Which Australian sport produces the greatest athletes? Part One: AFL

Ryan Buckland Columnist

By Ryan Buckland, Ryan Buckland is a Roar Expert


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    In this series, I’ll investigate the science behind this divisive question alongside former elite NRL coach and trainer, Rohan Smith. First up, it’s Australian rules football.

    In Round 7 of 2017, Greater Western Sydney’s Tom Scully – aerobic animal, the leanest footballer you’ve ever seen – spent 128 minutes and 13 seconds on field in one professional game. That’s more than two hours of constant running, sprinting, tackling and skill execution.

    It is not unusual for AFL players to spend 100 per cent of game time on the ground.

    However, the research suggests the best way to optimise a team’s collective effort is to use the interchange bench to rotate players on and off for short periods of rest.

    Those players who do spend the full game on the ground tend to be big bodied forwards and defenders, so-called key position players who spend most of their time at one end of the ground.

    Midfielders, generally ten centimetres or more shorter and anywhere from ten to 20 kilograms lighter on muscle, receive the lion’s share of the bursts of rest – particularly since the league introduced a cap on the use of the interchange.

    Tom Scully is not a key position player. He is an outside midfielder with a listed weight of 79 kilograms, whose job is primarily to run across the ground and link up the play between the forward and back half. The interchange bench is made for him.

    In the aforementioned fixture, Scully’s team (the GWS Giants) had been ravaged by injury. His freakish aerobic capacity meant he was relied upon to make up for his team’s reduced numbers on the bench.

    Data on how far AFL players run in game is kept behind ethereal but impenetrable walls. A 2009 academic study produced by Catapault Sports, the Australian inventors and world leaders in wearable GPS technologies, found in their sample of 20 midfielders the average distance covered in a game was 17.5 kilometres (the range was 12.9 kilometres to 18.9 kilometres) in between 108 minutes and 114 minutes of active playing time.

    Scully certainly ran more than that in his freakish outing. While he is the outlier, it’s clear that among major professional Australian sports, Australian rules football produces the athletes with the highest level of endurance.

    On endurance, cricket and Australian rules football seem like chalk and cheese. But it’s not that simple. Rohan Smith agrees.

    “One thing to consider in regards to endurance is what many performance staff call time on legs,” he said.

    “While Test match cricketers have repeated running endurance for days at a time, the biggest endurance element to cricket is concentration, decision making and skill execution,” Smith said.

    “The running element is significant, but overall given we are talking about the athletic component of endurance I would have to say the endurance of an AFL player is superior.”

    Josh Gibson Hawthorn Hawks AFL 2017

    (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

    One of the downsides of this focus on the ability to run all game is strength – where in this instance AFL players only rank around the middle of the pack. The average AFL-listed players in 2017 weigh in at 85 kilograms; heavier than Scully, who at 79 kilograms sits comfortable in the bottom quintile of players by mass, but significantly lighter than both professional rugby codes.

    These days, it is uncommon for a rugby union forward to weigh in under 100 kilograms, while most backs sit somewhere between the average AFL player and triple figures. This is, in most cases, muscle mass, not sheer size. Union’s monsters weigh in at 120 kilograms or more, the point at which muscle mass and general mass begin to blur into one.

    Take now-Wallabies mainstay Israel Folau as an example. Folau was one of the GWS Giants’ inaugural players, making the switch from rugby league as a marketing tool to build some buzz around the heathen Western Sydney suburbs. According to the Daily Telegraph, Folau dropped seven kilograms in his first year as a Giant, playing at a still-large 98 kegs. Rugby.com.au now lists Folau at 103 kilograms.

    As Rohan mentioned when we chatted about Australian rules players, they’re mostly sculpted with running endurance in mind; rugby players of both codes are built for heavier and more frequent collisions.

    There is an interesting distinction to be made between professional athletes in Australian rules football and Association football (which will henceforth be dubbed soccer for ease of distinction). Both sports require a balance of speed, power and agility given they are what I termed ‘360 degree’ sports, as opposed to the more ‘front-facing’ attrition of the rugby codes or highly-structured interactions in cricket.

    Despite both Australian rules football and soccer having many players of similar size and body shape – in the main, Aaron Sandilands could not play professional soccer – Rohan was of the view Australian football produced athletes with greater power and agility.

