Which teams really have the most depth? Hey, that’s easy, just measure depth by checking the performance of a team’s reserve side.
But here’s an alternative way.
It suggests that there’s very little difference in depth between the Geelong Cats, Sydney Swans or Hawthorn Hawks.
The only other premiership contenders for 2014, the Fremantle Dockers and Port Adelaide Power, are the most vulnerable to the loss of key individuals.
Collingwood are an unlikely 2014 premiership contender, but I’ve included them in this examination because their depth seems good.
Let’s examine four areas that are vital to a team’s game plan: midfielders, offensive talls, defensive talls and defensive rebounders.
Earlier this year, with the loss of Michael Barlow and Nathan Fyfe, the Dockers’ midfield was tested for midfield depth and found wanting. Similarly, the Swans struggled early when they had Kieran Jack out and Daniel Hannebery struggling for form. Currently, the Hawks’ midfield is being tested for depth and found wanting.
In contrast, the Cats’ depth was tested earlier this year, with the absence of premiership midfielders Allen Christensen and Steven Motlop, but their midfield machine kept purring.
The Pies’ midfield earlier in the season had Jarryd Blair out and Dane Swan struggling for form but still had premiership midfielders Dane Beams, Scott Pendlebury, Steele Sidebottom and Luke Ball to pick up the slack.
The Power’s midfield has yet to be tested in 2014, but look to have reasonable depth, with Travis Boak, Hamish Hartlett, Kane Cornes and Brad Ebert leading the way.
In this vital area of the ground, the Cats appear to be the most resilient, with the Pies and Power not far behind.
Would any of the six contenders have to change their game plan if they lost their key tall forward? In this respect, the Hawks, Magpies and Cats appear the most vulnerable.
The Hawks have no ready-made replacement for Jarryd Roughead, so in his absence they have to reduce the amount of long bombs going forward. The Pies are being hurt by the poor form of Travis Cloke. They could maintain the same game plan by replacing him with Ben Reid – when he recovers from injury – or possibly with Jesse White or Quinton Lynch, but none of these would strike fear in the hearts of full backs.
The Cats have been lucky with Tom Hawkins’ fitness in 2014, but evidence from 2013 suggests that they will struggle for structure if Hawkins’ back problem returns.
The Dockers have no ready-made replacement for Matthew Pavlich. But they showed in his absence last year that their attack relies less on big marks up forward and more on having aggressive smalls to lock the ball in. They were able to keep winning games without significantly changing their game plan.
The Swans have an amazing supply of tall forwards, with Adam Goodes, Sam Reid and Buddy Franklin able to step in as the key target if Kurt Tippett gets injured.
The Power have Justin Westhoff or John Butcher to replace Jay Schultz if he gets injured. These three teams won’t need to change their game plan much if they lose their key forward.
In terms of defensive talls, the Swans, Cats, Dockers, Power and Hawks are similar. None really have a heavyweight back-up who can take on power forwards if their key defender gets injured.
The Cats, Swans, Dockers, and Hawks all have a key defender aged over 30, though Tom Lonergan and Ted Richards are less injury-prone than Luke McPharlin and Brian Lake.
All five teams are vulnerable if they lose their key defender. And makeshift key defenders will be particularly vulnerable against power forwards on a big ground, where other defenders can’t get back so easily to block space or play third man up.
Collingwood has shown admirable depth when its best defensive tall, Ben Reid, has been injured or playing up forward. Even with recent injuries to Nathan Brown and Jack Frost, Collingwood still have a reasonable fourth-choice defensive tall: Lachie Keefe. The Pies are number one for resilience of defensive talls.
The most vulnerable teams in terms of rebounding capacity are the Magpies, Power and Dockers.
Besides Harry O’Brien, the Pies have to rely on their host of up-and-coming rebounders, who are not yet proven in finals. The Power have no elite rebounder, and currently rely more on the amazing work rate of their running midfielders to bring the ball from defence to attack.
That makes Port Adelaide’s rebounding extra vulnerable if injuries hit their midfield. The Dockers have a more experienced backline than the Pies or Power, but Michael Johnston is their only elite rebounder.
Rating medium in terms of rebound depth are the Swans. The Swans have Jarrad McVeigh, Rhyce Shaw, Nick Malceski and Dane Rampe leading their rebounding, though Shaw is ageing and becoming injury-prone, while Rampe is not yet proven in finals.
That leaves the Cats and Hawks as the most resilient in terms of rebounding. The Cats lost Josh Hunt and Joel Corey at the end of 2013 but they still boast class disposal from Andrew Mackie, Corey Enright and Harry Taylor, with Jimmy Bartel dropping back when needed.
The Hawks lost Brent Guerra at the end of 2013, and have Luke Hodge and Brian Lake struggling with injury in 2014, but still have plenty of other rebound options. Grant Birchall, Shaun Burgoyne and Matt Suckling all have elite disposal, and Sam Mitchell often drops back to launch rebounds – when he’s fit.
The Cats and Hawks have no risk of injuries forcing a change to their rebounding game. Moreover, these are probably the only two teams in the AFL that could lose in the midfield but still win a big game through their rebounding capacity.
Comparing teams’ depth across these four critical parts of the ground, the Dockers and Power look the most vulnerable. The Dockers don’t have great depth in any of the four parts of the ground. The Power really only have strong depth in terms of tall forwards, while they’ve perhaps been lucky that they haven’t been tested much in the other three parts of the ground.
The Pies have strong depth in terms of midfielders and tall defenders, but are thinner up forward and in rebounding.
If injuries and drop in form were spread more evenly among the six teams above, we would expect the Swans, Cats and Hawks to come out on top.