Mark Blicavs (AFL)
Geelong recruiter Stephen Wells has a formidable reputation for pulling diamonds from the rough, but Mark Blicavs collecting his maiden best-and-fairest in October was perhaps Wells’s crowning glory. The former steeplechaser raised eyebrows by signing with the Cats as a category B rookie in 2011, having missed selection to the London Olympics. AFL clubs experimenting with recruits from other sports isn’t new – American basketballers are currently in vogue – and most suspected the athlete with the hard-to-pronounce surname and the unfashionable No46 on his back would be nothing more than that.
Since debuting in 2013, Blicavs has played 66 of a possible 70 games and transformed himself from a novelty to a bona fide footballer. His breakout season in 2015 was both eye-catching and consistent. On a cold April night, he held his nerve to slot the winning goal against the Suns. In round six, he earned two Brownlow votes for his 27-possession game opposed to Collingwood star Scott Pendlebury. Mid-season, Blicavs and Rhys Stanley dominated Port Adelaide on a Friday night, prompting Leigh Matthews to criticise the Cats’ use of two ruckmen around the ball to bamboozle opponents. Blicavs averaged career highs in every stat that matters, despite spending long stints in the ruck, and surely has recruiters turning their attention towards the local athletics track in search of their own version.
Blicavs remains a work in progress but few players have developed from such a low base so quickly, making those Jim Stynes comparisons inevitable. With the substitute rule abandoned, his endurance will become even more valuable in 2016. Paddy Dangerfield may be grabbing the headlines, but Geelong’s future revolves just as much around this athletic prodigy. KK
Larissa Crummer (football)
It just keeps getting better and better for Larissa Crummer. At the start of the year Crummer seemed just another unremarkable name among the W-League ranks. But coach Alen Stajcic recognised the promise in Crummer, and the Sunshine Coast-raised teenager has blossomed into a star within the space of 12 months.
To say it has been a remarkable year for the 19-year-old would be an understatement. At international level, Crummer was a surprise selection for the Women’s World Cup in Canada where she was the youngest member of the squad. Stajcic decided Crummer’s role should be in the forward line after three years in a variety of roles at club level. She came off the bench in attack in the crucial final group game against Sweden, and also the quarter-final against Japan. Crummer took to the rarefied atmosphere of World Cup football like an old-hand. It was a brief cameo, but her powerful running and natural game sense amid the great and good of world football had tongues wagging.
After Canada, Crummer made the move from local club Brisbane Roar to new all-star side Melbourne City, where she was handed the No9 role in the centre of the forward line ahead of headline-name Lisa De Vanna. Crummer scored a double on debut and hit the 10-goal mark after just six matches. She had previously scored just twice in three full seasons. The W-League golden boot seems assured.
Next up are the Olympic qualifiers in February. The Matildas tackle Asian opposition where five of the world’s best sides are battling for just two tickets to Rio. It is an intense level of competition, arguably unmatched across the globe, Europe included. And a schedule of five games in 10 days adds further to what looms as a gruelling ordeal. But the Matildas have forged a reputation for succeeding against the odds, and if they do so, expect Crummer to be among those making an impact in Rio. PS
Sam Groth (tennis)
2015 was the year in which Australian men’s tennis and those who follow it officially lost all perspective on what was unfolding in front of their eyes. From the media and a decent number of fans Bernard Tomic and Nick Kyrgios drew the kind of venomous ire normally reserved for dodgy banking executives and war criminals. Lleyton Hewitt and Pat Rafter were forced into the unfamiliar roles of good cop and bad cop, while Thanasi Kokkinakis was just kind of swept along in their slipstream, whispering behind his hand as his mates were administered the strap for the umpteenth day in a row.
All this as Australia’s best male players verily surged up the world rankings (Tomic to 18 and Kyrgios to 30) and the country reached the semi-finals of the Davis Cup for the first time in almost a decade. But enough of that results rubbish, eh?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of the above took out Tennis Australia’s 2015 Newcombe Medal (though at least Kokkinakis received a nomination, presumably to pad out the numbers), to whose criteria the ruling body this year tellingly added a new line about being the “best ambassador”. That meant it was taken out by the admirable, affable and steady-as-she-goes World No60 Sam Groth. Back in 2011 big-serving Groth ditched his racquets for suburban footy, such was his disillusionment with the sport, but here he was taking out Challenger events and pounding his way to the third round of grand slams. Imagine what they’ll give him if he wins one. RJ
Sean McMahon (rugby union)
Sean McMahon is a runner. That he plays on either flank of a rugby scrum matters not a jot. He just runs. And he plays. He does all the “work” of a back-rower – securing and stealing “the Precious”, rucking and mauling, clean-outs, tackling all manner of things that come his way. Yet with ball in hand he’s nigh-on quick as a back, with a directness a bit like Tim Horan. Hold up, McMahon is not the incarnation of Horan but he has “game” – he runs and competes and is hyper-aggressive, whether it’s over the ball, cutting down runners or bullocking up field with straight hard-charges. His rugby is all-action.
Now, Uruguay might only be Uruguay, a speed bump in a Group of Life. But to secure man-of-the-match in a Rugby World Cup match with two tries, 66 metres and nine tackles in a squad full of quality desperates, you’re doing something right. It’s no surprise to anyone in rugby that McMahon has handled every step up in class. In 2014 he led the Wallabies Under-21s. Prior to that he had two years on the IRB World Sevens circuit. Safe to say he’s got fitness, hardness and x-factor. He’s been on the radar of rugby types for years but he broke out for the rest of Australia in the World Cup, and it wouldn’t surprise in 2016 if the Wallabies back-row partners Michael Hooper and McMahon with David Pocock. Scott Fardy will have something to say about that. But McMahon tearing off the bench can change a game. Australian rugby’s found another hot one. MC