Disclaimer: I’m a West Coast Eagles fan, so figure that into your assessments when considering my objectivity. However, for the purposes of this prediction, I’m calling that the Eagles will be the best performed of all the expansion teams.
Talk about hot and cold. Two weeks ago, we were finally treated to big Trav Cloke and Jack Hawkins each taking a quarter of football by the scruff of the neck, against North Melbourne and Hawthorn respectively.
We gasped as they pushed their opponents around like wheelie bins, marking anything kicked near them.
Last weekend, they were back to being quieter than James Hird in France.
While Cloke and Hawkins ride their roller coaster, many fans are glorifying the days of real full forwards: Tony Lockett, Jason Dunstall and Gary Ablett Snr. What’s happening with our modern day full forwards, and should we be happy about it?
At no time in the past 40 years have full forwards been so up and down. Think of Jack Riewoldt, Travis Cloke, Jack Hawkins, Jarrad Waite, Jeremy Cameron, Josh Kennedy. They all kick a bag one week then go missing the next. It’s been such a consistent pattern of inconsistency that Waite, Cloke and Riewoldt in particular have become famous for leaving their fans in convulsions: convulsions of awe one week, and exasperation the next.
Not surprisingly, the inconsistency of modern full forwards is reflected in lower individual goal-kicking stats. Of the AFL’s all-time top 30 goal kickers, only four have played in the past five years. These were Bary Hall, Brendan Fevola, Matthew Richardson and Matthew Lloyd, and these all averaged under 3.5 goals per game. The most recent of the top goal kickers to average over four goals a game was Tony Lockett, who finished playing more than 11 years ago.
In the golden era of full forwards, from 1983 to 1998, the Coleman medalist passed 100 goals a season on all but three occasions, whereas in the 15 years since 1998, only one Coleman medalist has passed 100 goals a season. This is despite the number of actual home-and-away games per season growing from 22 to 23 in recent years.
So why can’t our full forwards nowadays emulate Lockett, Dunstall and Ablett Snr?
One of the challenges is the increasing use of a loose man in defence. The game has always had defenders like Josh Gibson and Nick Maxwell, who are expert at peeling off their man to help ‘double-team’ the full forward, but what’s new is that running players like James Bartel and Jarryd McVeigh are now often tasked with playing loose man in defence, where they not only set up deadly rebounds but also drop into the space in front of the opposing full forward.
It’s becoming harder for full forwards to lead into space inside 50 metres, and if the game is played around the boundary line, ball movement is slower and it’s almost impossible for full forwards to lead into space inside 50 metres. There’s always an opposition player in front of them.
‘Boundary line football’ is another challenge faced by modern full forwards. This approach, introduced by Paul Roos at Sydney and later fine-tuned by Mick Malthouse and Ross Lyon, is an effective way of combating teams with skilled rebounding defenders. If the Hawthorn or Geelong defence, for example, force a turn-over at centre half back, they can set up a deadly counter attack through any part of the ground, but if they only force a turn-over near the boundary line, their options for counter attack are far more limited.
‘Boundary line football’ is great for nullifying skilled rebounding defenders, but delivery to the full forward via the boundary line is horribly predictable, and the slowness means the space is usually congested. If the full forward is lucky enough to mark the ball under such pressure, he’s usually on a tough angle.
A third reason why modern full forwards often struggle to kick goals is the phenomenon of ‘pushing up the ground’. With the wings and midfielders frequently pushing up to the half back line to ‘lock the ball in’, the half forward line is obliged to push up to the centre line and the full forward is obliged to push up to the half forward line. Modern full forwards like Hawkins and Waite are getting more of their possessions across the half forward line than ever before. This means they’re looking to short pass more than ever before, and if they go for long range shots, there’s a greater risk of inaccuracy or not making the distance.
The final reason why modern full forwards often struggle to kick goals is because some can’t kick straight. 20 years ago, players like Waite, Cloke and Franklin would not have lasted even half a season at full forward because inaccurate full forwards weren’t tolerated. They would have to play upfield, like Richo did for most of his career, or get dropped to the twos. Nowadays, if a player can’t kick straight but can still do other things well, he can still get a gig at full forward.
Stats suggest goal-kicking inconsistency by full forwards is only a minor problem, as long as the full forward can still perform other roles.
Of the top eight teams in 2013, only Hawthorn, Richmond and Collingwood had a full forward ranked among the top eight individual goal-kickers in the Coleman medal. The other five teams were still able to finish in the top eight because they had a recognised full forward doing the less fancy stuff: providing a focal point, bringing the ball to ground, contesting at ground level and applying defensive pressure.
Jack Riewoldt may, for the rest of this season, continue his current moderate 2014 average of 2.3 goals per game. But he can still be of value as long as he is providing a focal point, bringing the ball to ground, contesting at ground level and applying defensive pressure. Ditto for Jay Schultz at Port Adelaide.
It won’t be glamourous. But now, more than ever, the full forward can play a serviceable role without kicking bags of goals.
So are roller coaster riders like Cloke and Riewoldt still worth their place in the side? Yes, they are role players. But would you prefer Jeremy Cameron or Jay Schultz – guys that play a similar role but eat a lot less of your salary cap? That’s a more debatable question.