    “There is a strength and power component in professional level soccer in Australia – but more isometric strength in holding people off rather than trying to throw them to the ground or physically dominate,” Smith said.

    Key Information

    Ryan and Rohan are making these judgments based on the highest level of domestic competition in each of the sports – except for cricket, where the Australian test team seems like the more appropriate comparator.

    In this series, each sport will be ranked on key categories. We’ll reveal the final scores and the top sport at the end of the series.

    Endurance: the length of time an athlete is required to perform at their peak, in a game and over the course of a season.
    Power: how explosive an athlete needs to be, in both speed and strength terms, over and above the “resting” state of play.
    Agility: a measure of an athlete’s required evasiveness, ability to change direction and be aware of those around them.
    Speed: how fast is a player required to move around the field, both in sprints and general play.

    Stay tuned for the next instalment when we’ll discuss cricket.

    The full series
    » Part One: AFL
    » Part Two: Cricket
    » Part Three: Rugby league
    » Part Four: Rugby union
    » Part Five: Football
    » Part Six: Final Results

    This series is sponsored by by POWERADE, fuelling rivalry through the POWERADE POWERSCORE. The Powerade Powerscore, developed in conjunction with the New South Wales Institute of Sport, allows you to compare yourself to mates and elite athletes.

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    The Crowd Says (133)

    • June 8th 2017 @ 5:47am
      Norad said | June 8th 2017 @ 5:47am | ! Report

      AFL produces the best AFL players.

      • June 8th 2017 @ 8:50am
        Bobbo7 said | June 8th 2017 @ 8:50am | ! Report

        Yes. Cricket also has the habit of producing folks who can hit a small ball a long way.

        The skills required in sports are different. But there can be some cross-pollination – for example, I can see the NZ rugby influence in the way Dusty Martin shoves off tackles – he would have been a very good rugby player.

        • June 8th 2017 @ 9:46am
          Jacko said | June 8th 2017 @ 9:46am | ! Report

          Even within each different sport you have such a difference in atheletes. AFL, league and union are full of some pretty big guys but it also has its share of smaller guys, so impossible to say who is best athelete. What Issy Folau proved is that to be proficient at a sport it needs to be instinctive, meaning its far easier to be in one sport from a junior.

        • June 8th 2017 @ 11:24am
          Perry Bridge said | June 8th 2017 @ 11:24am | ! Report


          They weren’t discussing skills so much – – although, the skill execution when fatigued is clearly the benefit of greater endurance capacity. Most players getting to the top level have pretty decent to elite skills when on the training track – but, under pressure and fatigued even the best can make a mess of it.

          The mechanical skills can be taught as much as you like – -the irony tends to be that players make a mistake when given too much time to think!! Decision making is as if not more important than baseline skills.

    • June 8th 2017 @ 7:22am
      Jeff dustby said | June 8th 2017 @ 7:22am | ! Report

      This is going to get ugly
      Too many different ways to judge

      • Columnist

        June 8th 2017 @ 8:07am
        Ryan Buckland said | June 8th 2017 @ 8:07am | ! Report

        Yes. There will be blood.

        • Roar Pro

          June 8th 2017 @ 6:48pm
          Spencer Kassimir said | June 8th 2017 @ 6:48pm | ! Report

          I don’t know Ryan, seems pretty civilized and levelheaded here for the most part.

          There seems to be a consensus that each sport takes and produces the best athletes for the rigors required by their respective sport.

          On the other hand, the Australian curling team clearly produces the best athletes and their versatile skills double as an effective technique for mopping floors.:)

    • June 8th 2017 @ 7:25am
      Onside said | June 8th 2017 @ 7:25am | ! Report

      1.Which Australian sport ATTRACTS the greatest athletes?


      2.Endurance: Power: Agility: Speed : are great bench marks , but in comparison with
      with most sports including all football codes, cricket , basketball , swimming, hockey
      where does boxing fit in, bouts of several 2 or 3 minute rounds while being punched .

      • Roar Guru

        June 8th 2017 @ 8:35am
        mds1970 said | June 8th 2017 @ 8:35am | ! Report

        Onside raises an interesting point about which sport attracts the greatest athletes.
        Once someone is identified as having elite talent, and they’re still young, they have to choose their sport. Everything then, their training, fitness regime, skill set etc works around that.
        If Tom Scully had chosen rugby, he’d be bigger. If he’d chosen cricket, he wouldn’t have nearly as much running stamina but would have developed higher long-term concentration. If he’d chosen marathon running he’d run even further in two hours but wouldn’t have developed kicking skills.
        The choice is made early and few can successfully transition from one sport to another.

