The AFL’s youngest superstars are not that young anymore. Patrick Cripps (25), Jaeger O’Meara (26) and Lachie Neale (27) should all continue to dominate footy as they enter their prime. That’s fantastic for football, but now it’s time to focus on the game’s youngest stars. These kids are performing at levels that demand our absolute attention. Matt Rowell is already elite and his peers are turning heads with their talent and flair. This is a list of the top ten teenagers who have competed at AFL level.
10. Luke Jackson (18) – Melbourne Demons
Admittedly, this is a bit of a reach. Luke Jackson has only played one game and wasn’t particularly impressive. That being said, the number 3 draft pick is freakishly athletic and looks to have more than enough talent to be successful in this league. Not only is he tall and well built, he’s also mobile and moves well around the ground. Watching him play is like watching a young Brodie Grundy. Melbourne is the perfect place to for him to develop as well, with three-time All Australian Max Gawn there to show him the ropes. That relationship is already positive, with Gawn publicly claiming that the youngster is already better than the Melbourne skipper. If Gawn is right, Luke Jackson will be an absolute superstar of the AFL.
Player comparison – Brodie Grundy
9. James Rowbottom (19) – Sydney Swans
Making his debut in round 5 last year, James Rowbottom had an instant impact at Swans HQ. The youngster impressed his coaches and teammates with his drive and tenacity in training and now looks to have carved out a spot in Sydney’s best 22. Assistant coach and Sydney legend Brett Kirk loves the way Rowbottom plays, making special mention of how hard and tough he is. That toughness manifests itself in the midfielder’s elite tackling numbers. Rowbottom is an absolute bull around the pack and his pressure acts have already earned him a two-year contract extension at Sydney. It’s easy to see this kid as a future 200 gamer and valuable member of the red and white. I also really hope he matches up against Steele Sidebottom the next time Sydney play Collingwood.
Player Comparison – Taylor Adams
8. Max King (19) – St Kilda
It’s always difficult to predict the careers of young key forwards. St. Kilda have a damn good history in this category with superstars like Nick Riewoldt and Fraser Gehrig plying their trade in the south-east of Melbourne. Unfortunately since Riewoldt’s retirement, the Saints have struggled to find another genuine forward target. Paddy Mccartin was the chosen one but he was forced into early retirement and Josh Bruce left for greener pastures in Melbourne’s west just last year. Max King is the latest tall timber to take up the mantle and he looks pretty damn good. He has the body and the willingness to compete aerially but he also has mobility and ground skills that are rare for somebody so tall. Matthew Lloyd, who coached the King twins at junior level, believes that the Saints draftee will dominate opposition defences with his physicality. He’s still got some development to do, but Nick Riewoldt liked him enough to give King his old Guernsey number and that speaks volumes.
Player Comparison – Charlie Dixon
7. Jordan Clark (19) – Geelong
Unfortunately for the man dubbed, ‘Heir Jordan,’ illness and injury have prevented Jordan Clark from really cementing himself in a stacked Geelong lineup. That hasn’t stopped the youngster from making a name for himself with his smooth kicking and blistering pace. Originally providing some run off half-back, Clark’s best games have come on the wing, including his Rising Star nomination last year. The cattery obviously love the former pace bowler’s ability and attitude given they’ve signed him up till the end of 2022. Now fully recovered from surgery on his elbow, Clark will be looking to reestablish himself as a member of Geelong’s elite midfield group.
Player comparison – Stephen Hill
6. Zak Butters (19) – Port Adelaide
The best team in the competition are also one of the youngest. Leaders like Travis Boak and Charlie Dixon are working well with young upstarts like former 12th pick, Zak Butters. Watching him play, it’s clear that Butters has prodigious talent. He can contribute around the stoppages and can also get forward and kick goals. Butters isn’t prolific just yet, but he’s shown enough in front of the sticks for you to believe that he’ll be a dangerous forward for years to come. Perhaps most exciting is the youngster’s tackle pressure and effort. He’s always willing to attack the ball and lock it in to Port Adelaide’s forward half, a crucial component of the modern game. His off-field attitude has been impressive as well. Over the summer, Butters recruited the aforementioned Travis Boak to help him with his personal training regime. Given Butters’ effort and ability, it’s clear to see why he’s already an important member of Port Adelaide’s finals push.
