Delving Deep Into Luke Dunstan's Devilish Decision

It seemed a strange move when former Saint Luke Dunstan signed a two-year deal with Melbourne as a free agent.

Indeed, a fringe player at a bottom-10 club joining the reigning premiers when there was more guaranteed game-time elsewhere seems questionable on paper, however the allure of a successful environment is captivating.

The 26-year-old has 116 games under his belt, which means fans know what to expect of him.

It’s important to address the oft-spoken comparison between Luke Dunstan and Jarryd Lyons that surrounded the new Demon throughout 2021 and particularly, upon his signing elsewhere.

Dunstan and Lyons are both clearance players with identical body types who have made big career moves in the second half of their AFL journeys.

Both Adelaide and Gold Coast overlooked Lyons as a key member of their respective midfields, whereas the Lions took full advantage of the strengths he possessed, enabling him to thrive in a more comfortable environment.

Dunstan, a former first-round pick, has long held fringe status at the Saints who grew extremely tired of his deficiencies. 

St Kilda gave their former player plenty of time, but he never added more strings to his bow, whereas Lyons is simply better and a more decisive ball-winner, fully understanding what he's capable of.

And this is why the popular comparison between the two isn’t overly applicable at this very moment, before Dunstan has started at the Demons.

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Where St Kilda’s opinions were driven by their player’s weaknesses, Chris Faganand the Lions identified Lyons’ strengths in a positive approach.

Subsequently, the 29-year-old Lion has posted a contested possession rate of around 50% yearly, proving to be one of the competition’s elite clearance players, pressure act players and elite for marks, score involvements, metres gained and ground ball gets.

Dunstan’s detractors know that his numbers are impressive, but worse than Lyons in all these areas. His kicking efficiency is rated as poor and he actually wins more of his ball in an uncontested manner, which is devastatingly costly at times.

Both these players aren’t good kicks statistically, but the difference is that Lyons’ increased fitness base and ability to send the ball forward and get it into dangerous areas matches his team’s kick-first strategy. He's often under pressure when he needs to kick, whereas Dunstan is more aimless and has more time.

Now, we again ask why Dunstan picked Melbourne, and why the Demons wanted the unrestricted free agent.

First, it’s logical that the player himself preferred to fight for a spot in a successful team, rather than start as a guaranteed best 22 player in a lesser team and risk losing his position if he doesn’t impress. 

It’s a pessimistic frame of mind on one hand, but a reality that has faced Dunstan over the past few seasons.

Perhaps a little more logical is that in a middling environment, like a Gold Coast, there isn’t a heap of room for Dunstan to improve.

In 2021, he played 12 games and averaged 25.2 disposals 5.8 clearances, 5 inside 50s, 4.9 tackles and 4.5 score involvements. He polled 11 Brownlow votes, so eye-catching was his prolific style of play.

These were career-best numbers, but the influence he had was inconsequential. At a club not seeking any improvement from his inclusion, he’d simply produce similar numbers and face the same criticisms.

No, signing at Melbourne is the best similarity that exists between Luke Dunstan and Jarryd Lyons.

Even though the latter joined Brisbane in the same season of their meteoric rise, his move into such a positive, hunger-driven environment turned Lyons into a genuinely damaging player. 

He was cautious in suggesting his own delisting from the Suns, but showcased courage and a desire to learn and improve under strong coaching staff.

Surrounded by quality like Lachie Neale and Dayne Zorko, we saw Lyons’ numbers increase considerably, his turnover numbers reduce and his offensive output become a key part of his game.

Immediately, he averaged more marks, tackles, inside 50s, metres gained and score involvements and even polled Brownlow votes in 2021, a true success story after his time at the Suns.

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Dunstan enters an environment that has proven to be the league’s most successful and on the verge of becoming something very special.

Rather than waltz into a bad team, this simple signature has already indicated a desire to improve and change that we haven’t seen in the last eight years.

Melbourne was the league’s best pressure team, led the competition in contested possessions and metres gained, third in disposals and ranked fourth for clearances. They also ranked third for turnovers which ultimately indicated the efficiency of their pressure.

The Demons were also the fittest team in the league and with the likes of Clayton Oliver, Jack Viney and Christian Petracca adopting an approach that valued defensive-running, it was ultimately “game over” for the rest of the league.

Yet, there’s always room for improvement, and clearly, Dunstan has been identified as an excellent depth option that can be moulded into something more.

The South Australian is likely in the best 26 of Melbourne straight away, but the club is hardly going to cater for any passengers in defensive transition just to improve their clearance numbers.

Much like Lyons in 2019, Dunstan faces the most important pre-season of his career having chosen to bet on himself at a good club under a strong learning tree, instead of an easier paycheque elsewhere.

If successful, the perception of the eight-year veteran will change in an identical manner to his Brisbane counterpart, who was seen as a poor runner and not damaging.

Right now, the comparison between the two lacks nuance. By the end of 2022, Dunstan’s at least given himself a chance to earn being mentioned in the same sentence as Jarryd Lyons.

It’s a harmless, risk-free pick-up for the Demons. It’s an improvement on Nathan Jones and Aaron VandenBerg, albeit not as a direct replacement for them, his strengths are a much better fit for the Demons while his kicking woes can be better covered by the pressure applied.

Unlike the Saints and very much like Brisbane, the club is looking at the 26-year-old’s strengths, rather than focusing on his weaknesses.

If it doesn’t work out, then Dunstan will simply be an outstanding VFL contributor.

It’s a bold move from both parties, but one that can be mutually beneficial with the way things are run at the Demons.

Luke Dunstan has been a popular whipping boy for a number of seasons.

Much like Melbourne, it’s time he’s given a chance to prove his detractors wrong.

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Dem Panopoulos

Dem is a lover of sport with a keen eye for analytics. A passion for statistics that defies logic given his MyCricket numbers, you can see and hear him share his thoughts and views on Twitter @dempanopoulos

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