        But for the women it’s a different story. There are many in AFLW who played footy simultaneously with another sport. Or the likes of Elysse Perry who play both cricket & soccer at the elite level.
        Male sportspeople can no longer do that.

        • June 8th 2017 @ 9:23am
          mdso said | June 8th 2017 @ 9:23am | ! Report

          Also Nova Perris-Kneebone who represented Australia in both Hockey and Athletics.

          • Roar Guru

            June 8th 2017 @ 9:51am
            Paul D said | June 8th 2017 @ 9:51am | ! Report

            Put in a very credible performance while representing Australia in mixed horizontal wrestling against Ato Boldon back in 2010 as well

      • Roar Guru

        June 8th 2017 @ 10:05am
        Epiquin said | June 8th 2017 @ 10:05am | ! Report

        Something that I’ve learned after attending several Junior Sports Stars Awards ceremonies in Sydney in recent years is that the AFL attracts the best athletes because they have more professional development systems in place.

        A huge number of award winners are multi-sport stars who play, among others, both League and AFL. When interviewed on stage, they would usually say they have a preference for League, but have spent more time in AFL development and progressed further.

      • Roar Pro

        June 8th 2017 @ 6:50pm
        Spencer Kassimir said | June 8th 2017 @ 6:50pm | ! Report


        Love your question one.

        I’d say the one that pays the most always attracts the most people and that only some of those people have the right body types etc.

        Sport is fun, but it is a business.

    • Roar Guru

      June 8th 2017 @ 7:58am
      TomC said | June 8th 2017 @ 7:58am | ! Report

      Uh oh.

    • Roar Guru

      June 8th 2017 @ 8:02am
      Cat said | June 8th 2017 @ 8:02am | ! Report

      Can’t be a sport that doesn’t require any hand-eye coordination.

      • Roar Guru

        June 8th 2017 @ 3:11pm
        AdelaideDocker said | June 8th 2017 @ 3:11pm | ! Report

        What sports don’t require that?

        • Roar Guru

          June 8th 2017 @ 4:42pm
          Peppsy said | June 8th 2017 @ 4:42pm | ! Report

          Swimming I guess

        • June 10th 2017 @ 8:14am
          Perry Bridge said | June 10th 2017 @ 8:14am | ! Report

          Soccer….outside of the goalie.

    • Columnist

      June 8th 2017 @ 8:09am
      Ryan Buckland said | June 8th 2017 @ 8:09am | ! Report

      Hi guys, I just want to say that this is my first entry into The Code Wars (1874-present) and I’m really excited to be hated by everyone. All five sports (Australian rules, cricket, league, union and soccer) get a fair hearing in the series.

      • June 8th 2017 @ 8:56am
        mwm said | June 8th 2017 @ 8:56am | ! Report

        I guess you’re aiming for your first 400+ comment article Ryan lol

        ‘Greatest athlete’ is so subjective as to be impossible to measure. Would the superior aerobic capacity of Tom Scully translate to soccer?…not if he can’t kick a ball, anticpate space or dribble past an opponent. Would his body translate to the rugby codes? not if he can’t subdue an 110kg monster running right at him.

        His skill set has been molded by the sport he plays….not because of some inherit ‘greatness’ he possesses. The modern AFL prizes elite aerobic running capacity….but would a body type like Leigh Matthews exist in todays Australian Football? I doubt it.

      • Roar Guru

        June 8th 2017 @ 10:05am
        Epiquin said | June 8th 2017 @ 10:05am | ! Report

        One thing is for sure. There are only 5 sports.

        • June 8th 2017 @ 10:15am
          GJ said | June 8th 2017 @ 10:15am | ! Report

          Basketballers in Australia probably could have been included. Would be can of Taipan’s when people want to start comparing with sportsmen in the US.

      • June 8th 2017 @ 11:53am
        spruce moose said | June 8th 2017 @ 11:53am | ! Report

        Oh, so you are just completely dissing the Australian table tennis circuit then Ryan?