The stage is set for the tightest Rising Star yet.
After 16 rounds of the season, two top-three picks from last November’s AFL Draft and two second-year teenagers holding down key posts inside 50 all remain in the hunt.
Nick Daicos polled 60 of a possible 60 votes to win last year’s prize, becoming only the fourth player after Dan Hannebery in 2010, Daniel Rich in 2009 and Jared Rivers in 2004 to collect the maximum votes on offer from the judges. We won’t see that in September.
Only two Rising Star counts have gone down to the wire since Nathan Buckley won what was then known as the Norwich Union Rising Star Award in 1993. The first was in 2000 when Paul Hasleby beat Adam Ramanauskas by three votes. The last was in 2014 when Lewis Taylor upset Marcus Bontempelli by a solitary vote.
There has never been a tie across the first 30 years of the award presented to the best young player in the AFL and there isn’t a countback system, meaning we could have joint winners for the first time. When it comes to the 2023 crop, there isn’t one clear favourite. There isn’t even just two. There are now four clear contenders with two months to play.
Brisbane midfielder Will Ashcroft, North Melbourne half-back Harry Sheezel, St Kilda midfielder-turned-forward Mitch Owens and Fremantle key forward Jye Amiss have all made compelling cases across the first four months of the season to claim the Ron Evans Medal when the All-Australian selectors (plus veteran talent identifier Kevin Sheehan) each give their 5-4-3-2-1 in September.
Ashcroft has come exactly as advertised and played every game for Brisbane since being selected with the second pick last year, slotting straight into a midfield role in a premiership contender that has been in the top four since round seven.
The son of triple premiership great Marcus has rarely played a poor game and is averaging 22.5 disposals, 8.3 contested possessions, 3.5 clearances and 3.3 tackles across 15 games.
In a season where the Kangaroos have only tasted victory twice and haven’t won a game in 14 rounds, Sheezel has been a reason for North Melbourne supporters to go to the footy, alongside George Wardlaw who would have been in this conversation if he didn’t miss the first nine rounds of the season.
Much like Daicos, who spent his debut season at half-back, Sheezel has hit the ground running behind the ball, amassing more Sherrin than any other player eligible for the Rising Star. The Ajax product is averaging 27 disposals – ranked No. 25 in the AFL – 4.3 rebound 50s and 429.8 metres gained to be a fantasy favourite.
Sheezel accumulated a staggering 34 disposals in a flawless debut against West Coast in round one, becoming the first debutant to record 30 plus touches since 2010, finishing with the third most ever and most since Greg Williams collected 38 in 1984. The 2022 pick No. 3 has added seven more hauls of 30 or more in a season where he will finish at the pointy end of the Syd Barker Medal.
Owens has had the most surprising rise of any young player in the game this year. After playing only seven games in 2022 after arriving at RSEA Park as a next generation academy graduate in 2021, the 19-year-old has made a significant impact in a new look attack under Ross Lyon in 2023.
Charlie Curnow, Joe Daniher and Taylor Walker are the only key forwards averaging more Champion Data player ratings points this season than Owens, who kicked a career-high four goals at Optus Stadium on Sunday to move to 19 for the season.
This century the Rising Star Award has been won by a former No.1 pick four times, a top-ten pick 15 times – plus two mini draft selections – but Owens could be the lowest pick to salute since Port Adelaide’s Danyle Pearce won in 2006, after the Saint was selected with pick No. 33 just over 18 months ago. Adam Goodes won in 1999 after being taken at pick No. 43 in 1997, Sam Mitchell was pick No. 36 in 2001, while Byron Pickett was plucked at No. 67 back in 1996.
And then there is Jye Amiss. The 2021 No.8 pick kicked two goals on debut in round eight last year and then missed three months due to a kidney injury, before Justin Longmuir made the bold call to recall the teenager for the elimination final, where he kicked two goals in a sign of what was to come.
After playing two finals in his first three AFL appearances, Amiss has gradually built a case without fanfare to be a clear contender in the Rising Star Award on the back of his numbers in 2023. While Sheezel and Ashcroft have amassed big numbers in season one and Owens is a Champion Data darling, Amiss is now up to 29 goals for the season after kicking four goals against the Western Bulldogs on the weekend.
Jesse Hogan is the only key forward to have won the Rising Star – Nick Holland in 1996, Justin Koschitzke in 2001, Nick Riewoldt in 2002 all won but played in different roles before settling in attack – and Amiss is on track to eclipse the 44 goals Hogan kicked eight years ago to win the Rising Star when he was still playing for Melbourne.
The boy from Busselton is ranked No. 13 for goals in 2023 and has taken his chances, converting 65.9 per cent of his shots. Only Nick Larkey (68.9 per cent), Logan McDonald (73.3 per cent) and Jacob van Rooyen (70.8 per cent) have a better accuracy rate when it comes to the top 50 goalkickers in the AFL this season.
While Gold Coast’s Bailey Humphrey, Greater Western Sydney’s Finn Callaghan and Adelaide’s Max Michalanney have all had fantastic seasons, and Wardlaw has been exceptional across his first six games, the 2023 Rising Star race is down to four. And that’s more than usual.
The margin might not be as tight as it was in 2014 – or 2000 – but when you consider the depth in this crop, it will be the tightest Rising Star yet.