IT MIGHT not have the mystique and romance of John Coleman and Haydn Bunton Sr’s phenomenal debut seasons, but when it comes to the modern era, Nick Daicos is mounting a case for the best first season yet.
Essendon legend Coleman kicked 12 goals against Hawthorn in the most famous debut ever before becoming the first – and only – player to boot 100 goals in his first season in 1949, while Fitzroy icon Bunton Sr won the first of his three Brownlow Medals at the end of 1931.
Both were 20 years old at the time and are two of the greatest players the game has ever seen, but the Magpies’ teen sensation is stacking up performances and numbers that have him on track to produce the best debut campaign of any player since the VFL became the AFL in 1990.
The son of Collingwood great Peter Daicos, he has been a revelation since making one of the most highly anticipated debuts in memory when he faced St Kilda at Marvel Stadium in round one.
Daicos collected 27 disposals first-up and has only dipped below 20 touches twice – 16 was his lowest in round 11 – amassing four hauls of 30 or more to date, including 37 against Gold Coast in round 16 after collecting 36 against Melbourne on Queen's Birthday.
Now 16 games into his first season, the 19-year-old is averaging 25.8 disposals, 4.9 intercept possessions, 3.7 rebound 50s and 380.2 metres gained. If he maintains this pace, the 2021 No.4 pick will surpass Collingwood premiership player Scott Russell, Carlton young gun Sam Walsh and West Coast star Tim Kelly for most total disposals.
Although it is about much more than the raw numbers when it comes to Daicos.
Craig McRae has used Daicos predominantly across half-back, where the classy ball user has become a weapon in Collingwood's transformed game plan, using his precise foot skills to put his name up for All-Australian squad consideration.
The NAB AFL Rising Star race looks over – and has for some time – since Daicos put some breathing space between him and last year’s No.1 pick Jason Horne-Francis early in the season, before going to another level in the past two weeks just when Hawthorn rookie Jai Newcombe and young Cat Sam De Koning were mounting a case.
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What started as an afterthought six weeks ago, has crept up on many in recent weeks. When you factor in his age compared to some listed below, plus the fact the fact he barely played any football across two seasons impacted by the pandemic, Daicos clearly has a case for the best debut season of the professional age.
AFL.com.au has identified some of the best first-year performances since 1990:
CHRIS GRANT (Western Bulldogs) – 1990
Before he became a member of the Western Bulldogs' Hall of fame, Chris Grant entered the game as a 17-year-old and became the youngest player in AFL/VFL history to kick 50 goals in a season when he booted 51 from 20 games to lead the goal kicking at the Whitten Oval. After being selected at pick No.105, Grant developed into one of the greatest draft steals of all time, finishing his career with 341 games – the second most in the history of the Dogs.
ALLEN JAKOVICH (Melbourne) – 1991
When you look a bit closer at the numbers, you realise how amazing Allen Jakovich's first season in the AFL was. After kicking 101 goals for Woodville in 1990, the Demons lured him to Melbourne and he delivered. Jakovich was dropped after making his debut in round one, then slotted 60 goals in the reserves in the first half of the season before earning another shot in the seniors. The West Australian kicked 71.57 from 14 games, reaching the 50-goal milestone faster than any other player in history – just nine games – including a day of 11.8 against North Melbourne.
BEN HART (Adelaide) – 1992
After making his SANFL debut as a 16-year-old for North Adelaide in a semi-final in 1990, Ben Hart became an instant hit at Adelaide by playing all 22 games in 1992 before earning All-Australian selection at just 18 years of age at the end of his first season. He backed it up the following season and would eventually finish his career a four-time All-Australian with 311 games on the board.
NATHAN BUCKLEY (Brisbane Bears) – 1993
After winning a SANFL premiership, Magarey Medal and Jack Oatey Medal for Port Adelaide in 1992, Nathan Buckley spent 1993 with the Brisbane Bears after being signed via the Northern Territory state zone. In his one and only season in Queensland, Buckley won the inaugural Rising Star Award and finished second in the best and fairest after averaging 22.9 disposals and kicking 21 goals from 20 games in the year he turned 21.
PAUL HASLEBY (Fremantle) – 2000
After arriving at Fremantle via pick No.2 in the 1999 AFL Draft, the West Australian made an immediate impact, collecting 30 possessions and a goal in a scintillating debut against Geelong to open the 2000 season. Hasleby played all but one game in his first season, averaging 21.4 disposals to win the Rising Star Award. Knee injuries curtailed his career, but not before he earned an All-Australian jumper and was picked for Australia during his 208-game AFL career.
JOEL SELWOOD (Geelong) – 2007
The future captain of Geelong arrived at Kardinia Park with dodgy knees after missing plenty of his draft year. But he quickly dismissed any concerns regarding his fitness and durability, playing 21 games in his debut season, including all three finals. Selwood became the first player to win the Rising Star Award and a premiership in the same season. Now more than 15 years later, the 34-year-old is on the cusp of 350 games with three flags, three best and fairest awards and six All-Australian accolades next to his name.
MICHAEL BARLOW (Fremantle) – 2010
Imagine if he didn't break his leg? That was the story of Michael Barlow's remarkable debut season in 2010. After being overlooked in a few drafts, the Victorian rose from country football and then via Werribee to finally get a shot at Fremantle as a 21-year-old. The rookie made the most of the chance, amassing 33 disposals and two goals in a stunning debut against Adelaide before winning the Glendinning Medal in round six. By the midway point of the season he had emerged as a genuine Brownlow Medal contender, before heartbreak struck in round 14 when he suffered a horrific broken leg against Port Adelaide.
TIM KELLY (GEELONG) – 2018
It is still hard to believe Tim Kelly was overlooked for so many years. After being plucked out of the WAFL at the age of 23, the West Australian produced an amazing maiden season. Ineligible for the Rising Star Award, Kelly won the AFL Players' Association best first-year player award after averaging 23.1 disposals, 4.4 clearances and 3.5 tackles. He also finished equal second by half a vote in Geelong's best and fairest and polled 13 votes in the Brownlow Medal. By the end of his original two-year deal at GMHBA Stadium, Kelly moved to West Coast on a mega six-year deal that netted the Cats a bounty of draft picks.
SAM WALSH (Carlton) – 2019
The first pick from the 2018 NAB AFL Draft has rarely put a foot wrong since he entered the AFL in the opening round of 2019. Sam Walsh would poll 54 of 55 votes to win the Rising Star ahead of Connor Rozee after averaging 25.2 disposals from 22 games. The Geelong product has gone from strength to strength since then and is now an All-Australian and John Nicholls Medallist by the age of 21.