Who is AFL coach of the year for 2012?
Hawthorn's coach Alastair Clarkson (Slattery Images)
The best coach of the 2012 AFL season? Clearly, there are only two candidates. The All-Australian selection panel will bestow the honour upon the coach of the premiership team.
Should Hawthorn do what is expected and win the AFL Grand Final – adding the Premiership cup to the McClelland Trophy they’ve already won – then Alastair Clarkson will be presented with his second All-Australian title.
It’s difficult to argue with that.
There is a perception that Clarkson’s success is due more to the cattle at his disposal – thoroughbreds are a more apt metaphor for a team that plays such a beautiful game – than his ability as a coach.
The recent recruitment of experienced stars Shaun Burgoyne, Josh Gibson, David Hale and a homesick Jack Gunston from Adelaide, has strengthed that perception.
But Clarkson won when it counted in 2008 defeating the pre-eminent Geelong in the Grand Final.
He did it with a little good fortune and through the sheer class of some individual players but it was also a result of inventiveness (‘the cluster’), supreme confidence and the love of a good contest.
He still retains the latter quality, predicting yesterday that the Qualifying Final against Collingwood would be an “absolute cracker”.
He replicated the achievements of Ron Barassi, Kevin Sheedy and Leigh Matthews by taking a poorly performing team to a premiership in four years.
His side lost its way over the following two years as the forward press was unveiled by Ross Lyon closely followed by Mick Malthouse’s version.
By retaining his stars, recruiting judiciously and developing the young players, Clarkson – in his eighth season – has his most potent line up ever.
Just as importantly he has brought the long kick – of which most of his players are wonderful exponents – back to the game which is crucial in bypassing the ugly mass skirmishes that the more defensively minded coaches generate, and increasing the likelihood of one-on-one marking duels which his many talented forwards relish.
Sanderson will most likely be judged coach of the year by his peers. It’s also difficult to argue with that.
The AFL Coaches Association bases its award on the home and away season and its key criterion is a team’s improvement from one season to the next.
Last year’s winner John Worsfold took West Coast from the bottom of the ladder to fourth. Sanderson, in his first year, has done almost as well, pushing a previously insipid outfit from fourteenth to second position.
Detracting somewhat from the achievement was the fact that Adelaide were the only team given the privilege of playing the debuting GWS and the two worst performing teams of 2011, Port Adelaide and the Gold Coast, twice.
Still, the transformation of the Crows under Sanderson has been outstanding.
Sanderson, who resembles a Christian youth worker, was a strong mentor during his time as assistant coach at Geelong.
He has used that strength to get the best out of his young talented squad. He has also utilised the experience of veterans like Scott Thompson and found an important role for mature age recruit Ian Callinan.
Sanderson’s main emphasis was simple and unoriginal: increase body strength and win the contested ball. But it paid off.
Last year the Crows were the third worst team for contested possessions. This year they usurped Collingwood as number one.
Mark Neeld, Brendan McCartney and James Hird also made contested possession a focus but they finished 16th, 15th and 11th respectively.
It’s important to note that only three games separate first position and eighth. Special mention should go to all the coaches in the finals.
A few, namely John Longmire, Nathan Buckley and Chris Scott, have been living in the shadow of their illustrious predecessors.
Longmire has added attacking flair to the previously dour Swans and surprisingly held top position for some time.
They only relinquished it in the second last game when they lost narrowly to Hawthorn. Recent losses to Collingwood and Geelong, however, have placed doubt on their ability to win big matches.
Nathan Buckley, with his ex-boss Mick Malthouse scrutinising him from the commentary box, suffered early heavy losses to Hawthorn and Carlton but recovered to win ten in a row.
For most of the season they were viewed as the second-best side behind the Hawks.
However, the retirement of ‘Mr Fix-It’ Leigh Brown, and the seeming inability of Buckley to counter the poor form of Cloke and Dawes and a drop in defensive pressure and contested possession have seen Collingwood fall out of favour.
Last year Chris Scott famously won a premiership by reinvigorated a squad that looked past it.
At times this year it seemed the inevitable slide was taking place but recent victories against finals contenders and the undisputed coming of age of Tom Hawkins have proven they can still beat anyone.
Also, for Brad Scott to get the unfancied Kangaroos into the finals after a poor start to the season was a remarkable effort.
The AFLCA would rate Ross Lyon’s performance highly on account of Fremantle moving up four places to seventh position.
Lyon’s famed emphasis on forward defensive pressure began to take ominous effect during the latter half of the season.
Fremantle will be hoping that Lyon’s hard-edged discipline and defensive strategies will lead them to a grand final, as they did for St Kilda.
Hawthorn are clearly the most exciting team to watch. For me, that makes Clarkson the coach of the year.
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