Castagna – it’s Italian for Mercuri

If grey is the new black, then Jason Castagna is the new Mark Mercuri. Aaron Lord takes a look at the striking similarities between a talented Tiger and superstar Bomber.

There is a moment of clarity in every player’s career when you come to the realisation you belong in the AFL.

For some, this comes in spectacular fashion on debut or in a Grand Final, for others it can take weeks, months or even years to truly feel at home on the big stage.

Jason Castagna belongs in the AFL. Despite having only eight games to his name since making his debut in 2016, Castagna is quickly finding his feet with the Tigers and fast becoming an integral part of a much improved Richmond outfit in 2017.

And while most people in footy are reluctant to compare promising youngsters to champions of the game, the similarities between Jason Castagna and Mark Mercuri are as striking as they are compelling.

Mark Mercuri was an absolute superstar of the competition – a Rolls Royce in every sense of the word.

His 207 games with Essendon were filled with brilliance and class, with two premierships, a Best and Fairest in a premiership year (2000), multiple All-Australian selections and runner-up in the 1999 Brownlow medal just a subtle reminder of how great a player he was.

Mercuri was the classic AFL ‘utility’. A natural ball winner with sublime disposal, uncanny goal sense and exquisite hands overhead, he could dominate from practically any position and terrorize opposition teams in the process.

In a star-studded Essendon team that dominated the competition for the best part of 1999-2001, Mercuri was in my opinion (and many Essendon insiders will agree) the absolute best of the best – and that includes champion Bomber teammates James Hird, Matthew Lloyd and Dustin Fletcher.

I can still vividly recall Round 1, 1999, the season opener on a Friday night between Carlton and Essendon at the MCG. The Bombers would beat the Blues and Mark Mercuri would be best-on-ground and poll three Brownlow votes.

There is a piece of play in the first quarter that I think best encapsulates the brilliance of Mark Mercuri.

With the ball in dispute on Essendon’s half-forward line, Mercuri gathers the footy, evades multiple Carlton defenders, looks to unselfishly dish off to a teammate before calmly slotting a clutch goal in heavy traffic from 45 metres on the run.

It was classic Mark Mercuri – making a ruthless game look ridiculously easy and having an absolute ball in the process.

Now before I am torn to shreds for putting Jason Castagna in the same conversation as Mark Mercuri, allow me to explain.

Castagna is an eight-game player and only 20-years of age. He is not Mark Mercuri.

The more I watch of Castagna however, the more I feel compelled to highlight the definitive similarities between these two players.

First, there is the physical comparison. Both Castagna and Mercuri are from Italian heritage and very similar in physical stature.

Then there is the way they both play.

Mercuri was quick, agile and incredibly evasive. Castagna is much the same.

Mercuri could win his own footy at the coalface, but then be equally as effective and damaging with his run-and-carry on the outside. Castagna demonstrates very similar traits.

Mercuri was lively, dangerous, energetic and never out of the contest. Castagna plays in a very similar fashion.

Mercuri was incredibly unselfish and renowned for bringing his teammates into the game – a highlight of Castagna’s makeup early in his career.

Mercuri was a brilliant hit up forward who liked to chip the footy around and think his way through any given situation and outsmart the opposition. I see a similar methodology in Jason Castagna.

While Jason Castagna has a long way to go to emulate the career of Mark Mercuri, the early signs are particularly promising.

Away from football, “George” as he is affectionately known is currently studying a Certificate III in Carpentry with a group of his Richmond teammates at the Trade Institute of Victoria (TIV).

Well educated and polite, there is a definitive zest for success underneath his somewhat reserved exterior. He works hard and improves quickly, and I have followed his career with interest since being elevated from the Rookie list in 2016 to make his senior AFL debut.

The most intriguing aspect of the comparison to Mark Mercuri is the relationship both players have with Richmond coach, Damien Hardwick.

Mercuri is a close friend and former teammate of Hardwick’s, the pair winning a premiership together in 2000.

Hardwick now coaches Castagna, and was primarily responsible for his elevation from the rookie list last season and giving him the opportunity at AFL level that others perhaps wouldn’t have.

I wonder if Damian Hardwick sees a similar comparison… 🙂

Author: Aaron Lord

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