For the best part of the last decade, former players, fans and pundits alike have been proclaiming Carlton star Patrick Cripps as a future Brownlow Medallist.
After a tumultuous count, fitting for such an engaging season, the word “future” can now be removed.
Despite a season where his Blues missed finals by the closest of margins, the Carlton captain capped a stellar individual year — his finest to date.
Cripps is the archetype of the modern footballer, combining size with a willingness to do the dirty work to win the ball.
This is how Patrick Cripps finally became a Brownlow Medallist, and his journey to football’s highest individual honour.
It all started in Ram country
Just like the Great Dividing Range defines the south-east coast of this vast country, the Wheatbelt defines the landscape in the west.
Farmland dominates the western seaboard, spitting up between the coast, wildflowers and desert.
Right on the northern edge of the agricultural region sits Northampton, a mere five hours drive from Perth. Just under a thousand people call Northampton home.
Beyond the wheat, sheep and canola that the town produces, it also breeds footy players in spades.
On the main street in town lies a metal sculpture with nine of the town’s AFL players to date.
Names like Kennedy, Hasleby and Taylor are rich in the lore of the town, and have also dominated on the national stage.
Like so many places across this windswept continent, footy provides part of the backbone of the town, with familiar names shared across club honour boards and store names.
The local club, the Rams, have won six flags and are desperate for a few more.
Cripps thrived in the bush, loving the lifestyle there. When he was drafted in 2013, his dad Brad told of his affection for the place.
“We call him our little bush pig, or big bush pig. He loves his farming and wild pig hunting. He’ll miss that because he loves coming home and doing that,” he said.
That’s not to say life is easy on the farm. As Cripps noted during his speech at the Brownlow:
“Farming is tough, you have your up years and down years. I spoke to my dad about the drought, and it gave me an idea of what they went through.
“I didn’t realise how tough that time was because my parents just showed up every day. I look back now and have even more appreciation for what they did.”
Cripps and his family were a little footy mad. They lived through the local club, and relished events like the Brownlow.
His dad said that making the AFL was beyond his dreams, but this year he has taken that dream to the next level.
Despite the bevy of talent from Northampton, Cripps might be the finest product to date.
Size and speed – Cripps the best of both worlds
It’s hard to miss Cripps in the middle of a contest. Few midfielders are as big as the Carlton stalwart, and even fewer are as strong.
Cripps’s size defines much of his game, but it hasn’t always been the case.
When Cripps first emerged from Northampton, he was a very different player to what he is today.
In the under-15 WA state team, Cripps was the smallest player in the team.
By the time he hit the draft, the youngster had grown over 20cm, with a filled out frame to boot.
Smaller players often have to work smarter and harder to win the ball, to overcome any physical differences encountered.
One of Cripps’ key advantages is how he combines those skills with his large frame, making the best of both worlds.
Cripps was a late riser in the draft process as a result, sitting outside that top echelon of discussed talent for the year.
Despite this his ability to win the hardest of ball cleanly was clear even back then.
Cripps’ game is built off a base of controlled power, working towards the ball regardless of the attention given his way by opponents.
Cripps hunts the leather all across the field, chasing relentlessly and often leaving opposition players in his wake.
This year, the additions of Adam Cerra and George Hewett, and the development of Carlton’s younger midfielders, have afforded Cripps the ability to pick his spots a bit better, and be a bit more damaging with his opportunities with the ball.
The Blues have been able to foster the most regular connection between two players this year, with Cripps and young star Sam Walsh being the most prolific handball combination this year.
The two also do a lot of damage when they get the ball in combination, with only Clayton Oliver and Christian Petracca combining for more points together this year.
The deeper midfield has also afforded Cripps the ability to add a string to his bow — the ability to impact the games as a forward. This extra element is what has transformed his game into being this year’s Brownlow Medallist.
Cripps has regularly hit the scoreboard this year, giving the Blues another target up forward when they need it.
His ability to influence up forward further stretches defences, and creates extra space for Coleman Medallists Charlie Curnow and Harry McKay to work.
Cripps has a size advantage over any midfielders who trail him up forward. Any defenders who follow him into the middle are often found wanting.
This improved ability up forward allowed Cripps to impact games in a different dimension.
Cripps kicked goals in fourteen games this year, with the Blues winning nine of those games.
Few players have the ability to turn a match on their own, but 2022 has proved that he is in that class.
But for all of the individual success Cripps has achieved so far, team glory has eluded him. He is the first player to win a Brownlow Medal before playing in a final since Paul Kelly in 1995.
Given how Carlton improved this year, and the heroic efforts of their now-Brownlow Medallist captain, that seems sure to change soon.