Our AFL experts tackle some of the burning questions ahead of Round 22, including who the league's best player under 21 is, what the story coming out of Sydney vs. Collingwood might be, and if Carlton's skipper deserves to be suspended for the rest of the year.
Who is the AFL's best player aged 21 and under?
Jake Michaels: If you're giving me the choice of any player aged 21 or under, I'm taking Chad Warner. It's crazy to think he's only played 34 games and yet has already established himself as one of the best ball-using midfielders in the competition. This season he's averaging 23 disposals, four clearances, five inside 50s, four tackles and almost a goal per game. He currently ranks eighth in the league for score involvements, with only four midfielders ahead of him in that category. I don't say this lightly, but he's capable of winning a Brownlow Medal one day.
Matt Walsh: It's so easy to get sucked into choosing midfielders, or smaller players when it comes to a question like this, because the big boys take longer to develop. Look at what Jamarra Ugle-Hagan has done in recent weeks after building his body and form. The same can be said for Sam De Koning, who has come along in leaps and bounds this season, and is my choice. A 200cm key back who intercepts and uses the footy well? Sign me up. He's a gun.
Jarryd Barca: Jake and Matt, bravo, you've both nailed this! Based on current output Chad Warner has to be the best player 21 or under right now. He averages more rating points per game than any other player in his age bracket (13.4) and has quickly established himself as one of the most elite midfielders in the comp. And yep, De Koning we know has been brilliant. But I have a few honourable mentions if we take into consideration raw ability and potential: Harrison Jones, Caleb Serong, and Zak Butters - all are, or will be, All-Australian calibre players in the not too distant future.
Did Patrick Cripps deserve to be suspended for his hit on Callum Ah Chee?
JM: Yes. He shouldn't play again this season. Cripps left the ground and charged into Ah Chee, in what can only be described as a moment of madness from the Carlton skipper. I've always been action over result, but the fact Ah Chee was subbed out of the game really doesn't help Cripps' case for avoiding a suspension. I'm guessing he gets two weeks, which means he's unavailable for the crucial games against Melbourne and Collingwood. If the Blues lose both, which is very likely, they almost certainly won't be playing in September.
MW: Yes, but Carlton will challenge, and may get off due to the Willie Rioli precedent. I'm going to go off on a tangent and ask does the MRO actually watch games of footy, or is he just fed vision in drips and drabs? Because Braydon Preuss should not be playing this week after his late, high hit on Zach Merrett. Preuss' intent was worse than Cripps, and Cripps was banned mostly due to the outcome (concussion after Ah Chee's head hit the ground) and not the action. Say it with me for the 50th time this season: punish the action, not the outcome.
JB: Yes, but so did Willie Rioli in an incident earlier in the season, so anything between 0-3 weeks just won't surprise me (it should be two). I'm all for defending a football action and always will be, but there is a duty of care that must be maintained by a player who isn't first to the contest, and Cripps going airborne on a player who is defenseless is as clumsy and guilty as it gets - ala Brayden Maynard in the preseason when copping a two-match ban for his lousy spoil attempt on Giant Daniel Lloyd. The Carlton skipper's bump on Ah Chee was just too reckless, and his season could be all but over as a result.
Make a case for the Dees going back-to-back
JM: I'll preface this by saying they MUST make the top four, and after the loss to the Magpies last Friday night, that's looking a little touch and go. Why can they win it again? Well, for starters, their starting four at centre bounces. Max Gawn, Clayton Oliver, Christian Petracca and Jack Viney is the best foursome in the league and one which can dominate anyone at any moment. How about the backline? Defensively, Steven May and Jake Lever might be the best one-two punch and are capable of shutting any forward line down. They also now have the experience, which counts for plenty. You'd be crazy to rule them out.
MW: The fundamentals haven't changed, and it's that they have a dominant midfield, and solid pair of intercepting defenders who are in sync, and a forward line mix that (while at times lacks a genuine key forward presence) is dynamic and lends itself to someone having a big day - whether it's Bayley Fritsch, Kysaiah Pickett, Ben Brown, or someone else. They have the big-game finals experience too. Lose to the Blues, though, and top four (and winning the flag) is a tough ask.
JB: They possess arguably the AFL's most damaging starting midfield with Gawn, Oliver, Petracca and Viney, and those players emulating their influence from the Collingwood loss for the remainder of the year will have them winning most games. A sturdy defense led by Steven May and Jake Lever is enough of a road block for even the better sides, and the offensive supply the team generates (they had 41 inside 50s in the first half alone against the Magpies), means they're getting more than enough opportunities inside 50. It's up to them to make the most of it from here.
What will be the headline coming out of Sydney vs. Collingwood?
JM: Can the Magpies win the flag? And not because they extend their winning streak to 12 games, but because the Swans expose them and win by 30+ points. I think plenty of media pundits and fans will be looking to reassess the Pies after this weekend, questioning whether they've gone a little early on the Collingwood premiership campaign.
MW: 'Don't snap up those Grand Final tickets yet, Magpies fans!' All good things come to an end, and while Collingwood have enjoyed and played well in a purple patch the likes we've never seen, it's just that - very out of the box. The Swans at the SCG is a tough proposition, and a loss to Sydney isn't disastrous for the Pies, but I just think they'll get done - and fall out of the four (at least for a week).
JB: 'Swans slap Pies with reality check'. They couldn't make it 12 in a row, could they? Against another contender on their home soil that's absolutely flying... call us pessimistic but I agree with the above, the Magpies' win streak has to come to an end eventually and if it is this Sunday which it's likely to be, then all eyes on that Carlton-Collingwood Round 23 blockbuster at the 'G! Sheesh, those ramifications could be huge...