2016 has seen the rise of Tom Scully and the demise of Travis Cloke. The contested marking beasts are on the decline and the aerobic beasts are on the rise.
Remember 2012, when Travis Cloke led the AFL contested marking list with 73? He was followed by three other contested marking beasts: Tom Hawkins, Kurt Tippett and Drew Petrie. Cloke, Hawkins, and Petrie also featured in the top seven goal-kickers that year.
Fast forward to 2016, the key forward role has changed. Full forwards are required to cover a lot more ground, chasing and presenting leads outside the forward fifty. Tippett can’t apply much defensive pressure so the Swans have decided he’s better value in the ruck. The Magpies have decided Cloke is better value in the reserves.
Hawkins is still getting a game, but more mobile forwards like Buddy Franklin, Josh Kennedy, Thomas Lynch and Jarrad Waite are kicking more goals and applying better defensive pressure than Hawkins. Also among the new breed of more mobile key forwards are Jeremy Cameron, Jake Stringer, Josh Jenkins and a reinvented Jack Riewoldt, all of whom are getting more goals from scooping up ground level balls than from taking contested marks.
In 2012, the buzz word was ‘power forward’ but today’s key forwards are athletes.
Further up the field, the changes in 2016 have been just as dramatic. With interchange rotations reduced from a maximum 120 in 2015 to maximum 90 in 2016, the aerobic beasts are simply out-running other midfielders. Tom Scully, Lachie Hunter and Aaron Hall had each been many years at their respective clubs before emerging suddenly as midfield stars in 2016.
Another consequence of the reduced rotations is that it’s much harder to apply four quarter pressure in 2016. That’s good news for teams like the Bulldogs, Geelong, North Melbourne and GWS, which have the skills to go through the middle of the ground, the shortest way to goal. They’ve unexpectedly found themselves in flag contention.
It’s bad news for the clubs like Collingwood, Freo, Port Adelaide and Richmond, whose dearth of classy runners leaves them unable to take advantage of the increased space, fearful of counter-attacking through the middle.
Four years is a long time in football. The contested marking beasts are on the way out. Today, more than ever, it’s about mobility in the forward line and finding space in the middle.