As far as number one draft picks go, Andrew McGrath sure has produced one memorable season.
Not for flashy stats or bags of majors, but one measured in consistency and durability. He played 19 games in his inaugural year, sitting out only a handful of times for rest. One would argue he didn’t need a breather – he adjusted to the physicality and rapid-fire transitions – but coach John Worsforld knows him better than most.
McGrath came to the Bombers as a silky prospect, a kid with enormous athleticism and dexterity. But sometimes number one draft picks don’t execute immediately – or even at all. Think of: Jack Watts. Tom Scully. Paddy McCartin. David Swallow. These are names of number one draft picks who took the long road to success, became injury ravaged or simply couldn’t produce according to lofty expectations. In 2017, McGrath did none of these things and hit the ground running.
My first impressions of McGrath made me think he’s a best and fairest in the making; someone who owned poise and rare maturity at 19-years-old. In the opening round against the Hawks, a match where the Bombers ran away with it by 25-points late, he took home 12 kicks and 10 marks. But it wasn’t the stats page that had me in awe. McGrath had unique quality to him that most footballers aren’t equipped with: a rubbery, bouncy, hard to pin down quality. He was able to stay low to the ground and collect the loose ball with clean hands at will and if you took a quick glance at the T.V, you might have mistaken him for Brownlow Medallist Gavin Wanganeen.
Against the Hawks, in Round One, McGrath was not daunted. He took the game on and linked up with the Bombers midfield brigade of Dyson Heppell , Jobe Watson and Zach Merrett. He was effective under pressure. He didn’t shy away from in-and-under contests. But most of all, McGrath never looked out of place and the game didn’t look like a beast he would need years to tame.
For McGrath, before football there was hurdles and athletics, a sport that requires spring in the legs, natural talent, elite pace but also less glamorous and invisible things like perseverance. Most AFL players have played football since they were six. But that is slowly changing. Clubs are now seeking diverse sports that could apply to football. Anything that makes them more superior. For example, the Demons’ Jack Watts could have played elite basketball based on his aerial leap and height. And the same with the Crows’ Alex Keath, who could have done great things in the cricket world. He possesses those rare cross-code athletic qualities, which what makes him highly rated.
But for a game like football that requires run, sprinting and jumping, McGrath got the best education in a national athletics program. You can see it when he plays. When he dials in to a contest he doesn’t waver and he’s able to win the ball at high speed while jumping over bodies on the ground and weaving through traffic. Not all footballers have shared the same path as McGrath; his background puts him in a league of his own.
In 2016 the Bombers won the wooden spoon. Their backline was the second worst in the AFL for points allowed. Coming into this season, they were bolstered by the return of pending All Australian Michael Hurley and buttressed by a mix of talls and marking options. McGrath brought a solid pedigree of junior football clout and leadership. He was a defender with a midfield mindset.
After the Hawks win, it took McGrath three more weeks before he claimed a Rising Star nod against the Crows in Adelaide, a game where the Bomber were pulverized by 65 points. McGrath hauled in a stunning season high 28 touches – 20 of them handballs – at 85 per cent efficiency. More than any other played in the team that night McGrath looked the most comfortable against the pressure and tackling of a rampant Crows unit who kicked nine goals in the opening term. By mid year, McGrath was a top three rookie and some suggested he was a standout favourite to claim the Rising Star award – although, there’s a string of exciting prospects that have also performed admirably in Sam Powell-Pepper, Charlie Curnow and Ryan Burton. And he’s ranked the best of the rookies for total handballs.
McGrath is by no means the glue that holds the Bombers back six together but you knew what to expect from him every week. He delivered whatever Worsfold needed. If he needed more rebounding efforts, he’d do it. If he needed to shut someone down, he’d do it. If he needed McGrath to tackle all night, he’d do it. When the Bombers took on the Crows in early August at Etihad, McGrath stifled goal-kicking champion Eddie Betts and kept him to 0.1 with seven touches. He also collected 25 touches, eight marks and five rebounds. If you didn’t know he was a rookie, you’d think Betts was beaten by a 100-gamer, someone who’s been around the traps and bunkers long enough to know his game. That performance reminded us that not only does McGrath occupy defensive quirks, but he’s also a ball magnet. To own a two-way player in the modern game of football is a tremendous boon.
When McGrath reflects on his 2017 season, at his home in Brighton sometime in October, life will feel pretty good from whatever hilltop he’s looking down from. Sure he’s had missteps. And his inaugural foray into AFL was not flawless; he collected two kicks against the Bulldogs, and was kept to 12 meaningless touches against the Cats and Blues. But those things can’t erase the 2017 of Andrew McGrath I recall. He’s still 19, fresh out of high school, playing against men.
When you think of his season like that, and the regular output, it makes you think of McGrath’s limitless ceiling.
Rising Star Week
All week, the Onballers will pump up the tyres of a contender for the 2017 NAB AFL Rising Star award.
Tuesday: Eric Hipwood, the alien with limitless potential
Wednesday: Andrew McGrath, the number one number one pick
Thursday: Ryan Burton, Mr Natural
Friday: Sgt, Powell-Pepper, and his endless body count