Kepler: a hunched peg that fits Freo’s square hole
In considering the career – and abilities – of Kepler Bradley, it’s worthwhile examining exactly how inexact a science the AFL draft process remains.
Of the 70 players selected in the top-10 of the national draft between 2000 and 2006, 15 are already out of the competition having played 50 or fewer games.
On the other hand, 52 players selected at pick 50 or above from 2000 to 2007 have gone on on to play at least 50 AFL games, either with the club that drafted them or by moving on to another team. A total of 36 of those players are still in league (including last year’s Brownlow medallist Dane Swan).
Where Kepler Bradley fits into that equation (and the Fremantle team) is a most interesting proposition.
He was taken at No. 6 by Essendon in 2003, then delisted by the Bombers after 49 games. Since being picked up by Freo with the No. 69 pick in 2007, he’s added another 57 games, including the last three straight as a trio of wins moved the Dockers to withing striking distance of the top-eight.
Finding a category for Kepler has never been an easy task.
In his nine AFL seasons he’s been a centre-half-back, a pinch-hitting ruckman, a lead-up centre-half-forward, a wingman and for the first half of 2011, a genuine goal-kicking threat playing inside the forward 50 metres.
“One of Kepler’s problems is that he’s just that little bit too small to be a ruckman and that little bit odd to be a real key forward,” his former teammate at Essendon and Fremantle Mark Johnson said last week.
Odd is probably a good word to describe him. If you were being generous, you might describe Kepler’s playing style as “awkward”; if you were being less kind, you’d just term him “unco.”
His posture is perpetually hunched. His kicking technique (more on that later) is only slightly more fluid than Charles Barkley’s golf swing. He’ll sidestep Chris Judd and goal on the run at full pace one minute, then fall over his own feet the next.
I’m not sure the above “qualities” were ever particularly appreciated by Essendon fans – especially not after his errant kick in defence was intercepted by Collingwood’s Tarkyn Lockyer on Anzac Day in 2007.
But at Freo, Kepler has emerged as something of a cult hero.
When he returned from nearly three months out of the side for the recent win over the Western Bulldogs, a bloke near me at Subi yelled out “SEE Ross! We CHEER for KEPLER.” (presumably a pointed reference to coach Ross Lyon’s preference earlier in the year for Jack Anthony, he of the Bronx cheers against Adelaide and disastrous outing against Carlton).
When Kepler couldn’t buy a goal from inside 30 metres against GWS on the weekend, the crowd clapped him in DK Lillee-style until he finally obliged with a major (and an ungainly-looking salute).
For reasons best known to the creator, a three-minute long Duck Sauce remix has appeared on You Tube, in which the words Barbra Streisand have been replaced with “Kepler Bradley”.
What happens with Kepler in the next few weeks, as the Dockers make a run at a suddenly quite feasible-looking finals spot, is going to make for intriguing watching.
By my estimate, debate among Dockers fans over whether Kepler should be dropped for this week’s clash with Port Adelaide was running about 50-50 on Big Footy yesterday.
The percentages around him actually being picked by Lyon – who had the archetypal “animated” phone conversation with Kepler after Sunday’s goal – might be even less than that.
Five years after I predicted Kepler would become Freo’s worst ever recruit, my take is that he has to play.
He invariably finds the footy (basically as many possessions-per-game this year as Matthew Pavlich). He presents well on the lead (more marks-per-game than Justin Koschitze or Kurt Tippett). Although his kicking still looks terrible, goal-kicking aside it isn’t really that bad (62 per cent efficiency). When Kepler plays, the Dockers win (5-1 this year).
If the AFL kept a stat for the number of times a player clattered fearlessly into a contest, got up hopping like he had a broken leg, then miraculously loped off to the next contest, Kepler would lead the competition every year.
In short, Kepler competes. Johnson remembers him being one of the few Dockers who could hold his own in a wrestling match against Pavlich.
But it’s also more than that.
I never thought I’d find myself writing this as a measure of praise but Kep actually does a pretty decent impersonation of a poor man’s Quinten Lynch (minus glove, porn moustache and about 30 metres of kicking penetration).
A natural runner with an unnatural-looking gait, Kepler seems to have a far better understanding than Zac Clarke of where and how to lead up the ground to provide a bridge between the Dockers midfield and Pav deep in attack.
For all the talk in the past 12 months about the centre half-forward the Dockers almost had (Mitch Clark) and the one they still might get (Travis Cloke), I’m convinced Kepler is the best option the Dockers have in that position right now.
Now I just need Ross to read this and agree with me.