First Round Watch: Horne-Francis’ feats not enough to drag Panthers into League decider

TOP pick candidate Jason Horne-Francis was once again the main event for draft watchers around the nation, as the South Australian star put on a show during Friday’s SANFL preliminary final. While his South Adelaide Panthers went down to Glenelg, the teenage sensation was arguably best afield in a powerhouse performance which could easily have inspired his side to victory with a bit more luck. Fellow first round hopeful Matthew Roberts also chimed in with a couple of goals for the Panthers, turning out in his seventh League appearance with some positives to be had. We put the performances of both players under the microscope in another South Adelaide themed edition of First Round Watch, taking you through what they did well and where they may be looking to improve.

#33 Jason Horne-Francis

21/06/2003 | 184cm | 78kg
Midfielder/Forward
Power Rankings range: 1-2
Strengths: Explosiveness, competitiveness, kick penetration

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2021 averages (League):

20 games | 16.5 disposals | 4.0 marks | 4.2 tackles | 3.2 clearances | 3.4 inside 50s | 0.5 rebound 50s | 0.8 goals (15 total)

PF stats: 24 disposals (20 kicks, 4 handballs), 4 marks, 4 tackles, 11 clearances, 4 inside 50s, 10 score involvements, 3 goals, 3 behinds

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You would be hard pressed to find a more impressive performance from a junior at League level in recent memory, than what Horne-Francis produced on Friday night. With the Panthers’ season on the line, he was the player who looked most likely to drag his side to an unlikely win. The 18-year-old made things happen through sheer desire at times, winning 18 contested possessions and proving right up for the finals fight. He started in midfield and attended over 50 per cent of the first half centre bounces, impacting both ways with his repeat harassment of the ball carrier and explosive bursts onto the outer.

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His stoppage craft proved outstanding for such a young player, as he often lost opponents with late shoves and forays through the contest before latching onto the loose ball. Horne-Francis also showed high-level anticipation around the ball, intercepting opposition handballs several times to force turnovers and a bit of chaos. When rotating forward, he translated those smarts to make a menace of himself at the fall of numerous contests, hitting the spills front-and-centre and using his speed to break free for shots on goal. He played almost exclusively as a deep forward in term four and nearly turned the game on its head, winning crucial ground balls but sending consecutive open play shots into the post.

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His courage and desire to win the ball also showed in a couple of marking feats, chasing up high balls back with the flight with little regard for his own safety. One was a classic jumping chest mark to intercept on the wing, while the other was a sliding effort in the pocket which yielded his fourth term goal. Horne-Francis had kicked two majors previously; exploding to toe in a goalsquare scrambler, and snapping home in the first term running away from goal.

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To round out the vast array of weapons he showcased, Horne-Francis was also quite capable when disposing on either side of his body. He backed himself to improvise left and right foot kicks, showing a sharp short-range game and gaining good meterage when going long. He did cough the ball up a few times with quick dump kicks under pressure, but that’s expected when you win so much contested ball at senior level.

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Overall, it was truly a superlative performance from the youngster. His ability to take hold of a League game captured the attention of the footballing world and he is on track to make many North Melbourne fans incredibly happy very soon. Another full season of SANFL football has put him in great stead to impact early at the next level, offering unteachable competitiveness and plenty of strengths, next to very few true weaknesses.

#44 Matthew Roberts

31/07/2003 | 183cm | 81kg
Outside Midfielder/Forward
Power Rankings range: 12-20
Strengths: Work rate, accumulation, clean hands

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2021 averages (League):

7 games | 11.1 disposals | 1.7 marks | 3.9 tackles | 0.7 clearances | 2.9 inside 50s | 0.4 rebound 50s | 0.9 goals (6 total)

PF stats: 10 disposals (8 kicks, 2 handballs), 3 marks, 6 tackles, 1 clearance, 4 inside 50s, 2 goals, 1 behind

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Not to be forgotten amid the Horne-Francis hype, Roberts has done an excellent job to see out the year at League level after recovering from a nasty ankle injury. In his seventh top flight outing, the hard-running first round hopeful played most of the game as a high half-forward before pushing up to the wing, leaning on his running capacity to get to as many contests as possible. As a forward, you could argue he played his role well with two first half goals to help keep South Adelaide in with a fighting chance.

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He showed he was up for the contest with his first major, protecting the drop zone in a one-on-one tussle to mark strongly from a high ball which headed his way inside 50. After clutching the grab, he duly slotted his side’s first goal of the game from a 40-metre set shot. Roberts’ second six-pointer was one of the easier ones he will ever convert, as he took the advantage from a free kick in the pocket and strolled into an open goalsquare to score in the following term. It came after he had registered a behind, gathering cleanly at a forward 50 stoppage but behind squeezed on the kick which dribbled through the wrong side of the post.

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His clean hands continued to look like a key strength, with some nice one-grab takes down low helping South Adelaide keep possession. Roberts did find himself wrapped up a little easily at times though, accepting the contact and holding out until a stoppage was called. Without the explosive traits of others, he has become more of a first receiver around the contest and is moreso a player who can work his opponent over as a high half-forward or wingman.

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Having covered a good amount of ground, Roberts was able to put the ball inside 50 on four occasions and also fulfilled his scoring duties to make for a pretty solid outing overall. The opportunity to represent his state two more times alongside Horne-Francis now presents, before next month’s National Combine testing and November’s draft.

Featured Image: Jason Horne-Francis in action during this year’s SANFL finals series | Credit: Cory Sutton via SANFL

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