Player comparison – Luke Dahlhaus
5. Jack Lukosius (19) – Gold Coast Suns
Jack Lukosius, the number 2 pick in the 2018 draft, was supposed to be Gold Coast’s replacement for Tom Lynch. Instead, he ended up replacing Steven May. Having struggled in his initial role as a key forward, Lukosius was swapped to defence last season in a move akin to those made by Darcy Moore and Levi Casboult amongst others. Instantly, the narrative around Lukosius changed from, “give him a few years to develop,” to, “this kid is already a genuine gun.” Combining his staggering athleticism with a good pair of hands and a sweet kick, the South Australian quickly took over the Jeremy Howe role in Gold Coast’s back 6. Lukosius continued to turn heads this off season when he signed on for an additional two years to the Gold Coast Suns despite perceived interest from bigger clubs. That kind of loyalty is rare in South-East Queensland, and the more Lukosius develops, the better his team will play.
Player Comparison – Jeremy Howe
4. Xavier Duursma (19) – Port Adelaide
Another one of Port Adelaide’s blessed youngsters, Xavier Duursma is the complete package. He runs hard and fast, he can play anywhere on the field, he applies pressure, he takes spectacular marks, he kicks goals and he’s bloody passionate about the game he loves. Sometimes that passion spills over into goal celebrations that not everybody appreciates, but I’m sure Ken Hinkley appreciates the kid’s energy. The Rising Star nominee is an important part of Port Adeliade’s fast-paced football and as soon as he recovers from the hamstring strain he suffered against Fremantle, he’ll slot right back into the first team to keep on racking up highlights.
Player Comparison – Isaac Smith
3. Sam Walsh (19) – Carlton FC
Technically, as I write this, Sam Walsh is still young enough to qualify for this list. Sure, by the time this is posted, he’ll have turned 20, but this still qualifies. Besides, it would be blasphemy not to include Walsh because the kid is so freakishly good. There’s a lot of pressure associated with being the number 1 pick in the draft but Walsh handled it brilliantly and hit the ground running last year. A natural midfielder, the Victorian romped his way to the 2019 Rising Star Award and broke the record for most disposals in a debut season. He’s skilful by hand and foot and has a natural feel for the game that belies his age. Some lukewarm performances this season has Walsh dropping a little lower than expected on this list but he’s going to be an elite midfielder alongside captain Cripps for a very long time. Who knows, maybe one day Crippa will be his sidekick.
Player Comparison – Sam Mitchell
2. Bailey Smith (19) – Western Bulldogs
Bailey Smith is playing lights out this season. Smith’s place at number 2 may be fuelled by recency bias and it may be influenced by a love of a certain hairstyle but this position is totally warranted. ‘Bazlenka,’ might not be as silky smooth as Sam Walsh but he tackles harder, is more confident in front of goal and, frankly, is in better form. Smith is just the latest in a long line of elite midfielders to to run out for the dogs but the fiery youngster hasn’t put a step wrong. Smith is already taking possessions from guys like Josh Dunkley and Jack Macrae and if the Bont played somewhere else, Bailey Smith would be the west’s favourite son. If only there wasn’t a different sun to take top spot from him.
Player Comparison – Dyson Heppell
1. Matthew Rowell (19) – Gold Coast Suns
Right now, on Sportsbet, Matt Rowell is 9 bucks to win the Brownlow Medal. He turned 19 yesterday. The bloke has played 4 games and he’s priced as the third best player in the AFL. You could argue that teams are giving him too much space, you could argue that COVID-19 has changed the game too much for us to take this seriously. On the other hand you can just appreciate the elite tackling, the superb goal-kicking, the inspired play around the stoppages and the leadership that Rowell has shown so far in his short career. The Gold Coast Suns are the most relevant they’ve been since Gary Ablett first signed the dotted line and this kid is the reason. Matt Rowell and his tucked in shorts have fans fawning over the once forgotten franchise. This weekend the Suns play Geelong in what will be the Sydney boy’s biggest test to date. Kane Cornes thinks we’ll get to see a Dangerfield vs Rowell 1 on 1. Matt Rowell might not be able to grow a beard, but if he can win that duel, he will be favourite for the Brownlow by next week.