Second-year midfielder Willem Drew is no stranger to the pressure of finals footy. Drew, who turns 20 on October 1, won three straight premierships with Koroit in the Hampden Football League. Drew won his first flag with Koroit as a 15-year-old, and was named best on ground in the 2016 decider playing on a wing. Two months later, he was selected by the Power with the 33rd pick in the 2016 NAB AFL Draft. Drew missed most of this season with a heel injury, but signed a two-year contract extension with the Power until the end of 2020. - Lee Gaskin

Daniel Rioli kicked four goals in North Ballarat's qualifying final against the Geelong Falcons in 2015, while Liam Baker had a good finals series for Subiaco last year when he kicked three goals in the prelim and had 19 touches, six inside 50s and five tackles in the team's losing Grand Final. Jack Higgins started early, captaining his East Malvern under-13 side to a premiership in a best on ground performance in 2012 that saw him kick the team's winning goal, while Jack Riewoldt kicked four goals in Clarence's losing Grand Final in 2005 as a 16-year-old before he won a premiership medallion with the club the following year. - Jennifer Phelan

He's shown flashes of brilliance at AFL level, but Ben Long's talent was on display before being drafted in 2016. Representing Footscray in a VFL preliminary final against Collingwood as a 19-year-old, Long bagged six goals as the Dogs thumped the Pies to find themselves in the decider, his forward pressure a standout. It was a particularly impressive performance because Long had previously played a lot of football in defence, but he made the transition superbly and showed he had no qualms playing against men or standing up on a big stage. - Dinny Navaratnam

Ben Long caught the eye of the Saints with his outstanding VFL finals prelim. Picture: AFL Photos

All Australian defender Dane Rampe won the Phelan Medal for the best player in the AFL Sydney competition and led UNSW/ES Bulldogs to the premiership in 2012. That led him to train with the Swans, where he was rookie-listed later that year. Speedster Ollie Florent kicked one goal and had 23 touches when Sandringham Dragons beat Murray Bushrangers in the TAC Cup decider in 2016, while mature-aged onballer Robbie Fox played in three consecutive Grand Finals for the Burnie Dockers and won a flag before he moved to Coburg in the VFL, which is where he attracted the attention of the Swans. – Adam Curley

Dane Rampe (right) made it onto Sydney's rookie list after impressing in the local league. Picture: AFL Photos

Luke Shuey will line up for the Eagles in Saturday's premiership decider hoping his ability to play well in finals continues. Of course, everyone remembers his after-the-siren goal after extra time in last year's elimination final win over Port Adelaide. But way before then, in 2008 when he was playing for the Oakleigh Chargers, Shuey also dominated during the finals series. He led from the front in the TAC Cup and was a big factor in trying to drag his team over the line before it missed out on a Grand Final berth. Shuey had 27 disposals and then 28 the following week in the Knights' finals, and also kicked two goals in a losing team. The Eagles went on to select Shuey with pick No.20 at the draft a couple of months later. - Callum Twomey

For a player who was rejected by the Dandenong Stingrays in both his top and bottom TAC Cup seasons, gun midfielder Toby McLean definitely made the most of a lifeline from the Oakleigh Chargers in 2014. He worked his way up from a training squad to be an integral part of the Chargers' line up. While he made a habit of taking hangers as a crafty forward, the then 18-year-old evolved into a dual-position prospect with valuable stints in the midfield. But arguably his greatest contribution came in the TAC Cup Grand Final, when he led the Chargers to victory with 21 disposals, nine marks and two goals in a best-on-ground performance. - Ryan Davidson

The views in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the AFL or its clubs