Is this the next big superstar in the AFL?

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Tarryn Thomas

Tarryn Thomas (#26) may be the next superstar of the AFL and many don’t know much about him. It’s time to change that. Thomas was drafted with pick 8 in the 2018 draft initially as a forward with midfield aspirations. In 2021, Thomas is in a break out year contributed by a move into the midfield along with his added fitness and confidence. He’s averaging 17.6 disposals, 3.3 tackles, 2.7 clearances, 4.3 inside 50’s, 349 metres gained, 5.7 score involvements and 1.2 goals a game. Compare these statistics to Bontempelli in his third year and it’s easy to see why everyone’s so excited about Thomas.

FYI: Bontempelli won a flag in his 3rd year. Thomas plays for a team that has been the worst in the AFL for most of this year. This is important to consider when comparing their statistics.

These numbers don’t even really paint the progression we’ve seen in Thomas over the last few months. Since Round 10, those per game averages are at 20 disposals (including 15 effective), 5 inside 50’s, 4 clearances, 6.5 score involvements and 1.4 goals a game. The only other players averaging 20 disposals, 5 inside 50’s and 1+ goal are Petracca, Bontempelli, Martin and Bolton. Not a bad list. So you kind of see where Thomas’s game is progressing to. But statistics don’t always paint an accurate picture. So why are we so high on Thomas’s future?

i. Composure

Thomas is cool, calm and collected. He’s never flustered with ball in hand. He has a Pendlebury like ability to read the pressure around him and has confidence in his presence at 189cm to withstand any tackle if he misreads the situation (something that’s occurring less and less).

Thomas glides across the field with ease. He isn’t overly quick but has enough pace to break out of a stoppage – similar to a Bontempelli (who isn’t considered quick himself). His composure affords him the opportunity to take his time to think through each disposal, displaying on field awareness rare for such a young player. He easily reads opposition momentum and has the balance to leverage this to his advantage. What we mean by this is that he knows when to change angles to wrong foot defenders. If you haven’t seen this step around McGovern in the dying stages of North’s win – do yourself a favour…

Put simply, the best players in the AFL make the best decisions. They choose a split second option in a pressurised situation that most benefits their team. The elite ones can create a better option for themselves through their strength and power (Martin / Petracca) or through their composure (Bontempelli) often in tight stoppage scenarios. Thomas has this kind of decision making composure and it’s a big tick towards his future success.

ii. Kicking ability

The even better part about that McGovern dummy was the aftermath – the lace out kick. Thomas is a great user of the football. He averages 7 effective kicks a game at 73% disposal efficiency. He’s already North’s most damaging player and rarely wastes a kick when given time. He weights his kicks with great precision – often drawing teammates to space he identifies before they do.

He loves to lean back on his left side to open up his kicking angle on the ball and to increase the penetration on his kick. Here, Thomas kicks over the reach of Plowman to Larkey perfectly.

He’s smart in changing the angles of his kick. Thomas is confident in his ability to execute kicks across his body to players who seem out of position to others. Not many players have the audacity to attempt this kick.

In addition to his field kicking, he’s a good finisher without being great (the goal kicking accuracy statistics aren’t nice but he’s better than that would suggest). When he has a clear run into goal he doesn’t usually miss. He makes sure to take that extra step to compose himself before kicking through the ball.

That field awareness creates scoring opportunities that wouldn’t normally arise. On the weekend, he taps the ball away from opposition pressure to generate enough space to snap for goal.

A midfielder who consistently kicks goals is key to becoming one of the best and Thomas is already displaying this. He’s kicked 1+ goal in 13 of his 18 games this year. The added benefit is the opportunity for Thomas to rest forward rather than on the bench. Naturally, more time on the ground creates more opportunities to imprint your mark on a game (a favourable comp in Petracca spends 90% ToG). It’s a really good sign when a young player learns how to hit the scoreboard consistently early in their career.

iii. X Factor

Thomas has X factor – there’s no doubt about it. What makes him such a tantalising prospect and why he can ascend into superstardom is that he does everything. All the things we listed above are prerequisites to becoming a star in the AFL. Having composure to make good decisions, elite field kicking, finishing ability and positional versatility is an impressive base to work with.

Thomas spent his first two years playing predominantly as a forward. It’s helped him get a clear understanding on when to time his leads or when to use his frame to protect the safe space in a marking contest. He has great hands to go with his troubling height for defenders.

Thomas seems like a player with a quiet arrogance in his own abilities – unafraid of big moments in games and willing to take a chance on himself to make a game changing decision. These are the type of players that win you a final. We won’t see Thomas there any time soon but the potential for his X-factor to be on display in a finals atmosphere is palpable.

iv. Defensive habits

Thomas has come along way defensively. He’s made strides as a midfielder with defensive capabilities assisted by his improved fitness. Thomas is the number one pressure act player at North Melbourne averaging 19.3 a game. To go with that, he has a great tackling technique – often pinning his opponents arm and ensuring a secondary ball up or a holding the ball decision. He genuinely takes pride in the defensive aspect of the game.

This is encouraging for a developing young player already so damaging offensively. Thomas will have games where he struggles to find the ball. Instilling good defensive habits early ensures he can still impact games without needing 20+ disposals.

v. Physicality

Having a bit of mongrel isn’t a necessity to becoming a superstar. Yet, finals are played at a heightened physicality. For how classy he is, Thomas isn’t a soft player. It helps having a rugby background. He enjoys the physicality. This is crucial to his mentality and consistency as a player given that Thomas is a lock to receive opposition attention in the future. Tags will come and his aggressiveness to fight through will matter. As discussed, his versatility as a forward can help him shake tags that other midfielders have to play through.

Towards the future

So what’s next for this budding superstar? For one – finding his best position. This one isn’t too hard. Thomas is too damaging of a midfielder to ever revert back to a full time forward role but his presence in the forward line gives North different avenues to goal. A split of 70/30 similar to Petracca is a good mix and one that Thomas should aspire towards.

This gets to the next RFI – Thomas simply needs to spend more time on the ground. 74% ToG this year isn’t enough for a player who has the opportunity to rest forward. That number needs to be in the mid to high 80’s. If that low ToG is because he is spending more time in the midfield – he needs to get fitter. This should transpire in Thomas finding more of the ball – something he also needs to do more consistently in the midfield.

Outside of that consistency in general is the big key. There’s no doubt Thomas is in a purple patch. He’s starting to shape our perception of what he could become in the next decade. But the purple patch will end and attention will come. How Thomas handles this will be key.

Why every North fan is so high on Thomas is that he already does the basics well. He is rated above average for a midfielder in almost every offensive metric (disposal efficiency, metres gained, contested possession rate, ground ball gets, inside 50’s, clearances, score involvements etc etc). Add to that, he has the versatility to impact games when one of his assets is taken away. He can play a forward heavy role to break a tag, his defensive game is sound and he wins enough contested football. Sam Walsh is the only other 21 year old ahead of Thomas (Yes – over Rozee, Smith and Lukosius) yet even Walsh for all his brilliance may not have the upside of Thomas.

Players who are considered elite in the AFL uncover how to maximise their upside in games whilst dramatically decreasing their downside. Their volatility in performance decreases and the difference between their best and worst is minimal. It’s incredibly hard to be that consistent – there’s a reason why there are so few elite AFL players. But Thomas has the upside to get there which is a rarity in itself. If or when Thomas gets there is completely up to him. He has the opportunity to be the next biggest star in the AFL.

Let us know if you agree.

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Our piece on Jake Stringer

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