Easy Rider and Raging Bull: The different worlds of Daicos and Horne-Francis

When Nick Daicos and Jason Horne-Francis were drafted last November, it seemed apparent that Daicos would be lumbered with the heavier burden.

His father was a mercurial Collingwood champion and the Magpies had finished 17th – the only team above North. For so many of the black-and-white hordes, there was a desperation for the younger Daicos brother to be a transformational player.

Horne-Francis carried the not-insignificant expectation that follows the No.1 draft pick in the AFL; this burden has afflicted many. Some, such as Jack Watts and Tom Boyd, clearly found this pressure suffocating.

Collingwood’s Nick Daicos and North Melbourne’s Jason Horne-Francis.Credit:AFL Photos

Yet, there was reason to think Horne-Francis would avoid the issues that have plagued the first picked in the national draft. Unlike those besieged key-position forwards Boyd, Paddy McCartin and Jonathon Patton, he would not be asked to play in the most difficult position during his first formative seasons.

But as these clubs enter their mid-season siesta and give their prized youth a timely breather, their contrasting seasons are a demonstration of how some youngsters enjoy a smoother entrance into the game than others – by dint of different environments.

Over the first 13 rounds, it has been Horne-Francis, not Daicos, who has been saddled with an unreasonable expectation. It is Horne-Francis, the stepson of a lesser-known ex-Melbourne, Brisbane, and Port Adelaide player (Fabian Francis), who has carried the hopes of his club, not Collingwood’s son of their former top gun.

Whereas Daicos has played at half-back, where his play-reading and exquisite skills have made the game easier for him, Horne-Francis, a combative bull, has mixed the midfield and forward.

On the most primitive numbers, Daicos has had the better season. He’s averaged 25.4 disposals, with a kicking efficiency of 67 per cent and an AFL rating of 8.1 – high for the first-year player. Horne-Francis has an average of 17.0 disposals in one fewer game (12) and a kicking efficiency of 57.9. His AFL rating is 6.5, which places him 18th at the dismal Kangaroos, compared to Daicos’ 16th among Magpies.

But these numbers don’t consider how much harder footy life has been for the North top pick, who’s been thrown in at the deep end at a club that’s drowning and became the subject of contractual speculation (why won’t he re-sign?) from week one. Whereas Daicos has glided around in defence, alongside experienced campaigners Jeremy Howe, Darcy Moore and Brayden Maynard, Horne-Francis has precious little senior support. In this, his career to date is redolent of Watts or Jack Trengove at Melbourne – early picks who found themselves at a club with scant senior players of quality.

That pair struggled to meet expectations. Watts did not enjoy the infrastructure of senior players that, say, Jack Gunston enjoyed at Adelaide and especially Hawthorn.

Horne-Francis is a superior talent and made of sterner stuff. He has exceptional ability. But North should still be striving to ease the weight on this teenage Atlas, even if it means – as Gerard Healy proposed – plonking him down at half-back.

Collingwood, while in a mini-rebuild, has a large contingent of highly experienced and respected senior players, with strong bodies and sound habits. Scott Pendlebury, Taylor Adams and Jack Crisp know how to play the game, how to prepare and so forth. Pendlebury has already provided guidance to Daicos, who also has a very capable brother, Josh, helping him make the great leap forward.

Ben Cunnington’s illness has deprived Horne-Francis of a serious midfield ally and role model. Jack Ziebell, for all his leadership, simply hasn’t performed at the necessary level. Tarryn Thomas, his team’s other sublime talent, has floundered.

It’s hardly surprising that Horne-Francis, a ferocious footballer with raw aggression, has found himself in verbal and physical confrontations, such as the strike that led to him being suspended for two matches.

Daicos has been “the Easy Rider”, Horne-Francis a “Raging Bull”. Their roles reflect what was evident in their draft seasons: the Collingwood teen was a smooth, highly-skilled footballer who could accumulate possessions and that the South Australian boy was a more robust beast, who wouldn’t count his possessions, but would make them count.

Daicos has averaged just 5.9 contested balls among his 25-plus a game. Craig McRae has resisted the temptation to deploy the light-bodied Daicos 3.0 in the midfield, his position in defence affording him time to develop more body strength and learn the game. It’s a role that utilises his strengths.

Horne-Francis, meanwhile, has had 9.1 contested balls a game and 3.3 tackles (compared to Daicos’ 1.7). He’s played hard.

Nathan Buckley, who knows something about carrying a burden, said on SEN that he could not fathom the pressure that Horne-Francis had endured. And, in case you’d not noticed, he’s at a club where the coach’s job is in peril, and where there are serious issues in the football department.

It’s no wonder he’s not signed a contract yet.

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