Lewis Taylor and Zach Merrett deserving as AFL rising stars

Small forwards Zach Merrett, of Essendon (left), and Lewis Taylor, of Brisbane Lions, have flourished in their AFL debut seasons. Pictures: GETTY IMAGES

Small forwards Zach Merrett, of Essendon (left), and Lewis Taylor, of Brisbane Lions, have flourished in their AFL debut seasons. Pictures: GETTY IMAGES

LEWIS Taylor and Zach Merrett grew up playing on muddy Western District ovals for Hampden league rivals.

They were drafted into the AFL within two picks of each other last November, debuted in round one for their respective sides and earned rising star nominations two rounds apart.

They combined for 41 of a possible 44 games in 2014 — Taylor played all 22 matches for a rebuilding Brisbane and Merrett notched 19 appearances for finals-bound Essendon.

Little separated the pair statistically and their onfield traits — poise, efficiency and consistency — should ensure they’re among the judges’ thinking when the AFL rising star award is announced tomorrow.

Taylor is one of the favourites, along with Western Bulldogs’ Marcus Bontempelli, to take out the coveted prize and join elite company including Lions triple premiership captain Michael Voss, St Kilda skipper Nick Riewoldt, Geelong three-time premiership midfielder Joel Selwood and Sydney’s two-time Brownlow medallist Adam Goodes on the honour roll. 

Merrett is expected to poll strongly under the five-vote system too. 

Bontempelli is the prototype of a modern footballer: tall, agile and with a big engine.

The number four draft pick shot to prominence after he bamboozled Melbourne’s defence to kick a match-winning major — a goal of the year contender — in round 15.

Bontempelli then sky-rocketed into rising star calculations on the back of a series of eye-catching displays.

Taylor’s stake for the prize is on the back of his consistency.

Geelong Falcons coach Andy Allthorpe has watched Taylor grow from a standout Terang Mortlake junior to Vic Country skipper to AFL excitement machine.

Allthorpe said Taylor would be a deserving rising star winner, particularly given a foot injury which restricted his pre-season.

“Lewy is super resilient and whatever challenges are thrown at him he takes them on and gives it his best shot,” he said.

“He certainly showed the traits he’d shown as a Falcon (this year at the Lions).

“It is the same Lewy taking the game on and using both sides of his body.

“He’s improved with what the Lions are teaching him.

“I think there is a lot more improvement in him once he has a full pre-season.”

Merrett’s ability to adjust to the AFL environment quickly hasn’t surprised Sandringham Dragons talent manager Ryan O’Connor.

O’Connor said the former schoolboy cricketer was “an old head on young shoulders”.

“You think players have hallmarks of doing well and we were always impressed with his footy smarts and ability to impact a game,” he said.

“Even when he was tired, he found ways of impacting the game.”

O’Connor credited Merrett for establishing a place in Essendon’s best 22 so early on in his career.

“He probably hasn’t been spoken about in the same light as the other two (Taylor and Bontempelli) but I think his season has matched up closely, from what I can see,” he said.

“He’s stood up in big games and hit the goal face, as well as getting enough of the ball.

“His game against Collingwood the last time around and the Port Adelaide game over there were outstanding. I think he has done a super job.”

Taylor and Merrett, along with Essendon’s Martin Gleeson and Gold Coast’s Louis Herbert, ushered in a new AFL era for the Hampden league in the same season two prominent south-west players bowed out.

Retired Brisbane Lions duo Jonathan Brown and Brent Moloney can sit back and watch the next generation represent the Western District with the same pride they did over a combined 422 games.

SOUTH-WEST STARS

Hampden league's two 2014 AFL Rising Star nominees - by the numbers

ZACH MERRETT, ESSENDON 

Local club: Cobden.

Drafted: Pick 26, 2013 national draft.

Debut: Round one versus North Melbourne.

Nomination: Round 11 against Richmond.

Games: 19.

Average disposals: 15.

Career-best disposals: 24, round 17 against Collingwood. 

Goals: 11.

LEWIS TAYLOR, BRISBANE

Local club: Terang Mortlake.

Drafted: Pick 28, 2013 national draft.

Debut: Round one versus Hawthorn. 

Nomination: Round nine against North Melbourne. 

Games: 22.

Average disposals: 16.9.

Career-best disposals: 26, round 22 versus Fremantle. 

Goals: 12.

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