EXPLOSIVE onballers who also hit the scoreboard dominated the game's grandest stage again in 2021, reminding other clubs hoping to climb into contention of the value of match-winning midfielders.

Christian Petracca and Marcus Bontempelli staged a stunning battle in the Toyota AFL Grand Final, with both looking likely winners of the Norm Smith Medal at various stages, before Petracca and his Demons ran away with the spoils in the final quarter.

Petracca can now claim to be the most damaging onballer in the game after his 39 disposals, nine clearances, two goals and the Norm Smith against the Bulldogs.

>> CHECK OUT EVERY CLUB'S GUN GOALKICKING MID BELOW

It capped a glorious season that included a career-high 29 goals as well as an average 29.2 disposals and 6.3 clearances – numbers that closely match those put up by his chief Grand Final rival Bontempelli.

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'The Bont' looked to have delivered the Dogs their third premiership when his third goal put them 19 points up in the decider, and he finished with 25 disposals and five clearances to go with that trio of majors.

The Western Bulldogs’ skipper kicked 31 goals and averaged 26.7 disposals and 5.5 clearances this season, joining Petracca in a season stat line that resembles the benchmark set by the most damaging modern-day midfielder, Dustin Martin.

In his incredible 2017 season, Martin kicked 37 goals, and averaged 29.8 disposals and 6.4 clearances, while also winning the Brownlow Medal. The superstar also shone in the biggest moments, winning a record three Norm Smith medals in the Tigers' 2017, 2018 and 2020 premierships.

Comparing the champs

PLAYER YEAR AVG. DISP. AVG. CLR. AVG. GOALS
D. Martin 2017 29.8 6.4 1.5
C. Petracca 2021 29.2 6.3 1.1
M. Bontempelli 2021 26.7 5.5 1.2

These elite onballers stand out for being triple-threats: they're able to accumulate possessions, dominate around stoppages and have a similar impact in the forward 50, while those aiming to push into that top tier still need to add at least one feature to their game. 

Richmond's Dustin Martin in action during round 16, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

THE NEXT GENERATION

Sam Walsh (average of 29.8 disposals, 4.7 clearances and 0.5 goals) is perhaps best-placed of the emerging talent to make the leap but would need to boost his scoring much more rather than just gradually increasing it from six to eight to 12 goals as he has done in his three seasons at Carlton.

Bailey Smith (23.6d, 3.0cl, 0.65g) also seems set to rise up the rankings, especially after lighting up the Dogs’ first three finals when a move to half-forward allowed him to be more dangerous near goal and he booted eight of his 17 goals for the year.

Brisbane’s Zac Bailey (18d, 2.8cl, 1.3g) already offers the goal threat and should continue his progression to playing on the ball more next year to form a dynamic duo with captain Dayne Zorko.

More midfield minutes helped Tarryn Thomas (18.2d, 2.7cl, 1.1g) take huge steps toward fulfilling his considerable potential for North Melbourne, while Connor Rozee (16d, 1.1cl, 1.0g) is expected to make the most of his talents with a similar move for Port Adelaide in place of the likes of Robbie Gray.

High-flying Shai Bolton (19.7d 3.6cl, 1.2g) keeps improving as a front-half hybrid at the Tigers and Tim Taranto (26.5d, 4.3cl, 0.5g) is part of a spread of goalkicking midfielders at Greater Western Sydney that includes Josh Kelly and Callan Ward.

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WHO'LL GO TO ANOTHER LEVEL?

The next player to have an all-round impact like the leading trio might come from a change of role for an established star.

Jake Stringer (16.4d, 4.4cl, 2.2g) topped the goalkicking among all midfielders and became a weapon at centre bounces this season. He also proved in a four-match stretch after Essendon’s bye that he can hit the imposing heights of a Bontempelli or Petracca with nine goals and an average 25.3 disposals and 6.8 clearances.

Jordan De Goey (21.0d, 3.1cl, 1.2g) had similar success in the role for Collingwood in the second half of this season, as he averaged 29 disposals and 3.8 clearances in his last nine matches, although his goals dried up with only five in that time.

Jordan De Goey in action against Essendon in round 23, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

Sydney’s plan to start Isaac Heeney (15.9d, 0.8cl, 1.7g) in the midfield more should mean he makes more of an impression around the ground while still pushing forward to be a high-leaping marking target.

At 195cm, Patrick Cripps (23.4d, 5.4cl, 0.7g) should be more damaging in attack but could only match his career-best 13 goals this season. The Blues’ captain might push forward more with Adam Cerra and George Hewett set to be part of the midfield.

As the influence of the most damaging onballers for the best teams and in the biggest games continues to grow, expect every club to keep trying to uncover their own. Recent history says it's a fast-track to a flag.

Your club’s top goalkicking midfielder in 2021

CLUB PLAYER AVG. DISP. AVG. CLR. AVG. GOALS
Adelaide B. Keays 28.1 5.6 0.6
Brisbane D. Zorko 24.1 4.5 0.7
Carlton P. Cripps 23.4 5.4 0.7
Collingwood J. De Goey 21.0 3.1 1.2
Essendon J. Stringer 16.4 4.4 2.2
Fremantle D. Mundy 25.1 5.3 0.7
Geelong P. Dangerfield 23.2 6.1 0.5
Gold Coast T. Miller 31.8 5.7 0.4
GWS J. Kelly 26.1 4.0 0.7
Hawthorn C. Wingard 22.3 3.2 0.8
Melbourne C. Petracca 29.2 6.3 1.2
North Melb. T. Thomas 18.2 2.7 1.1
Port Adelaide R. Gray 17.7 2.9 1.1
Richmond D. Martin 22.6 3.6 1.2
Sydney J. Steele 29.2 6.3 0.6
St Kilda L. Parker 27.9 6.4 0.7
West Coast D. Sheed 26.3 5.3 0.4
W. Bulldogs M. Bontempelli 26.7 5.5 1.2