When Lance Franklin signed that staggering nine-year deal with Sydney, an enraged AFL hierarchy was quick to warn the Swans that, regardless of how long Buddy played for them, the contract would count in the salary cap in each and every year, as specified.
Back then, the notion that a rising 27-year-old key forward could play for a further nine seasons seemed preposterous and the contract was regarded as a borderline rort. It was widely assumed – and I was among the sceptics – that Buddy wouldn’t go the contractual distance. It’s still highly doubtful. Hardly any AFL footballers play at 35 and even fewer key forwards are running around at that vintage. The game is too punishing.
But Franklin’s physical talent is as preposterous as the contract he signed and, whereas Wayne Carey, Stephen Kernahan and Dermott Brereton were finished by their early 30s, Buddy remains not simply on the field, but ahead of it.
Last weekend, Franklin booted eight goals against a West Coast defence that featured multiple all-Australians who were made to look like smaller/slower kids chasing the biggest boy in the under 12s. If Jeremy McGovern’s worth a million, as some within the free-agency circus have suggested, Buddy must be closer to a $2 million player than the modest $1.2m he’s getting this year.
The word “freak” is hackneyed and misused, in the same way that “tragedy” is more appropriately applied to events such as the death of Phil Walsh than regulation football misfortune. Franklin, it follows, is one of few footballers whose capabilities warrant the F-word.
In 2018, a full decade after he booted 100 goals within a home-and-away season, Buddy remains the premier forward in the game. There’s more debate about who’s No. 2. Josh Kennedy? Tom Lynch?
Yet, Franklin’s seldom ranked as the best player in the AFL by either peers or pundits. Typically, the midfielder of the moment – in 2015, it was Nat Fyfe, in ’16 Paddy Dangerfield and last year Dustin Martin – holds the unofficial crown and is voted the Most Valuable Player by the players, who share this era’s uniform bias towards midfielders. Gary Ablett has been the players’ MVP four times as often as Buddy’s taken a club best and fairest (one).
So, we come to another preposterous thing about Franklin – that after 868 goals, four Coleman Medals and a highlight reel that challenges the elder Gary Ablett’s, he’s actually undersold. That’s right. Buddy Franklin, the most watched and watchable footballer of his age, is underrated.
The players ranked him No. 4 in their pre-season top 50 on AFL.com.au, behind “Dusty”, ”Danger” and Fyfe. He’s seldom talked about as the premier player, even though, as the midfielders pass the baton, he’s kept running laps alone in the key forward lane.
Whether you rate him more valuable than Martin or Dangerfield right now. I would argue that once he’s finished (potentially in 2022 after the ninth year of the contract), his career will be recognised as superior to any of the present day Brownlow medallists, possibly excluding Ablett.
Franklin had three pieces of surgery following the 2017 season. Both knees had “clean ups” while one of his dancer’s feet also felt the scalpel. The Swans described these surgeries as “minor”, which they might be if you’re 23 and haven’t been pounded for a dozen years. Franklin is 31. For many footballers of that age, three pieces of post-season surgery – no matter how “minor” – would have them firmly behind the eight ball in round 1, not kicking eight.
The Swans say that he takes great care of his body. “The expectation from our viewpoint,” said Sydney head of football Tom Harley, “is that he sees it [the nine years] out.”
Franklin’s brilliance is such that, in latter years, it’s been taken for granted. “Oh, and Buddy kicked six,” we say, as if this is the normal order of things, like the Demons missing the finals or the Australian cricket team’s graceless antics. No one thinks of Buddy as an older player.
Some play “tall”, others play “small.” Franklin plays young. He has not lost much, if any, speed or athleticism and still does the audacious things that are attempted only by younger players or recalcitrant mavericks such as Stevie Johnson.
There’s hardly a defender with the attributes to match him; those who are nimble enough aren’t big enough and vice versa. He’s 199 centimetres and 107 kilograms, yet hardly a defender can keep up with him. If he was a better overhead mark (he drops balls quite a bit), he’d have surpassed Wayne Carey already.
Teams that quell Buddy rely on a collective team defence. I put it to one senior official from a competing club who knows Franklin that Buddy might be underrated. “Not by the clubs that play against him,” he replied. Hard to stop, harder to get to know and still playing with unbridled verve, Buddy Franklin is forever young.