There’s nothing quite like trying to list the best players in a sport. Separating and ranking elite players is among the hardest tasks in any sporting code.
But everyone has to stand by their opinion, and I will do so about my list: the AFL’s top-ten current players.
In compiling the below, I was not interested in history or legendary careers, but simply what impact these players can have on the game in 2012, and where they will stand in the public view at the end of this season.
In effect, this is a combination of prediction and my current views.
Ten – Dustin Martin (Richmond)
In this sort of exercise, you need to put a ‘pluck’ at number ten, and pick someone from left field that you think can take the next step. For me, the diamond in the rough is the Tigers’ ‘Don’t Argue’ Dustin.
Every now and then, a player catapults himself into the upper echelon in his third season. In recent years, we’ve seen Buddy Franklin kick 73 goals in 2007 to finish only four behind Coleman medallist Jonathan Brown. It was his third year.
In 2004 Chris Judd won the Brownlow, also in his third year.
This last comparison is particularly apt if we dig a little deeper. In Judd’s first two seasons, he played 45 games for 749 disposals, 50 goals, and 12 Brownlow votes. Martin’s opening years compare more than favourably, and have seen 43 matches for 911 possessions, 44 goals, and 18 votes in the competition’s best and fairest award.
While Judd had his signature move of bursting from a pack with sizzling pace to kick goals, Martin has shown similar attributes. However, he is more renowned for his ‘don’t argue’, where he pushes a would-be tackler square in the chest, forcing them off balance and often to the ground with his brute force.
In 2011, Dustin ranked fourth in the AFL for ‘run and kick’ metres gained, often breaking from a congested situation with a burst of speed before sending a punishing 60m kick deep inside Richmond’s forward fifty.
Coupled with his ability to kick multiple goals (eleven separate games last season) and taking into account another pre-season of work on speed, fitness and strength, he could well become the unstoppable force in 2012 that Tiger fans pray for.
Nine – Marc Murphy (Carlton)
I’m not sure how many top-ten lists this guy would figure in, but I sense that he sneaks under-the-radar with critics when compiling these lists, much as he does with his opposition. He is perhaps forever destined to live in the shadow of Chris Judd.
It’s continually amazing to see a guy of his talent find so much space on the field. He’s as lethal as anyone in the game when the ball finds him in that space. As an opposition supporter when you play Carlton, and you see him once again on the wing and no-one within 20 metres, your heart sinks.
You know he’s either going run inside fifty and dob the goal himself, or that pretty soon, either Waite, Betts or Walker are going to be lining up for goal.
From his 2006 award as AFLPA’s Best First Year Player, top three finishes in Carlton’s best and fairest from 2008-2011, including his first victory last year, and also receiving player of the year from the coaches last season, Marc Murphy is a player who can do it all.
Already ranking elite for disposals, efficiency, contested possession, clearances, tackles and midfielder goals, at 24 years-old, he can be expected to improve again.
Eight – Dane Swan (Collingwood)
I’m sure there will be some outrage at having the reigning Brownlow medallist this low, but it says something about the top end of Collingwood talent that I don’t even think he’s in the ‘Pies best two players!
While the Titanic had the ‘Unsinkable’ Molly Brown, the AFL has the ‘Unstoppable’ Dane Swan. There is no other way to describe a man who has averaged 30-plus touches a game for each of the last three years, and the numbers only continue to grow.
‘Untaggable’ is another moniker that could precede his name, as coaches long ago gave up trying to quell his influence, especially as he is one of the most heavily rotated midfielders in the league.
One of the more familiar sights in the AFL is the flash of ink and stumpy legs of Dane Swan on one of his searching, gut-busting runs, often winning possession deep in the back half to get the ‘Pies out of trouble, before popping up 15m out from goal unopposed to slot through another before trotting off to the bench, having a sixty second rest, and doing it all over again.
While probably not as classy as other players on this list, and I do lean heavily to class, he’s been the stone-cold certainty as captain of my Dreamteam for years.
The question is – how highly must I rate the seven above him?
Seven – Brendan Goddard (St Kilda)
My abiding memory of 2010 was Brendan Goddard taking what was, for all intents and purposes at the time, a premiership-winning spectacular mark on the shoulders of Harry O’Brien before kicking his second goal to give the Saints a six point lead with ten minutes on the clock.
This in a game where he had 31 disposals all over the ground, and while I could never begrudge Lenny Hayes his Norm Smith medal, Goddard was, in my opinion, the supreme player in the contest by a long way. Fate determined that Goddard’s goal would be equalled at the other end, and premiership glory would not find its way to Moorabin.
I bring up this match from two seasons ago because I believe there are few who are capable of delivering football perfection on the biggest stage, and Goddard did it. I’m equally certain that the drawn grand final was at the heart of Goddard’s, and the Saints, disappointing 2011.
The emotional toll of two heartbreakingly close grand finals without a win was first borne out in the replay that Collingwood bolted in, and was played out in front of our eyes last season as St Kilda consistently played some of the most uninspiring football of the year. Despite making it to the finals again, they were weighed down by mental baggage, and it seemed to affect Goddard more than most, especially early in the year when he was ‘playing angry’.
I’m confident that Goddard will respond under Scott Watters, and be released to once again roam the field to be as dominant as he likes. Be it a contested mark deep in defence to save the Saints from trouble, kicking two or three goals in a quarter up forward, or using his precision passing to find a leading teammate, he will once again dominate whatever position is required.
He was the best player in the league in 2010 for mine, and he’ll be in the top-ten again in 2012.
Stay tuned for players ranked six, five and four