Third year rising stars Clayton Oliver and Darcy Parish bear many similarities when you look at the surface. Both are genuine midfielders – albeit different in style – and will ply their trade on-ball for the next decade. They are separated in age by three days and were taken with draft selections #4 and #5 respectively.
Dig a little deeper however, and you will find that their origin stories are vastly different.
Parish was the underage star – destined to be drafted and become a serious AFL player. He combined silky skills with an ability to rack up possessions at will. Twice he was named in the Under 18 All-Australian team. When available at pick five, Essendon jumped at the opportunity to take an absolute midfield proposition.
Oliver came from the clouds. He was so far off the radar that he wasn’t selected for the Under 18 National Championships. He was overweight and unfit. But he could win a football in contested situations like few others. By draft night, he was a highly sought after clearance beast that Melbourne had little hesitation in selecting.
Since the 2015 draft, Parish has steadily worked into his career. After 42 games, he is averaging just shy of 21 disposals per match– almost nine of them contested in nature – and a tick over three clearances. This is all despite the fact, that by modern standards, Parish is small for an inside leaning midfielder. Without the body mass to crash and bash his way through the crush of bodies, Parish has so far relied on clean hands, anticipation and being on the move at all times. His quick decision making and lightning reflexes have meant that Parish has often impressed inside the contest more than would have been expected on draft night back in 2015.
However, Parish, considered a silky user of the football as a junior, hasn’t proven quite as damaging by foot in the AFL. This is potentially a by product of the need to run further and harder at AFL level. Under intense fatigue, Parish’s once elite foot skills have fallen into the average category. A nice enough kick, but not the damaging junior he once was.
Which leads us back to Oliver.
Where Parish was seen as a guaranteed player, and looks to be a player of great potential going forwards, Oliver has proven a remarkable case in the ultra-professional world of modern football. An unfit, overweight kid that became an AFL star within two seasons of being drafted to the highest level.
Situations like Oliver’s were much more common in a previous era where physical maturity, running power and complex strategy did not create such a gap between the AFL and elite junior football.
After just 37 games, Oliver is averaging 26 disposals – nearly 14 of which are won in contested situations – and almost six clearances per match. In 2017, he was number one in the AFL for handballs, third for contested possessions and seventh for clearances. In amongst all that ball winning, Oliver averages over six tackles a game throughout his short career (which includes him finishing the 2017 season in sixth place for total tackles among all AFL players).
Oliver is not only impacting games, but he doing so in areas that are not typically the domain of players early in their careers. And he is doing it to an elite standard already. This speaks to a combination of physicality, midfield craft and mindset that few draftees possess in season one or two of their journey. His clean hands, ability to absorb opposition contact and explode from stoppages makes Oliver a dynamic brute in the clinches. One that opposition coaches will need to be aware of and plan for in the years to come.
Traditionally, players that impact early are often seen to possess less scope for improvement. These two look to buck that trend.
For Oliver, the improvement will come from becoming a more incisive kick and damaging exponent of the release handball. With Parish, it will come from building his endurance base and body mass.
Who will be the better player long term? Let’s revisit in a decade’s time. The answer will no doubt be fascinating. And just maybe, Parish and Oliver will be as close as they were at the beginning of this article.