Leo Barry, you prophet. The 21st century’s most iconic AFL moment has also proved to be one of its most instructive.
When Dean Cox wheeled onto his left foot and sent the ball forward one last time in the 2005 grand final, Barry ascended and made the preceding 72 years of anguish seem a mere prelude to ecstasy for Sydney Swans supporters.
He also looked to the future, though, and his defensive leap forecast a new trend for the game.
The 2005 grand final is not something that will ever be labelled as progressive, modern or revolutionary. It was a slog, and that’s what made it so special.
But elements of today’s game were inherent in its performance, with clusters of players around packs, congestion aplenty, and traditional one-on-one match-ups difficult to find. Indeed, when one looks at the evolution of the AFL since the turn of the century, the initial West Coast-Sydney grand final classic is the competition’s first, most perceptible hinge point, the bridge between the dominance of Brisbane and Port Adelaide to the dynasties of Geelong and Hawthorn.
The game is prettier now than it was on that overcast Melbourne day 11 years ago. Teams fast break in 2016 with a freedom and grace that Sydney didn’t allow Chris Judd, Ben Cousins or Daniel Kerr. But many of the same motifs have carried over. Contested ball is the lifeblood of the sport, and if you can make your defensive 50 a no-fly zone like Barry did in the dying moments, you’re a significant step closer to victory.
With zoning all over the ground and a growing absence of isolated marking contests, the floating defender has become more crucial to the game than ever before. He is the glue that holds structures in place.
Playing as the loose man in defence has always been football’s most difficult position. There’s a perception, largely crafted by the people in the crowd who yell ‘ball!’ the instant any player gets tackled, that playing loose somehow lacks integrity – it’s not as ‘honest’ as sticking to a man.
But anyone who has played football will tell you that the easiest thing to do is just be responsible for one other player. It’s not neuroscience chasing around one other body. But when you play loose, you’re responsible for every player that enters the attacking zone.
Last Sunday at the MCG, we saw the quintessential no-fly zone game. The two most influential players on the ground were Easton Wood and Jeremy Howe, each quelling opposition attacks by owning the airspace in their defensive 50s.
Collingwood’s defence for most of the year has been a farce aspiring to be a train wreck. But the past three weeks have seen the Magpie defence revolutionised by Howe’s move into the back 50. Jack Frost, Adam Oxley, Alan Toovey and co are limited defenders, but they’re not bad defenders. They just need to be put in a position to succeed.
When Howe and Ben Reid are controlling the defence as two aerial forces, taking 24 combined marks as they did on Sunday, and making every high ball in less a threat and more an opportunity for a counter attack, the limited players around them are made to look much better.
After allowing St Kilda, Melbourne and Carlton to kick 18, 16 and 15 goals against them, the Pies in the past three weeks have held Brisbane, Geelong and the Bulldogs, two of which are top four contenders (after the past fortnight, you can decide whether I’m including Geelong or Brisbane in that mix), to ten, 11 and 11 majors.
Even with all their injuries, Collingwood’s defensive renaissance likely would have resulted in a resurrected season Sunday if not for Easton Wood becoming a Sky God himself. Wood took 13 marks on the weekend, 17 of which were from errant Brodie Grundy kicks forward.
In a depleted defence, Wood papered over all the cracks by throwing them into the sky and catching them like he caught everything else. He was the game’s most dominant player, dictating airspace like an airport traffic controller with delusions of Nat Fyfe. Fittingly, it was his booming goal from 50 that gave the Dogs breathing room in the final stages. If your teammates can’t get it past your counterparts, you might as well kick it over their heads yourself.
Wood’s value is appreciated in football circles, with a best and fairest and All-Australian selection last year to his name. But still, even then, do fans appropriately value Wood’s importance? In a team with Jake Stringer and Marcus Bontempelli, isn’t he the Bulldogs’ best, most valuable player?
The same arguments can be found across the league. As good as Dustin Martin is proving he can be, Alex Rance is still Richmond’s most indispensable player. Jeremy McGovern is probably rated by most as the next tier down from Matt Priddis and Josh Kennedy at West Coast, but should he be? What about Josh Gibson’s standing at Hawthorn, a team that has valued him enough internally to name him the best and fairest winner in two of the past three premiership years?
The Bulldogs beat Collingwood largely because Wood was slightly better at his role at one end than Howe was at the other. In a sumptuous Bulldogs-Eagles match-up this weekend, with plenty of tantalising narratives floating around, it would not be surprising to see the result determined by who has the greater influence between Wood and McGovern.
Defenders are famously underappreciated, in all sports. The glory, the drama and the gets-the-girl cinematic appeal of goal scoring will always be most treasured by the public. But in an era where field position and counter-attacking are more essential than ever, the players that can turn defence into offence with a single leap should be valued more highly.
Leo Barry is appropriately lauded in AFL history – it’s time to accord his disciples the same respect.