Corey similarities: Luke Jackson reminds me of my premiership teammate

Every now and then, a player comes along and commands your attention.

When it comes to ruckmen, such a player is rare.

As a premiership skipper and a five-time All-Australian (including the captaincy last year), Max Gawn has already proved his credentials. With five goals in the preliminary final against Geelong, he showed just how quickly he can take a game away from you.

That has been an evolution for Gawn, who had been your more traditional ruckman, standing in the hole and taking a mark behind the footy. He’s very different to that other No.11 in Jim Stynes, who played more like a midfielder.

Now, the Demons have another version again.

Luke Jackson has an athleticism – different to both Gawn and Stynes – that not only allows him to follow up in the contest, but also become a key position presence. He’s proactive and seems to have a toughness that will hold him in good stead throughout his career.

I’ve never been one for comparisons, but I can’t help but see a whole lot of similarities between Jackson and one of my former premiership teammates, Corey McKernan.

Corey McKernan was a ruck star for North Melbourne and could perform all over the ground.Credit:Ken Irwin

Corey doesn’t get the credit he deserves, despite just about revolutionising the role of the ruckman, with his ability to complement that at either end of the ground, whether centre half-forward, centre half-back or even a wing.

I haven’t seen anyone with those abilities since, at least until now.

Corey could cover the ground, had an incredible leap and a level of power that made him so tough to match up on. Your old-fashioned lumbering ruckman wasn’t nimble enough and most others weren’t big or powerful enough.

Like Jackson, he burst onto the scene.

In his first full year, 1994, McKernan would have won the Rising Star if not for suspension, after polling the most votes in a crop that boasted names such as eventual winner Chris Scott, Chris Johnson, Sean Wellman, Drew Banfield and plenty of others.

He was suspended for tripping by hand – cruelly, the rules were changed a year later.

After playing more as a forward in that season, McKernan took over the ruck duties in 1995 and finished third in our best and fairest.

By 1996, as a 22-year-old, he was a premiership hero, All-Australian, AFL MVP and should have been a Brownlow medallist in a three way-tie with James Hird and Michael Voss – again, if not for suspension.

The knee on John Barnes that he got a week for was particularly soft.

Despite barely touching the footy in the first quarter, Corey had about 30 disposals in the grand final that year after being asked to play an unfamiliar role, a kick behind the play.

And let’s not forget, this was not an era where you could accumulate possessions like they do now.

From a contract perspective, Corey was unique in that he met every trigger from a young age, allowing him to renegotiate his contract after each of those first few seasons. He was rewarded every year for his improvement, and it was probably a more grounded way of earning decent money. It wasn’t big money on potential, it was on performance.

By 26, he’d played in 20 finals, seven preliminary finals and three grand finals, which included a second flag in 1999. Jackson, on his current trajectory, can follow the same path.

His grand final last year – 13 disposals, 16 hitouts and a goal – might not jump off the page in terms of pure numbers, but his influence was significant.

Like Corey at 197 centimetres, he’s not a giant in modern ruck terms at 199 centimetres. But Jackson rucked in many of those crucial centre bounces late in the third quarter, as Melbourne wrestled back control and exploded.

He kicked 16 goals total last year. Now after three goals in two games to start 2022, it looks like he could be about to elevate that part of his game as well. I’ve got no doubt he’ll kick three or four goals in a game quite a few times this year. Like McKernan, you get the sense he’s not there to rest. He believes he’s the key forward.

Demons young gun Luke Jackson.Credit:Getty Images

It begs the question about what Jackson is worth, given this is his first contract year since being drafted. Ultimately, he’s worth what someone will pay him and as a Western Australia native with bags of potential, that might be plenty.

But the talk this week of $1 million a season is premature for a few reasons.

No one is going to turn down a bumper deal, but we’ve seen in the past with a price tag comes pressure. Could he sign a shorter-term deal, before setting himself up for a bigger longer-term deal in his mid-20s? Or like Corey, could his contract include a number of performance-based triggers – All-Australians, top-five in the best and fairest and so on – that could get him decent money, regardless?

Jackson won’t get a better opportunity to win premierships than what’s in front of him right now. This is a team set up for success. After recruiting Steven May and Jake Lever, the Demons have also committed significant money to Christian Petracca and Max Gawn and will need an improved deal for Clayton Oliver at the end of next season.

Jackson deserves his cut, but not at the expense of group success.

There’s no doubt those stars, and the way Melbourne play, are making Jackson better. The Demons have tended to favour a faster, longer kicking style that suits those big guys.

Sometimes it’s easier to stand out in a struggling team, but, at the same time, I think greatness is more attainable with greatness around you – think the recent Hawthorn and Geelong sides. Having better teammates is inspiring and when Jackson looks across at Max Gawn during every ruck drill at training, I have no doubt it’s only going to spur him to greater heights.

With the right advice, Jackson will weigh up all of those factors before making his decision.

In the meantime, we’ll continue to enjoy the ride with him. And my old mate Corey McKernan might be watching even more keenly than most.

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