Ryan Buckland: The numbers that place Jack Darling alongside the decade’s greatest forwards
The most effective way to sum up the first 249 games of Jack Darling’s AFL career is to boil it down to a single number: 467.
That is the number of goals kicked by Jack Darling across the 249 games of his career to date.
There are plenty of ways we can look at this number to tell the story of Darling and the significance of his body of work at an AFL footballer.
For example, did you know that 467 goals would place Darling as the seventh-leading goalkicker in the AFL over the period of time he’s been in the league?
It’s true. Of the 1,637 players who’ve played at least one game over that time Darling has kicked the seventh-most goals.
He’s done this despite sharing a forward line with Josh Kennedy, who is third on the list with 619 goals.
There are no other single club pairings that come close to the duo’s 1,086 majors; Luke Breust and Jack Guston at Hawthorn have kicked 878 goals as a pair over this time.
Kennedy-Darling has clearly been one of the most potent key forward pairings of this era of the league.
What’s more they have both been beneficial to the other. In games where Darling has missed and Kennedy has played, Kennedy has kicked an average of 0.9 goals per game compared to 2.8 goals per game when he’s played.
Similarly Darling’s goals per game is 1.4 without Kennedy, and 1.9 with him.
Admittedly there’s only been 59 games where one has played and the other has missed, but it’s a large enough pool of games to suggest there’s something special in the relationship.
Indeed, there has only been three West Coast Eagles games played since Darling’s debut where neither Kennedy or Darling have played, ironically all in the 2018 premiership season.
It is something Eagles fans, and the rest of the league, will have to adjust to come 2023 if Josh Kennedy does finish up in eight games time. Darling has perennially lived as the second banana to the potential Hall of Famer Kennedy, but will spend a large part of the rest of his career as No.1.
On the current trajectory we should reasonably expect Darling to play well north of 350 games.
The reliable key forward has only missed 19 games in his career, and has only had two seasons — 2015 and 2018 — where he’s missed more than a couple of games.
The first half of Darling’s 2018 season showed what a threat he could be when in full flight.
Through the first nine games of the season kicked 28 goals and was a sure-thing to make his first All-Australian team (he made it the year after).
Darling was running the arcs, taking marks and kicking goals in a volume he’d not done before. An ankle injury bought him back down, and he’s never quite ascended to that same height since.
Darling’s career goals per game is a very solid 1.87, which puts him a rung below the best key forwards of the era (Kennedy, Tom Hawkins, Jeremy Cameron and Jack Riewoldt are all over 2.5 goals per game; Lance Franklin is over 3.0). As the forward line is turned over to him, we would expect that rate to lift.
Unfortunately for Darling and the Eagles, this isn’t Han Solo winning the keys to the Millennium Falcon from Lando Calrissian.
The club is in for a challenging year or two ahead as it rebuilds its list, even if this column has pointed out there’s a fair bit of talent still available to West Coast.
Darling is contracted through to the end of 2025, meaning at least another 60 games which will put him above the 300 if he sees it through.
On his career goals per game trajectory, plus a little bump due to the retirement of Kennedy, Darling would be a near-sure thing to join the top 50 VFL/AFL goalkickers of all time with at least 550 majors.
How Darling’s game evolves with the club and his age will be of great interest in the years ahead. Darling has never been an enormous exponent of big contested pack marks, preferring like Kennedy to do his work one on one and on the lead. His on-the-ground athleticism has been a strong suite too.
I will never get tired of Darling’s signature move: the ninja-style forward roll when he’s tackled over the boundary line that sees him spring up to his feet to jog back to his mark like nothing has happened. Draft diaries suggest Darling’s athleticism has been with him all his life — he was a junior State champion runner in short and middle distance disciplines.
That fitness and athleticism has become a hidden calling card in recent years. With the AFL’s clamp down on the interchange cap coming into effect, Darling has found himself playing well in excess of 95 per cent of game time most every round of the season. In 2021 he recorded 100 per cent time on ground in 10 of 22 games, and he’s done so for the past month straight.
In the future we can expect Darling to play more of the traditional full forward role Kennedy has made his own through his career, with Oscar Allen becoming the more rangey half forward type. A potential Luke Jackson acquisition would give the Eagles a deep, athletic and skilled tall forward group to rival any other in the league.
No matter the specifics, it is clear from his career to date and the investment the club has made in him that Jack Darling is one of the most significant figures of the modern West Coast Eagles. A premiership, an All Australian blazer, 250 games and 467 goals.
His career has flown well under the radar of both local and national commentators.
There are few key forward who have had the career he’s put together to date, and fewer still who’ve been able to do so as the number two option every time out.
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