Sam Walsh was and still is the best player to come out of the 2018 AFL National Draft.
Connor Rozee is second but there’s daylight in between. Walsh was selected at pick number one by Carlton while Rozee went at pick five to Port Adelaide.
For much of 2019 Walsh was heralded as the best draftee the game had seen. He fit in at the level seamlessly and quickly became an integral part of the Carlton midfield. Walsh was standing alongside some the game’s biggest names and was holding his own.
His numbers went through the roof and he quickly became the Robin to the Batman that was Carlton captain Patrick Cripps. All the while Rozee was quietly building a handy portfolio of work across the border.
However all the buzz was around Sam Walsh, who broke the record for most disposals by a first-year player in 2019 on his way to an almost unanimous NAB Rising Star Award victory. Walsh amassed a total of 29 of a possible 30 votes from the judges with only former Western Bulldogs captain Luke Darcy not giving the Carlton star the five votes.
He instead handed his top spot to Rozee – who went on to finish second – while giving Walsh the next best slot with four votes.
Towards the end of last year there seemed to be a push to derail to the dominant Walsh on his way to the award with many experts calling for Richmond young gun Sydney Stack to be crowned winner. Stack’s numbers and influence didn’t come close to that of Walsh but he was exciting and playing in an exciting team and momentum grew.
As quickly as it grew it faded and Walsh was again a runaway favourite. Come 2020 though and the calls again have come for Rozee to be seen as the better choice than Walsh.
Kane Cornes has been arguably the most vocal of these experts and has continuously criticised Walsh and taken almost any mistake the young Blue makes as an opportunity to further his opinion, which may be clouded with some South Australian bias.
Last year Cornes voiced his disapproval of Carlton’s selection.
“I think it was the safe pick,” he said.
“Sam Walsh has been spoken about a lot, but he was the safe pick for me.
“He’s going to be a 250-game player, he’s going to have a great career… but it’s a safe pick.
“He’s not a match-winner. He’s 183 centimetres, 80 kilograms, he doesn’t have breakaway speed and he’s not a goal kicker.
“In hindsight, they would pick (Connor) Rozee every day of the week. He doesn’t have the match-winning attributes to win games off his own boot.”
Fast forward to this season and there’s no doubt that Rozee has started the better of the two. Walsh struggled in Round 1 and then made two key blunders at the end of a close game in Round 2 that may have cost Carlton the game.
Meanwhile, Rozee has been superb for the Power as they sit undefeated atop the AFL ladder, but has he really been that much better than Walsh?
Rozee is playing in a better team, and a team with bigger stars then Carlton at the moment, allowing him to very much slide under the radar. Walsh is often seen as a major weapon for the Blues’ midfield, and in a thin midfield like the Blues’, there’s no sneaking under the radar.
The Power have also faced a much easier start in terms of opposition. They have played the Gold Coast, Adelaide and Fremantle. Only the Gold Coast can boast any wins out of that trio and they were a shell of the side we see today when they faced the Power in Round 1.
Walsh has battled the midfields of Richmond, Melbourne and Geelong. They are three really strong midfield groups that have a lot of depth and experience on their side.
There is no doubting Rozee can win a a game off his boot, and is more likely to do so than Walsh. However, what Walsh has proven is he will give you the same effort and an incredibly consistent result week in and week out. Walsh has made it into Carlton’s leadership group in his second season and has been described as a 15-year player.
That’s a hugely successful number one draft pick if true. While Rozee may have more X-factor about him, there’s no way any club can pass up on a player that looks a definite 200-game superstar.
There have been many early-round draft picks that haven’t panned out over the years and there is already no doubt that Sam Walsh isn’t one of those. You can’t argue with that.
Walsh averages 24 disposals, three tackles, 0.5 goal assists, nine contested possessions and four score involvements a game over his first 25 games. Granted, Rozee plays up forward, but some of his numbers don’t compare.
Rozee averages 15 disposals and seven contested possessions, while amassing four tackles a game and nearly six score involvements a game. There’s no doubting Rozee is a star, but let’s not be fooled into the idea he should have gone number one.
The hardest thing to do in footy is get the ball. Walsh does that with ease. He does it in a team that doesn’t win a lot of games and struggles to get the ball sometimes. Rozee is kicking goals in a team that wins about 50 per cent of the time and plays an attacking brand that suits the small forwards.
The Power have also had a beautiful and relatively easier start to 2020 than most.
The key to who you would pick first is answered by a simple question: who would be the better player if they swapped teams?
The answer is undoubtedly Walsh. In a deeper and stronger midfield, Walsh would only get better and his stats would most likely rise, while Rozee would most likely struggle at times in the Carlton team that isn’t yet the finished product by any means.
Walsh would be the better player if their picks were reversed and Walsh is the better player as things stand now.