With Neville Jetta now properly rated, who is the most underrated player in the AFL?

A little over a fortnight ago, Neville Jetta officially graduated from Underrated AFL Player to Properly Rated AFL Player. The defining act was a double one on one defensive act which iced the game for his team, which occurred on national TV in the final stages of a game ultimately decided by eight points.

Jetta’s status as an Underrated AFL Player (UAP) has been a 2017 in-joke of the cool kid followers of the league. Every time Jetta was cited by the mainstream media and most fans, it came with a prefix or suffix – “he’s sooo underrated, Jetta”.

Calling a player underrated is supposed to be a calling card. I know more about football than you. Here’s how the Monday morning awkward work conversation plays out with Jetta as a UAP.

You: Did you see Jetta ice the game on Sunday afternoon? He’s so underrated.

Conversation partner: Yeah it was pretty great. Can’t say I’ve noticed him before – Jetta, did you say?

You: [snort] yeah he’s been one of my favourite players for a while. Flies under the radar a bit, I really like the way he’s able to harass guys one on one without giv…

Conversation partner: How good was Brycey Gibbs though? Reckon he’ll go to Adelaide?

You (to yourself): I know more about football than you

You (brow furrowed): I know more about football than you

Now that Jetta is a Properly Rated AFL Player (PRAP), that conversation never materialises because you don’t want to speak Jetta’s name again. You’re on to the next statement of football intellect. You need a new UAP to boast about.

You’re the guy who boasts Showbiz is Muse’s best album, and are happy to rub that in the face of all your mates who know Muse because Supermassive Blackhole was in one of the Twilight movies. You rock up to work with a four ounce keep cup of batch brew and snicker at the queue for the Nespresso machine. You appreciate the metaphorical undertones of Pulp Fiction, not the violence and the gaud.

We hear you, and we’ve got your back. We have a name for you. Here’s how we’ve narrowed down the list of 830-odd AFL footballers to work out the most eligible UAP in the game, the player who is truly underrated.

Rule One: You cannot be underrated if you are frequently talked about as an underrated player

Makes sense right? If you are constantly lauded as a UAP by most everyone, then you are on that measure alone properly rated. There are plenty of examples of this: Neville Jetta is underrated. Dane Zorko is underrated. Tom Lynch (Adelaide) is underrated. Tom Scully is underrated. Jack Hombsch is underrated. Zac Williams, by go-to name drop, is underrated.

These are not underrated players. These are properly rated players.

Rule Two: You cannot have won a higher honour in your career, except a club Best and Fairest because everyone knows the clubs know their players best

No Brownlow medallists, All Australians, MVPs or Coaches Association award winners. That one is self-explanatory. It rules out Nick Smith, Brodie Smith, Chad Wingard (an otherwise stellar candidate) and Heath Shaw, which is a shame, but we have to be clinical. This is really important.

We could make an exception for Nat Fyfe, who has been pulled from pillar to post for his “down” year in 2017, in which he’s averaging 14 contested possessions (sixth in the league), 1.5 contested marks (21st, with the other 20 above him playing key positions) and 7.3 score involvements (equal 12th). We could. But we won’t.

Rule Three: You cannot be underrated if you play for one of the big Melbourne teams

I, resident of Perth Western Australia, know more about what makes David Myers tick than I do Luke Shuey or Josh P Kennedy. That’s because players that wear Carlton, Collingwood, Essendon, Richmond and Hawthorn jumpers have been psychoanalysed to within an inch of their lives by virtue of their big market status.

That rules out some intuitive names: Alex Rance (underappreciated perhaps, but not underrated), Kade Simpson (ditto), Steele Sidebottom (the poor man’s elite midfielder), Joe Daniher (although he violates one of the subsequent rules too), Shaun Grigg (sneakily one of the best bargain basement midfielders in the competition) or Liam Shiels. They are all, in their own way, UAPs, but they can’t be your UAP because they’re big market players. It’s too easy.

No, we need someone from a smaller team, who is less likely to be known because they’re in the paper every second week.

Rule Four: You cannot be a player with less than three seasons of football under their belt

Youngsters are out. We don’t have a large enough sample to determine whether a young guy’s reputation befits the output. Christian Petracca is already one of the most influential players in the game, but we need to let his stardom marinade for another half a season before we thrust him into this conversation.

