Name: Ryan Burton From: North Adelaide (SA) Number: 5 Games: 5 Goals: 1
On the back of his Round 2 Rising Star Nomination, it's fitting that Ryan Burton is the first to be spotlighted in the 'Hawks Next Generation'.
Burton capped off his 5th appearance for the Hawks with the nomination, after debuting last season in what can only be seen as a bonus for the rookie in 2016. Hawthorn was ecstatic to snap him up in the '15 NAB AFL draft.
“Getting Ryan Burton with our first pick was a little bit of a surprise for us, that Ryan was there at that pick (19),” Graham Wright said.
The reason he was still available at 19 had nothing to do with talent and everything to do with luck. Bad luck for Burton with injuries resulted in good luck for the Hawks. A broken leg suffered playing junior football in 2013, meant the young forward hadn't kicked a ball in anger for over 15 months prior to the draft.
Fast forward to 2016 and his first season as a professional was certainly an odd one. Burton laced the boots up again and starred early for Box Hill in his return to the footy field. By design, the Hawks wanted to get some work into him before he was booked into surgery to finalise his treatment for the broken leg.
That surgery was suppose to mark an end to his season but Burton got back on the track quicker than expected and impressed enough to earn his call up to the senior side in Round 21. He played four games in a row before an injury ended his 2016 season, one game earlier than the rest of the squad.
Wearing the number 35 Jason Dunstall presented him with, Burton quickly impressed. Playing predominately between the arcs, he appeared composed and managed to rack up possessions as a link player through the middle of the ground.
Arguably his most impressive performance in that '16 stretch was the Qualifying Final against Geelong, where he only managed a quarter of football before going down with a severe cork. In that time, though, Burton racked up 6 touches, 2 marks, 1 rebound 50 and 1 inside 50.
He was arguably the best Hawk, if not player, on the entire ground. He once again looked composed on the biggest of stages and on numerous occasions threw himself into packs, and killing contests across half back. It was an impressive display of aggression in the first quarter, particularly because it was in a pack situation that Burton suffered his horrific injury. So horrific that it nearly made his close friends vomit on the field when it occurred.
Despite some hope, Burton didn't get up for the Bulldogs the following week and his season ended a week earlier than the rest of his teammate's.
Fast forward to 2017 and Burton had dropped the 3 and taken on Sam Mitchell's old number 5. High praise for a kid from a coach who makes players earn their numbers rather than have them given right away. He'd also have to earn his season debut, surprisingly left out of the Hawks side for Round 1 but called up in Round 2 versus the Crows.
This is where Burton's versatility was on full display. The undermanned Hawks backline required Burton to matchup on Taylor Walker for large parts of the contest and he acquitted himself very well in the contest. He was able to kill numerous one on one contests and take off as the ball hit the deck. The 26 disposal and 9 mark effort was enough to earn the Rising Star nod, albeit in a losing side.
By the way, the between the arcs game was back too. Burton had 1 rebound 50 plus 2 inside 50's for the game (6 1%s too) and illustrated what is clearly going to be a feature of his game with the brown and gold.
Is the game style sounding a little all too familiar by now?
It's hard to argue against Burton being Grant Birchall 2.0 when you see him out on the ground. The similar build, rangy height to play on bigger forward and sneaky pace coming off half-back are all qualities shared by the two.
The similarities don't stop there though. Burton was born just 3 days after Birchall (of course 9 years apart) and drafted just 5 spots back in the draft (also 9 years apart).
What a young Birchall currently has over Burton in foot skills, Burton could return in defensive prowess. Whilst Birchall was plucked and placed into the Hawks backline to give Clarkson supreme skills rebounding from defense, Burton looks to be placed there for his defensive skills first, and anything else is secondary to that.
All Hawthorn players need to be able to use the ball by hand and foot, but Burton is also able to add great one on one nous and a true want to play on the big boys. Not something Birchall ever really displayed, particularly at 20 years of age.
It remains to be seen if Burton can go as small in a matchup as Birchall has done over the course of his career but he may not have to. Even Birchall himself is spared that task these days with the likes of Stratton, Duryea and even Burgoyne playing on the smaller forwards.
The similarities are certainly there and it's encouraging to see competent understudies emerge as some of the Hawks veterans phase out of the side. Birchall should be around a little longer though.
So whilst Burton may be asked to cover for Birchall while he is out with an injury of his own, it is important he is also given time to carve out his own role within the Hawks side.
"Before the injury, I thought I could have been the best in the draft. Now, I've put on weight, and I’ve soaked up so much information about the game. All I have to do is put it into action. I think I can be the best here."
This is Burton speaking at a draft combine, prior to being drafted. As he notes, prior to the leg injury he was one of the highest rated kids in the country. He was playing SANFL football at 17. Many AFL recruiters noted he had the confidence and game to back it up too.
The 2015 draft was a strong one, with Jacob Weitering going number 1 and other impressive kids such as Clayton Oliver, Darcy Parish and Callum Mills all in the top 10. However, Burton's prophecy cannot be discounted just yet. He can still become the best player from the draft in 10 years time.
What will be important in answering that question, will be how he is allowed to develop with the Hawks. Despite showing a willingness to trust Burton on Tex Walker, it's important Burton isn't thrown into the fire like another South Australian Hawks draftee named Ryan. Ryan Schoenmakers had his confidence (and the fans support) killed early in his career by being asked to do too much, too soon.
If allowed to do so, Ryan Burton could become the type of player Schoenmakers was at the under 18 level, but within the AFL arena. Burton has a unique set of skills and physical attributes, which can see him become one of the game's premier utilities. A roaming midfielder who can be just as damaging on both 50 meter lines, is Burton's destiny.
Imagine a 6'2'' swingman who isn't just thrown to whichever end of the ground his team needs him, but is allowed to float between the arcs. He can kill contests across half back, link up play through the middle and kick handy goals.
That's the Ryan Burton the AFL deserves to see. Hopefully the Hawks don't kill the dream.