The new AFL season approaches. It’s a time for most to get excited.
Only two years ago, decorated full forward Matthew Lloyd was proclaiming the changing game was leaving Nick Riewoldt behind.
Forward lines were becoming congested, explained Lloyd, and this was suiting the power forwards like Cloke, rather than forwards like Riewoldt who needed space.
That was a debatable assertion in 2012. In 2014, it is clearly not true.
In fact, the centre half forward position in 2014 seems to be a more roaming position than ever before, and is still finding plenty of space.
As roaming requirements grow, Riewoldt has in fact become even more the prototype centre half forward than he was in his grand final years of 2009-2010.
Because so many teams are using a ‘numbers behind the ball then sligshot’ approach, a backman often gets the ball and finds his wings and midfielders are running beside him rather than providing a target upfield.
In this situation, Riewoldt is required to work up the ground to be a long kicking target.
And if the backmen instead choose to switch play to the other side of the ground, Riewoldt is then required to present a target on the wing or half forward flank on the other side of the ground. That’s a lot of running.
Ageing players like Johnathon Brown and James Podsiadly are finding themselves unable to play this role, but it’s right up Riewoldt’s alley.
Opposition sides a few years ago were successfully able to double-team Riewoldt when he was playing across half forward, but this has become a lot more difficult now that Riewoldt is covering a wider area.
But there’s a centre half forward that’s covering an even wider area – Justin Westhoff. Watching him play against the Crows last weekend, we were left wondering whether we were seeing something new in football. Westhoff was roaming from centre half forward to the full back line.
Westhoff has snuck up on the football world. Up until 2013, he would drift in and out of games, shifting from second to third gear but never really finding a fourth gear. Last year, either the game changed or Westhoff changed. Something changed. He was hitting packs and tackling with more ferocity. He was even chasing with ferocity.
For a big bloke, Westhoff has the same great speed and agility that Riewoldt has. And this year, he has the engine that Riewoldt has. Courtesy of Port Adelaide’s current glut of tall forwards, he even has something that Riewoldt doesn’t have: a licence to run anywhere.
There is another player with the same special athletic abilities as Riewoldt and Westhoff. His name is Buddy Franklin.
By committing himself to the small SCG for the rest of his career, Buddy has unwittingly reduced his chances of finding the same amount of space that Riewoldt and Westhoff are finding. He and his coach would do well to learn from the wide-roaming role being performed so well by Riewoldt and Westhoff, so Buddy can at least play this role in the away games.
The modern ‘numbers behind the ball then sligshot’ approach produces a tough, tight slog at one end of the ground. But at least it leaves a lot of space elsewhere for us to watch Westhoff, Riewoldt, and maybe Buddy.