Stephen Hill ushers in new era
A PUB debate was raging this week: who was the best midfielder of the past decade, Chris Judd or Gary Ablett?
Given the absence of many other obvious candidates worthy of the mantle, I elected not to be drawn on an almost impossible issue.
Except to say that Ablett only became an elite midfielder in the latter half of the decade, and that perhaps Simon Black, Nathan Buckley, Michael Voss, Adam Goodes and Ben Cousins should be added to the discussion.
Last week, I witnessed an incredible man-on-man duel that had me thinking along similar lines, albeit with an eye to the future.
If you haven’t got Fox Sports and live outside WA you will have seen very little of one of the combatants, Fremantle’s Stephen Hill.
Hill was a controversial draft pick when he was taken at No. 3, ahead of a fellow West Australian who would go on to win the Rising Star, Brisbane Lion Daniel Rich (No. 7).
Fremantle and its recruiting manager were savaged for the first half of last season for not taking Rich, an instant star performer from Round 1.
As Hill began to find his feet midway through the year, critics lost their voice.
Now they appear to have lost their memory.
Hill has continued to improve rapidly and has not only caught Rich but probably gone past him this season, making it one season each in what will hopefully be a 12 to 15-year battle.
Hill moves with a grace comparable to Melbourne champion Robert Flower, but reminds me of a young Gary Ablett early in his career, or of Hawthorn’s Cyril Rioli.
Ablett was a father-son draft pick in 2001, the same season Judd went at pick three.
The young Cat was damaging with the ball from early in his career, yet his work rate only started to match that of Judd in 2007, when he began his run as the best midfielder in the game.
Until the now famous heart-to-heart discussion with the club’s senior players, Ablett had an impressive highlights reel but simply didn’t get enough footy.
In other words, his work rate wasn’t good enough to have an output at anywhere near the Judd/Black level. He wasn’t fit enough to get to the next level.
He has since produced the best block of footy from any midfielder of the 2000s.
It is a lesson for Hill to follow closely.
Like Ablett, Hill is devastating with the ball in his hands. In fact, he is statistically the AFL’s most damaging midfielder at using the ball, with the Dockers scoring 38.3 per cent of the time he gets the Sherrin. Yet he averages only 19 disposals a game.
Part of the problem is that he is now tagged almost relentlessly and hasn’t got the frame or muscle to compete as effectively in packs as he will in time.
The other issue is his work rate and again, like a younger Ablett, there is a significant upside — he has the potential to be the best player in the game, but only if his tank gets much larger.
The battle I witnessed last weekend was between Hill and Melbourne’s Tom Scully.
At halftime the Dockers were dominating, but Hill was barely breaking even with Scully, who had been given a run-with role.
By the final siren, Scully had worked him over and clearly taken the honours.
Hill kicked a brilliant goal and was an effective player, but Scully had given him a lesson on work rate and was the Demons’ best.
On one occasion, Scully spoilt the ball courageously across half-back, retrieved it, laid it off and ran hard deep into the forward line, leaving Hill well behind.
The Docker’s chase was token at best, battling fatigue as well as his man. It was midway through the third quarter, the Demons were coming and Hill was struggling.
Like Judd before him, Scully has arrived at AFL football with a brilliant work rate. His challenges are to develop his body and to improve his skills and decision making.
Already you can see his improvement in those areas and in time he will face the same challenge as Hill each week: to find the ball and have an impact while being tagged.
Hill will probably confront such a task again tomorrow, with Liam Picken a chance to shadow him at Etihad Stadium, as the Dockers and Bulldogs jostle for fourth spot.
In the space of 12 months, Hill has already eradicated a major flaw in his repertoire, with his form away from Subiaco Oval now on a par with his form at home. Last year he was about 30 per cent down away from the west.
It’s a testament to his talent and application that in just his second season he will be at the forefront of Rodney Eade’s planning.
No doubt thousands of neutral observers will tune in to watch such a vital game.
It would be no surprise if Rich, Rioli, Scully, Jack Trengove, Andrew Swallow, Trent Cotchin, Daniel Hannebery and a host of other young midfield guns were among them.
For between them, these players will go head-to-head dozens of times in coming seasons in a quest to become the pre-eminent midfielder of this decade.