In a season defined by uncertainty regarding the AFL’s top teams, ambiguity has spread to debates surrounding the game’s best player.
Nat Fyfe’s injury and Gary Ablett’s decline (if he hasn’t left ‘Prime Highway’ he has at least turned the left indicator on towards the exit ramp) have left a void at the top.
Some will tell you that it’s still Ablett’s mantle until he falls off a cliff entirely (these are the same people who think Roger Federer is still the best tennis player today) and others will say that injuries shouldn’t rob Fyfe of his crown (they’re sympathetic to Rafael Nadal).
Indie arguments could be made for any of Scott Pendlebury, Sam Mitchell, Sydney’s Josh Kennedy, Todd Goldstein or Alex Rance (these are the people who will tell you that Zodiac and In Bruges are two of the five best films of the past decade, which, by the way, they are).
Given what transpired on Monday, as a Collingwood fan, Max Gawn, the Viking demon of my nightmares, will also be included on this list, if only because I am a God-fearing man. But really, right now, the title fight is between a pair of guys with fluffy nicknames that belie their realities as architects of cosmic leather destruction – Buddy and Paddy.
The argument for Lance Franklin is simple – he, more than any other player, is still the one most likely to win a game off his own boot, and this has been the case for almost a decade. He’s done it in finals, he’s done it in non-descript games against North Melbourne in Launceston, and he did it a month ago against the three-time reigning premiers. As an opposition fan, Franklin is the most frightening player in the game, and that counts for a lot.
Patrick Dangerfield’s argument is equally simple – he’s Russell Westbrook but with his head screwed on.
In a lot of ways, with his superhuman athleticism and explosion, Fyfe is the logical successor to Chris Judd. But Dangerfield’s game and aesthetic mirror Judd more closely.
The historic players have an idiosyncratic greatness that allows them to crush the barriers of our perception – to make possible what we hold to be impossible. Nathan Buckley saw and executed passes that didn’t exist. Nick Riewoldt rises for marks that no man could take, and then, just for the hell of it, takes them on his chest instead of extending his arms out like you’re supposed to. Ben Cousins ran to contests he had no hope of getting to, and then did, and then influenced them, because he’s an alien.
Dangerfield’s greatness is a facsimile of Judd’s. Their greatness is the inverse of Pendlebury’s or Mitchell’s, players who get caught in a maze and then order a decaf soy latte as madness happens around them before they casually stroll through it. When Dangerfield gets caught in traffic often he pauses for a moment, as if he has to remember that he is the Road Runner and everyone else is Wile E. Coyote in a wheelchair, and then he explodes and enters Drake Mode – zero to 100, real quick – leaving the humans behind.
His acceleration is similar to Judd’s in its majesty, but is unique in its own right. Judd was like a gazelle, with darting legs, supreme upper body strength, and a centre of gravity that seemed to rest in his shoulders, just below his perpetually grimacing face.
Dangerfield is lower to the ground. Where Judd stood impossibly upright and ran on top of the ground, Danger hunches into an explosive ball and runs almost beneath it. He burrows where Judd danced. The aesthetic is equally sublime.
Neither player is perfect in the way that Ablett seemed to be, and they share similar flaws. Their field kicking leaves something to be desired, and neither inspires much confidence with their set shots for goal. On shots on the run, though, the ball seems to be magnetically drawn towards the goal, as though their acceleration is so purposeful that it can only have a singular endpoint.
The tragedy of Judd is that he left Cousins and Daniel Kerr just as his body started to break down. His acceleration was never quite the same in navy blue, and he had nobody to meaningfully lessen his load (sorry, Brock McLean). In a way, this only further unlocked his greatness, as his recreation as the best inside midfielder in the game, after being the most dominant player in open space, cemented his legacy as one of the all-time greats.
Dangerfield never had a running mate like Cousins or Kerr at Adelaide. It was unfortunate to see him leave the Crows behind after what they’d built – imagine him on that team this year – but at the same time it was exciting, because it gave him his Cousins.
Judd’s genius at Carlton was admirable more than it was breathtaking. His most jaw-dropping moments came when the blue on his guernsey was mixed with yellow – when his greatness was performed in synchrony with Cousins and Kerr, and the three of them touched God together.
Dangerfield teaming up with Joel Selwood presented that same possibility, and it’s come to fruition. Dangerfield’s game on the weekend was so good it was disgusting. 48 possessions, 23 of them contested, 13 clearances, 11 inside 50s, an effective disposal percentage of 83 per cent, two goals, all the fantasy points and 22 Kangaroo players in therapy for the rest of their lives.
It’s hard to imagine that game without Selwood’s own 38 touches, many in concert with Dangerfield. Sometimes greatness needs a friend to be fully realised.
As to whether Dangerfield is the game’s best player? The cheap middle ground necessarily presents itself, in that Dangerfield might seem more attractive for a season, and Franklin more for a single game. But you can’t go wrong either way, and it’s no coincidence that, poetically, their teams are the two equal premiership favourites right now.