JOHNNO: Are taggers just players who aren’t good enough?

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Gary Ablett showed just how valuable he is through the games he didn't play. (Photo: Bradley Kanaris/AFL Media)

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When I asked Fremantle coach Ross Lyon about who would take on Gary Ablett last weekend, we all knew it would be Ryan Crowley.

The two have on-field history, as the league’s premier midfielder and one of its top taggers respectively. Off-field, the Gold Coast captain publicly criticised Crowley last year for his tactics.

Within the first five minutes of Saturday’s match Crowley was sitting in the goal square, trying to dictate terms, while Ablett reversed the antagonist role and got in Crowley’s face early, even giving away a couple of free kicks.

In the end Ablett was too good one on one. He had 21 contested possessions, 28 total, and kicked a trademark goal from 50 on the boundary.

It had me thinking about the role of the tagger: whether sides need them, how fragile their careers are individually, and whether they’ll end up extinct as a group.

You’ll rarely see star players given a tagging role, which leads to the idea that it’s a job for those who aren’t good enough, and won’t cost the team by sacrificing their own games.

But that’s not quite right. Tagging can be a great way to teach a young midfielder where to run, how to win the football, and what’s required at the top level. The same goes for a second-tier player who hasn’t yet stepped up.

One game into my career, I was told I’d be tagging. Over the next few games I was lucky enough to play on Peter Matera, Craig Bradley, Shane Crawford, and Brett Allison.

The coaching advice? “Just do your homework and see how you go.”

It was nerve-wracking, but you need to believe that if you’ve at least got the running ability to stay with such guys, it’s ok for them to beat you in footy smarts a few times.

What was important was that the coach had confidence in me, and that it didn’t matter if my opponents were better initially, as long as I was there competing for every ball and learning along the way.

I watched those tapes back a million times, not for my game but for theirs: how I was exposed at certain times, where they ran to, how many contests they got to. Those players showed me how to model my game.

Then I was released as a wingman in my second year, playing more through the midfield, and all of a sudden I was getting to more contests and understanding the running patterns. It felt good.

As a tagger, it’s crucial that you have another string to your bow. If you’re just tagging week in, week out, you’re only a couple of bad games from being out of the side.

The role has changed accordingly from stopping your opponent while sacrificing your influence, to restricting his influence while contributing your own. The modern tagger still looks to win possessions or get involved in scoring chains.

That’s what Crowley does well, often chipping in with a goal. Geelong’s Taylor Hunt kicked three first-half goals while tagging Marc Murphy a few weeks ago.

Hunt’s former teammate Cameron Ling is a good example of the evolution of a tagger. After not cutting the mustard as a forward, he switched to tagging, and worked purely to negate.

As his skills and confidence grew, he was increasingly likely to get off his opponent, link up with teammates, push forward, and kick goals. He ended up as a crucial clearance player and premiership captain.

If a player can demonstrate these skills, then he can sometimes be released in his own right, which a tagger definitely needs.

Some weeks the coach needs the confidence to say “Ryan Crowley, you’re playing half forward, that’s your role for the day,” then see what he can offer.

It’d take a strong effort to survive a 15-year career tagging every week – it would be mentally exhausting.

With the classic tagger having already turned into a more versatile player, it’s going to be interesting to see if the role survives with the number of bench rotations to be cut in coming seasons.

Will we once more hear the coaches telling their midfielders that this is your direct opponent for the match, it’s you versus him, and we need 18 of the 22 to come out on top?

Will we go back to contests that stay one on one for longer? Midfielders with most of their game time on certain individuals? Will they be judged on those contests, instead of the pile of possessions they rack up?

In that style of game, everyone’s a tagger, and everyone’s an instigator, and everyone’s responsible for his balance sheet at the end of the day.

Six-time All-Australian Brad Johnson is a former Western Bulldogs captain, Team of the Century member, and played a record 364 games for the club. He now commentates for Fox Footy and writes for The Roar.
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