In this week's Nine things we learned, we discover that there's a surprise rival for Bont, Cripps and Zach at the top of the free agency form tree, Jack Darling loves a challenge and a 2018 trade is still haunting Gold Coast. 

And catch AFL Daily in the podcast below as Nat and Damo discuss all the fallout from another dramatic round of football.

1. The title for most in-form free agent has a new challenger

As debate rages over Patrick Cripps' worth at Carlton, Zach Merrett decides whether Essendon has shown enough to convince him to stay and Marcus Bontempelli works through a long-term commitment at the Western Bulldogs, Cam Guthrie is quietly mounting his case as one of the most in-form free agents in the competition. Guthrie was again terrific on Friday night in the Cats' win over St Kilda, gathering 36 disposals and four clearances, and also booting an important goal. Having last year claimed the Cats' best and fairest in a Grand Final year and been selected in the All-Australian team, Guthrie, who hits free agency this year, is no longer under the radar. But as an out-of-contract 28-year-old in a midfield featuring many players older than him, his value is increasing by the week. - Callum Twomey

2. Jack Darling has no interest in doing things the easy way

For a player with such sound fundamentals, West Coast forward Jack Darling is prone to making things hard for himself. During a magnificent five-goal burst in the second quarter of Sunday's clash against Adelaide, Darling took three straight contested marks to kick his first three goals from set shots. From there, however, he went about doubling the degree of difficulty for himself. He played on from a fourth mark to dribble a goal between the legs of Crows defender Brodie Smith, and then dropped an easy mark inside 50, forcing himself to turn and snap his fifth major. Mistakes aside, Darling delivered when then Eagles were searching for a spark, continuing a fine a season that has him in the mix for selection as an All-Australian for the second time. - Nathan Schmook

02:19 Mins
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Oh Darling, nutmeg saves blushes after savage kick

Jack Darling makes the bizarre decision to dribble the ball along the ground with a defender in his path, but fortunately it somehow manages to come off

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3. Libba is key to the Dogs' midfield dominance

Much has been said about the Bulldogs’ star-studded midfield, which has continually overpowered opposition sides this season. But while much of the praise has been directed towards All-Australian pair Marcus Bontempelli and Jack Macrae, or the flashy duo of Adam Treloar and Bailey Smith, it is Tom Liberatore who holds the key to the Dogs’ dominance. He proved it on Saturday night against the Power, racking up 27 disposals and a game-high 12 clearances in a dominant performance. Liberatore leads the League in clearances this season and his ability to consistently squeeze out a handball to the outside runners has been instrumental in Luke Beveridge side’s 8-1 start to the year. It is time opposition sides start paying more attention to Liberatore, who could quite possibly be leading the Bulldogs’ best and fairest count to this point in the season. - Luke Michael

4. Jarryd Lyons is still haunting the Suns

At the end of 2018, Gold Coast decided it didn't need Jarryd Lyons. They wanted to offload the final year of his contract, thought he was surplus to their inside midfield needs, and wanted to blood some younger players. They didn't trade him to get something back, they delisted him – gifting him to the Lions for free. Since then the 28-year-old has finished fourth and second in best and fairest counts and on Saturday night added a Marcus Ashcroft Medal to his collection with match highs in disposals (37), contested possessions (15) and clearances (nine). Lyons would never say so, but he seems to delight in burying his former club. - Michael Whiting

20:07 Mins
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'One of the biggest mistakes a club has ever made'

Mitch Cleary and Kane Cornes dissect round nine on The Round So Far

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5. Zac's midfield days aren't done

A candid David Teague revealed after Sunday's loss to Melbourne that a return to the backline for Zac Williams was due to a loss of confidence. Williams, having been recruited to Carlton as a high-profile free agent to play through the midfield, went back to his customary role to win 19 disposals in a disappointing loss to the Dees. Teague said: "He's probably not playing with great confidence. It's always a challenge going from one club to another, then changing your role as well … we just wanted to get him back into a bit of confidence." After injuries and suspension kept him out of three of his first seven games for the club, Williams' role was placed under the spotlight. But his midfield days are not over yet. "Going forward, we're probably still see him in the bigger picture playing as a midfielder," Teague said. For a Blues engine room lacking quality in depth, Carlton's confidence in his ability to perform as a midfielder needs to be vindicated soon. - Riley Beveridge

6. Darcy Parish is among the game's best mids

Essendon young gun Darcy Parish can now be considered one of the elite midfielders in the competition. Parish has taken his game to a new level in 2021 and was clearly best on ground against the Dockers on Sunday with 39 disposals and 10 clearances. After finally getting his long-desired move to the middle, he sits inside the top 10 in the league in both those categories. If Dylan Shiel's long-term absence has a positive spin, it's the opportunity it has afforded Parish to live up to the promise he showed as one of the country's best under-18 footballers. - Jonathan Healy

7. You've got to really, really want it

No one wanted to be the first to lose to North Melbourne. But North Melbourne really wanted a win. On Saturday afternoon in Launceston, it came down to who wanted it more. Staring down the barrel of a 32-point deficit early in the second quarter, a winless team like North could have been forgiven for throwing in the towel against the Hawks. But for the Kangaroos, there may not be a better opportunity to win this season, and they knew it. So the players dug deep and found a way. Ben Cunnington and Jy Simpkin grabbed the game by the scruff of its hypothetical neck and ran rampant in the middle, amassing 13 clearances each - and 37 and 38 disposals respectively - while Cam Zurhaar ensured their hard work wasn't in vain, booting four much-needed goals to chip away at the Hawks' lead. The result? The best birthday present ever for David Noble in the form of his first AFL win as coach. While one win over an average team doesn't salvage North's season, it is the first brick in the rebuild. - Sophie Welsh

8. Swan rises from Franklin understudy to sidekick

Sydney tall forward Hayden McLean played his first 14 games without Lance Franklin as his superstar teammate was sidelined for more than 18 months with a series of soft tissue injuries. When Franklin finally returned in round two, and later played in rounds four and five, it was at the expense of McLean. But four goals in the win over Geelong ensured the 197cm McLean held his spot when Franklin returned to face Melbourne. They lined up together again against Collingwood and the 22-year-old showed he can be more than just Franklin’s understudy with a game-high five contested marks, three forward 50 tackles and 18 disposals. McLean was often the Swans' deepest forward, allowing Franklin to roam around the forward 50 arc, in a structure that worked so well it seems the duo can form a potent combination. - Martin Pegan 

9. The Giants' kids are going to get there

With Lachie Keeffe (ACL), Nick Haynes (hamstring) and Phil Davis (calf) sidelined, GWS was relying on unheralded youngsters Jack Buckley, Isaac Cumming, Lachie Ash, Connor Idun and the chronically underrated Sam Taylor to take on Richmond. Not exactly household names, but Leon Cameron should be pleased with their efforts for most of the match, particularly Buckley and Taylor's roles on Jack Riewoldt and Tom Lynch. Idun manned Dustin Martin most times up forward, one of the toughest experiences a 10-gamer can have. He showed enormous fortitude in one collision on the wing, bracing himself for a Toby Nankervis flying in with intent. - Sarah Black