ALL COACHES have a project player, a footballer they will back to the hilt regardless of form and impact, and often in spite of supporter unrest.
For Chris Scott, it is Esava Ratugolea. For Ken Hinkley, it is Todd Marshall. Ratugolea and Marshall had very good matches in round 19, the big forwards kicking four and three goals respectively for Geelong and Port Adelaide in big wins which crucially entrenched top four positions on the ladder.
Geelong's forward line three-headed monster of Tom Hawkins, Jeremy Cameron (currently injured) and Gary Rohan suddenly has a fourth head. Ratugolea and Hawkins both kicked four goals against Richmond at the MCG on Sunday. He has always shown extraordinary potential, Ratugolea, but consistency has been lacking. His 50th AFL match was his most complete to date, and it would have sent even more worries into the minds of the coaches at other clubs hoping to secure the 2021 premiership.
Geelong of 2021 could be Port Adelaide of 2004. Back then, the Power eventually achieved the flag that had seemed theirs in previous seasons, particularly the previous two when they had finished the home-and-away season well clear on top of the ladder. They were rewarded for consistently giving themselves a chance at the big prize, a scenario similar to the Cats this year. A losing Grand Finalist last year, and four preliminary final appearances in the previous five seasons, Geelong is again beautifully positioned.
Port remains an intriguing outfit in 2021. Nicely entrenched in a finals double-chance spot after round 19, it will start favourite in three of its remaining four matches. And now that Kenny's man Marshall has regained form, the Power forward line, like the Cats, looms as ultra-dangerous to all upcoming opponents.
The future is now for captain Adams
Collingwood has endured a disastrous 2021 season and could still finish with the wooden spoon. After Friday night's loss to Port Adelaide, it is just a half-match ahead of the 17th and 18th-placed Hawthorn and North Melbourne.
At least it has positioned itself to prepare for the future, giving a first AFL game to nine players this year, Anton Tohill and Jack Ginnivan the most recent.
The Magpies' warrior captain Scott Pendlebury fractured a leg in round 19 and won't play again this year. This has been Pendlebury's eighth season as captain. Provided Taylor Adams is fit (he was hurt, again, on Friday night), he will assume captaincy duties for the round 20 match against West Coast at the MCG. While it will be as interim capacity, as part of Collingwood's transition into the future, Adams should be made permanent captain from next season. He is a born leader, the perfect player to take over from Pendlebury.
Nat's too brave for his own good
So many facets of the AFL are determined by "the optics". As long as teams and individuals are seen to be doing the right thing, everything is OK.
But a really bad "optic" in 2021 is the sight of the all-time great Nat Fyfe popping his shoulder. It happened, yet again, on Sunday, when the Dockers' 2015 and 2019 Brownlow medallist broke down when typically finding himself in the act of chasing a hard ball.
The bravery of Fyfe in playing through this situation to this point of 2021 is one thing. The "look" of him being broken, regularly, is another. This is one of the AFL's very best players. Fyfe has always put his club ahead of himself. Those in charge of the Dockers now need to belatedly make the right call – save Fyfe from himself, and rule that his season is finished.
'Souva-man' puts on his blue-and-white cape
In an ideal world, Nick Larkey would be the second, maybe even third, key forward in North Melbourne's forward line.
That he has been required to play as its main man in 2021 may, though, be the making of him. A career-best seven goals against Carlton on Saturday for an impressive season tally of 34 was evidence he is only scratching the surface of his potential.
Like his team this season, Larkey has got better with every outing. Under first-season coach David Noble, and since a draw with GWS in round 13, the Roos have shown genuine steel in their performances, the 39-point win against the Blues, depending on personal preferences, either their best match of the year or second best – the 10-point win against West Coast in round 17 the other contender.
North, rightly, has no desire to play nicely and still secure the wooden spoon and thus the "prized" first pick in the national draft. Other clubs in the past have fallen for that lure, and have destroyed culture and morale in the process. Hello Melbourne, circa 2008-09.
Teague's fate may be out of his own hands
David Teague has endured bad losses in his 46 matches as coach of Carlton. But in the context of his board's full-scale review of all football operations, none have been worse than Saturday's against last-placed North Melbourne.
Since that review was called, the Blues have won three – against Adelaide, Fremantle and Collingwood - and lost to premiership fancy Geelong and wooden spoon candidate, the Roos.
Harry McKay's unavailability with a toe injury was unfortunate for Teague. But damningly for Teague, he was unable to produce a gameplan which covered for him. There is now probably nothing he can do in the remainder of 2021 to influence the views of those steering the Blues' review. His fate has most likely already been determined. Interesting times, either way.
All hail Marcus the magificent
My football obsession with Marcus Bontempelli increases with every match. In my mind, he is already established as the best Bulldog ever, and now I'm fully convinced he will be the 2021 Brownlow medallist and Therabody AFL All-Australian captain.
Yet another best-afield display on Saturday night in the top-of-ladder clash against Melbourne franked his greatness. Key goals at the start and finish of the match, nearly 800 metres of "gain" and 10 clearances again elevated him above all others in this match. As teammate Taylor Duryea said on the Sunday Footy Show, Bontempelli, virtually every single game, acts in a manner which compellingly convinces his teammates that he will lead them to a win.
Bailey Smith was also brilliant against the Demons. His recent form has been outstanding.
Melbourne is either in a form slump, or simply not good enough to win the premiership. Either way, apart from Christian Petracca going on a rampage, it does not possess anything about its set-up that actually scares opponents. Clubs have devised ways to negate the workings of brilliant defenders Steven May and Jake Lever. The forward line remains a work in progress, though having said that, had Ben Brown kicked accurately, his team could have stolen victory.