Are statistics really telling us who our best AFL player are?

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By , 8 Oct 2012 Bon is a Roar Rookie

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    Was Ryan O'Keefe the best on ground during the 2012 AFL Grand Final? Should we just trust the numbers? (Slattery Images)

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    There is an unfortunately blight on the game AFL and it is one simple word: statistics.

    In an age and time where everything somehow can be qualified, quantified and correlated the emphasis to base everything in our great game around statistics is going too far.

    I love the game, I am a purist and after following the game from a young age and playing for the past 10 years I appreciate the level of skill and just how hard it is to execute and perform at a professional level.

    I am in awe of players who can shake a tag, pick up 40 touches and manage to kick a goal or two along the way but the game has now become so frustrating to watch when this is all we focus on and in particular when all medals, awards and accolades now seem to be going to players who top the possession count.

    Last week I watched Sydney Swans champion Ryan O’Keefe collect the North Smith Medal for Best on Ground in the 2012 AFL Grand Final.

    Now being a passionate Swans supporter I was just happy to see a Swans player finally win a Norm Smith (don’t get me started on the 2005 Grand Final North Smith disgrace) and whilst it is clear the O’Keefe had a big day you have to question, does being on top of the possession count automatically mean you have had a good game?

    If Ted Richards picked up 15 odd possessions and kept Lance Franklin goalless, would he have been awarded the Norm Smith Medal? Probably not. Should he? Simply, yes.

    It seems too often everyone is so keen to see who topped the possession, tackle, disposal count and award accolades accordingly (remember the outrage when Gary Ablett didn’t win the 2008 Norm Smith) but have we all forgotten that each player has a job do every time they go out on the field and if they do that successfully then why are they not acknowledged as much as a bloke who picks up 40 touches.

    Daniel Hannebery can consider himself incredibly unlucky not to pick up the Norm Smith Medal. Whilst he may not have had as many touches or tackles as O’Keefe, I don’t think there was another player on the field who was in the right place when they needed to be or picked up a possession or took a mark at the exact time their team needed it.

    His mark running back with the flight of the ball exemplified this but unfortunately courage, determination and leadership can be statistically defined.

    I dare say that a player, like Hanneberry, who may have picked up 10 less possessions that O’Keefe is more valuable and performs better simply because he did his job and stood up when he needed to.

    We will often see players lay shepards, make fake leads and simply drop back into vacant parts of the field simply to help their team mates yet we never see this rewarded when it matters.

    For the past few years the Brownlow Medal has constantly been referred to as the “Midfielders Medal” with some members of the media even calling for separate awards for the different positions on the field.

    Whilst a ridiculous proposition, it appears each year that this is truer and truer with players who have statistically been best on ground going on to poll three votes each game.

    Whilst Dane Swan’s and Gary Ablett’s Brownlow Medals are thoroughly deserved you have to question whether their 30-40 disposals a week (many probably ineffective or earned by running off the ruckman or teammate) are more important the other midfielder who managed to keep their direct opponent to minimal possessions or the half back flanker who’s five clearances from the back 50 directly resulted in five goals.

    Every player has a different role to play on the ground and we need to start acknowledging the backman who shuts down his opponent or the forward who manages to make the most of his opportunities rather than just looking north on the possession count table.

    My favorite medal of the year is the ANZAC Medal not only because of the game and what is represents but because it is awarded to the player who shows and plays with the ANZAC spirit.

    It’s not for the player who gets a cheap handball from a stoppage or free kick, nor for the player who gets 30 ineffective disposals.

    It’s an award for the player who runs back with the flight of the ball, the player who runs 100m to get to a contest, the player who manages to keep one of the games most damaging players quiet, it’s the player who gets himself in the right place at the right time and does what his team needs exactly when it is needed and while he may not top the disposal count each of his disposals may be worth double than that of the bloke who did.

    If only all awards were based on this criteria, Daniel Hanneberry (and a lot of other footballers over the past 5-10 years) may have a few different medals hanging on display at home.

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