Shai Bolton Is One of The Best Players in the AFL

There aren’t too many better players in the AFL than Richmond’s Shai Bolton.

It’s unlikely that the casual AFL fan would have him in their top 40, let alone the elite handful, but the 23-year-old’s influence on games of football is demanding of greater attention and praise.

Shai Bolton is skilled, classy, and he has a bit of a swagger. He shows the ball to the opposition before kicking a goal and he misses 5 shots on goal in a game. He’s a human highlight reel and one of the most important players at the Richmond Tigers.

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Stats Insider's 2022 Richmond Predictions

Stage of AFL 2022 SeasonProbabilityOdds via Neds
To win the Premiership
To make the Grand Final
To finish in the top four
To finish in the top eight

RELATED: AFL 2022 Premiership Probabilities

Shai Bolton the Forward

Bolton has already breezed past some of his previous season-highs in just 15 games in 2022 and has looked extremely good doing it.

Shai Bolton has kicked 28 goals and 24 behinds in 2022, already passing his 23-goal tally of last season, while his average of 1.4 marks inside 50 is comfortably in the elite category for small forwards, let alone a player that isn’t handcuffed to a role inside the arc.

Prior to this season, Bolton had played 62 games and never finished with 5 successful (goal or behind) scoring shots in a single match. In 2022, he has achieved this feat on 5 occasions.

His average of 4.3 shots on goal a game exceeds his career-best by more than 50 percent, while Bolton's average of 7.5 score involvements per game is ranked 8th in the AFL.

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Consider the way Richmond want to play – they move the ball with pace and look to cut the opposition up with angled kicks. They use speed to create space behind their opponents that have been dragged out of position and long-raking kicks to capitalise on this dangerous combination.

While he’s not the most efficient ball user, Bolton is one of the biggest kicks in the entire AFL and can hit targets from anywhere on the field, while he hits the scoreboard from anywhere within 60 metres.

Shai Bolton also leads the Tigers for goal assists, score involvements, shots on goal and is rated elite in the competition for contested marks and marks on the lead. Not bad for a player standing at just 175 centimetres tall.

He has only gone goalless twice in 2022 – he kicked 0.5 in Richmond's win over Port Adelaide, while he was completely scoreless in the Tigers' shock loss to Adelaide, but had 23 disposals and 10 clearances.

Shai Bolton the Midfielder

This is where the argument gets really compelling if you want to commit to a narrative in which Bolton is one of the best players in the AFL.

Coach Damien Hardwick chooses his moments to play his West Australian star in the midfield. Mostly, it’s about a 65-35 split between forward and midfield, with the bursts in the centre used to fire up the team.

Bolton is a complete game-changer with his innate ability to win the ball with a level of skill and cleanliness that is almost unmatched.

He is ranked 4th at Richmond for clearances per game and 3rd for centre clearances. The big move for Hardwick is to throw Bolton into the centre bounce, then let him run forward

60.38 percent of the sixth-year Tiger’s clearances are won in the centre bounce – the only players in the league with a higher ratio than that are Dylan Shiel and Patrick Dangerfield, neither of whom come close to having the offensive influence that Bolton has with his touches.

RELATED: Richmond's 2022 Run Home

He’s very much an impact player rather than posting huge numbers consistently, although perhaps that’s because his midfield time is relatively restricted.

The 2022 AFL season has seen Bolton post career-highs for disposals, tackles and clearances in individual games, showing strong steps forward in output.

Albeit against the heavily-depleted West Coast Eagles in Round 7, Bolton was ludicrously good, finishing with 30 disposals, 8 marks, 7 clearances, 7 inside 50s, 719 metres gained, 3 goals and 15 score involvements.

We first saw him in the midfield for a three-week stretch in 2019, which became a more permanent role in 2020 but with shortened game-time and as a 21-year-old trying to improve his fitness, his influence was mellowed.

2021 proved though that with more midfield time, Bolton can post good numbers. He had at least 20 disposals in 10 of his first 11 games, kicking a goal in all but one of those matches.

This season, Bolton's midfield time been used more sparingly and he’s only had more than 20 disposals on five occasions, but when he stands in the centre square or at a stoppage situation outside the forward 50, it’s clear who Richmond’s best player is.

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Shai Bolton the Complete Footballer

As a pure small forward, Bolton would have to be in the top two or three in the league. His reading of the play is superb, his marking is immaculate and his skill level at ground level is incredible to watch and sets up teammates without even having to take possession of the ball.

As a pure midfielder, Bolton is one of the most exciting clearance players in the AFL and is a supreme piece of a counter-attacking game style when the ball is in transition.

Combine Bolton's forward and midfield play together and you have a superstar of the competition.

Because the Richmond star makes the game look so easy, it goes unnoticed just how hard at the ball he is – his contested possession rate of 52.6 percent is deemed elite once again, and his 9.4 contested possessions per game are a clear career-high.

Bolton's tackling numbers have dropped to two per game, but his tackles inside 50 have remained consistent. As he has stayed far closer to goal this season, the opportunities to hunt the opposition have been a little more restricted.

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More than anything though, Richmond needed a boost in 2022 after a disappointing 2021.

Their average of 79.23 points per game had them ranked 11th, while they ranked stone-cold last for clearances and just 13th for centre clearances.

In 2022, Richmond is averaging 96.73 points per game, ranked 2nd, and despite the lowly rank of 16th for clearances, quite incredibly, the Tigers are ranked 2nd for centre clearances.

Possessing a player the quality of Shai Bolton is of course beneficial to any playing group, but maximising his traits to benefit your team is an example of the art form of teamwork and cooperation that only comes from the best environments.

Perhaps in the next season or two we will see a more even split between midfield and forward time for Bolton but even then, it would take a mammoth effort to stop him from averaging at least a goal a game.

For years, Richmond fans have been lucky enough to support Dustin Martin, who will go down as an all-time great of the game.

In Shai Bolton, they have another player who has entered the upper echelon of the AFL who possesses similar traits to the veteran and has barely scratched the surface of what he’s capable of.

MORE: Gold Coast vs Richmond Round 17 AFL Predictions

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(Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

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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