Being the top AFL draft pick isn't all it's cracked up to be

The Crows' Bryce Gibbs is chaired off by best mates Kade Simpson and Marc Murphy, of the Blues, after playing his final AFL match. Photo: Chris Hyde/Getty Images
The Crows' Bryce Gibbs is chaired off by best mates Kade Simpson and Marc Murphy, of the Blues, after playing his final AFL match. Photo: Chris Hyde/Getty Images

Only the flint of heart were left unmoved last Sunday afternoon when Bryce Gibbs, having played his final AFL game for Adelaide, was chaired from the field by two opposition players who also just happened to be his best mates, his former Carlton teammates Marc Murphy and Kade Simpson.

Watching on from the stands applauding those scenes, was another old colleague, the now-former Blue Matthew Kreuzer, who'd already announced his retirement to Carlton's senior players earlier in the week.

Murphy, Gibbs and Kreuzer. There you had the No.1 pick in three successive AFL national drafts.

Murphy the star of the "class of 2005", Gibbs from 2006, and Kreuzer 2007.

The former still going, the latter pair now done and dusted.

And what of their successors as a No.1 draft pick?

Well, in case you're wondering, having not seen nor heard from Jack Watts for some time, the former Demon is still on Port Adelaide's senior list, but after breaking his leg and dislocating his ankle in round two last season and not returning, is yet to appear for the Power in 2020.

Tom Scully, meanwhile, the No.1 pick of 2010, soldiers on at Hawthorn, his third AFL club, struggling to recapture the best he'd finally shown consistently at his second, Greater Western Sydney, before a shocking ankle injury (yep, him too) effectively finished his stint with the Giants.

Events, be it lack of team success or the injury curse, have conspired against all of them in one way or another.

But so, too, the sheer weight of expectation that unfairly sits on the shoulders of the draft's No. 1 selection, and was at an absolute peak when their particular time came.

Take Gibbs, for example.

By 2006, coverage of the draft had ramped up considerably even from what it had been a couple of years previously, and Gibbs was touted as the likely No.1 pick several months before the event.

So much so, that when Carlton and Essendon, miles behind every other team in the competition at the foot of the ladder, clashed in round 16 that season, the game famously became known as the "Bryce Gibbs Cup", the loser all but assured of a wooden spoon and first pick on draft day, which the Blues duly used on the South Australian.

When Carlton and Melbourne met in the final round of 2007, each team on four wins and with a priority draft pick at stake, the game became known as the "Kreuzer Cup", the Blues' loss becoming a "win" with the No.1 pick and the rights to the junior ruckman who, like Gibbs, had been flagged as the outstanding draft candidate months in advance.

There were no Watts or Scully "Cups" as such, but few players will ever feel more pressure in their AFL debut than Watts was put under when he played his first game for a struggling Melbourne in 2009.

The Demons, bottom of the table with one win to its name and desperate to offer its supporters hope, picked the 18-year-old to debut in its massive Queen's Birthday clash with Collingwood.

The game attracted a tidal wave of media publicity.

And, few moments in football have appeared as graphically symbolic as when the slightly-built Watts took his first touch and was promptly gang-tackled by three Magpie opponents.

Scully wasn't thrown to the wolves like that the following year, but nonetheless also struggled to have major impact.

The common denominator with all for much of their early career was a bar set way too high, and a popular view of under-achievement as a result.

Why hasn't it happened since?

A couple of factors.

First, the concessions to incoming teams Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney, which awarded each a slew of draft picks prior to other clubs having a shot. As part of a whole group of young inductees in teams of which early on very little was expected in performance terms, the likes of David Swallow (2010), Jonathon Patton (2011), Lachie Whitfield (2012) and Tom Boyd (2013) were cut a lot more slack.

And by the time those compromises were removed, St Kilda taking key forward Paddy McCartin with the first pick in 2014, the football world had grown up a bit more in its attitude to draftees.

McCartin aside, whose career has been sadly all but ended by repeated issues with concussion, more recent No.1 picks such as Jacob Weitering, Andrew McGrath, Cameron Rayner, Sam Walsh and Matt Rowell have not only all been able to step into senior AFL football with success, but to a more empathetic critical audience, which has been able to better comprehend the occasional ups and downs along their journeys.

In hindsight, it's a wonder the ridiculous weight of expectation didn't help kill off completely the careers of Gibbs, Kreuzer, Watts and Scully.

The latter pair are still plugging away, hoping their luck may eventually turn.

We should be on their side also hoping it does, given the baptism of fire they endured. For Gibbs and Kreuzer, though, it's now over.

Both gave terrific service to a club in Carlton which, given its on-field situation, was relying on them far more than it would have preferred.

And they endured in spite of a football world which, from their very first steps in AFL football, demanded way too much of them both.

Congratulations to them are in order. But perhaps, also, a "sorry".