Rule Five: You cannot be underrated if you play a high profile role

Generally speaking, key forwards are out. High possession getters are out. Flashy outside midfielders are out. If your worth in a mainstream media sense is judged mostly or almost exclusively by your counting stats, then you cannot, by definition, be underrated.

Ben Brown might meet the rest of the criteria we’ve listed here, but he’s currently tied for fourth in the Coleman this year. He is also a cult figure at North Melbourne and beyond; pale skin, funny hair, really fucking long run up for goal, every football fan worth their salt knows about Ben Brown and his abilities.

Tom Mitchell, Lachie Neale and the other accumulators don’t fit the bill either. There was a case to be made for Neale at the start of the 2016 season, before he broke the AFL record for number of disposals in a season, but now that precipice has been breached there’s no going back.

Rule Six: You have to do things that mostly go unnoticed to the untrained eye

Here’s where the race is narrowed down significantly. A leading UAP has to revel in the tasks the more flashy types repel against. Blocking at stoppages, burrowing deep into packs, negating tall and small forwards, niggling and harassing the influential ball carriers. A UAP does the little things, and isn’t feted as a hero as a result.

It’s why Jetta was heralded as a UAP for so long. He is ultimately a stopper; he doesn’t make exciting things happen, he stops them. But if you look close enough, you find moments of joy, of finely crafted football that are just as fun to watch as a Lance-Franklin-80-metres-out-running goal.

Take Jetta’s final act at as a UAP. Jetta started by spoiling the ball cleanly over Dale Thomas’ shoulder – without hands in the back, a push in the back, head high contact or a hold – springing back up to his feet to compete with a running Kade Simpson, harassing him and jostling for position – again without infringing – before gathering the ball, setting himself, and finding team mate Sam Frost with a perfect handball on the run. How can you NOT get swept up by that artistry?

With all of these rules in mind, our possibilities are narrowed down to what I’d imagine is 30 or 40 players – about five per cent of the pool. Some names that come to mind are:

Brad Sheppard (West Coast Eagles): mid sized defender that consistently beats his opponent, disposes of the ball well, and is capable of playing as a third man in marking contests

Mitch Duncan (Geelong Cats): the third wheel on the Geelong tricycle. Just don’t take that possession total much higher, Mitch.

Daniel McStay (Brisbane Lions): Quality key defender whose career has been ironically advanced by the generally terrible ability of his team to keep the ball out of his area. He’s had the defensive reps of a 200 gamer.

Connor Blakeley (Fremantle Dockers): The new Lachie Neale, who can switch from defensive to offensive midfield roles and do both at a very high level.

Tom Ruggles (Geelong Cats): Just kidding, he’s terrible.

Jarryd Lyons (Gold Coast Suns): A bit of a watching brief on Lyons for now I guess, but he’s putting up inside midfield numbers that are borderline All Australian.

But there can only be one. And that one is…

The Most Eligible Underrated AFL Player in the Competition is…

Greater Western Sydney Giants’ co-captain and midfield maestro extraordinaire, Callan Ward. Ward’s captain credential should rule him out, but it is at least counterbalanced by the fact he is the captain of a team from Western Sydney rather than Western Melbourne.

Ward is the heart of a premium Giants’ midfield, doing the dirty work of blocking and creating running lanes for his more flashy team mates. He’s also a very capable ball winner in his own right, and leads the Giants in contested possessions (12.1 per game) and is second for clearances (6.8 per game). He sets up the play.

But more broadly, and perhaps a sign of how good he is, Ward pretty much never turns the ball over. He averages just 2.4 freaking turnovers on 26 disposals per game, about half the rate of his peer group around that same disposal mark. He rarely gives away free kicks (0.8 per game), again around half the rate of his peers.

He makes quality decisions with the ball in hand in open space, and is the master of drawing opposition defenders in before releasing a team mate with a cutting handball. Ward rarely gets caught in tackles, agile on his feet and with strong lateral movement.

Ward deserves to be talked about in the upper echelons of the league. He’s point man in one of the most threatening and damaging midfield groups in the competition, and he does a mountain of his work in the shadows.

He’s the new Most Underrated AFL Player, and long may he reign. At least long enough for you to get some mileage out of this.