Power is a strange and dynamic concept, one that takes many forms and expressions.
It is not limited to positions or even to specific attributes. It comes, most viscerally, as raw strength, but also in pace and acceleration. Taylor Walker is a powerful athlete, but so, in a way, is Billy Hartung.
Determining who the most powerful athletes of the past 18 years have been in the AFL is a discussion more than an argument. This particular list has a recency bias, but that is perhaps inevitable – athletes now are simply more powerful than they were in 2001.
NRL coach Rohan Smith, no stranger to powerful athletes, assisted in determining the criteria for this list, and also added his insight on each player.
The conception of power that he and I both have is fluid and not limited by position. Power is amorphous, and something one knows they see it, when they feel it. The criteria are very much in the eye of the beholder.
What does ‘powerful’ connote to you? Is it the ability to triumph in one-on-one contests, be it at a stoppage or sitting underneath a ball inside 50? Is it being able to explode into the air and make the others in the contest look like helpless teenagers? Or is it simply the capability of seeing a man in front of you and running right by them?
It is, perhaps, a combination of all these abilities, and that is why we arrived where we did for the man set to feature at number one. But for now, we start at number six, the player in the league who best displays the purest form of power: strength.
Jay: To paraphrase Avon Barksdale, Dustin Martin ain’t no suit wearin’ businessman. He’s a gangster, and he wants his corners.
The beauty of Martin, though, is that he’s not afraid of a little football Armani. His brute strength is awesome, but the deftness of his skills is equally sublime. For every fend-off, there’s a delicately weighted, immaculately timed short pass. He’s a scholar and a not-so-gentle man.
Martin’s skills have the habit of becoming something of an afterthought. Such is the majesty of his raw strength. Players like Scott Pendlebury and Marcus Bontempelli are geniuses that create time by finessing their way through the time-space continuum. Martin puts the continuum into a shot glass and downs it.
He doesn’t need finesse or vision to create time and space because that’s what muscles are for. Pendlebury always looks like he has an extra second in heavy traffic because his brain can always buy one. Martin has the same composure, but the confidence comes from his forearms.
His core strength is immense, and like his buddy Dane Swan, Martin doesn’t appear capable of ever being knocked off balance around a stoppage. Therein, really, lies the greatest advantage of such superhuman strength – the true benefit isn’t in the two or three highlight reel fend-offs each game, it’s in the constant ability to hold one’s ground and position and win the ball at countless stoppages.
Martin held his ground all the way to the Brownlow, Norm Smith and a premiership this season. His game went to a new level in 2017 – he led the league in inside 50s and centre clearances, and finds himself among the elite for contested ball and disposal accumulation.
He is one of most powerful athletes in the game and certainly the one with the most iconic and symbolically powerful trademark. No one in the league inspires physical helplessness in opponents as brutally as Martin does.
Lance Franklin makes people feel inadequate with his immaculate physical profile and general football mastery, but Martin perpetuates opposition inadequacy in a more pure, immediate sense – he’s just a stronger bloke than everyone else.
The corners are his.
Rohan: Martin is a player who enjoys the battle, consistently dominates and uses his left arm as a weapon. With more and more congestion around the ball, upper body strength to hold and push people away is a vital ingredient to success in the AFL, and ‘Dusty’ certainly has that.
Martin also has strong footwork and the ability to accelerate away from people. He outruns players and seems to have improved his running power to do this even more consistently. He puts his head over the ball and has the ability to break out of the pack and run with it.
Some power athletes require interchanges – that’s what allows them to be explosive – and Martin seems to have taken advantage.
Jay: The most underwhelming superstar forward of his generation was also the most overwhelmingly powerful, in a way. When he was on, more than any player in the competition, Cloke had the habit of making it feel like he was a 16-year-old who had invaded an under 12s game.
He was a beast, a classical ‘just-put-it-on-my-head’ forward who seemed most comfortable sitting underneath a high ball in a one-on-one contest at the tip of the goal square.
Of course, the existential grief and profound discomfort that would follow after he had rag-dolled his opponent and then had to line up for a set shot from the edge of the square would come to define Cloke, but that’s a story for another campaign.
The waywardness in front of goal, though, was almost harmonic with Cloke’s strength. His sheer force was so extreme that it made sense that he could never kick with accuracy. Of course a man that strong can’t thread needles.
It was as though Cloke were the X-Men character Cyclops without protective goggles – a breathtaking and destructive figure, not short at all of power, plenty short of aim and direction.
Now, as Cloke’s career winds down at the Bulldogs as a shadow of a shadow of a former artist, he doesn’t strike such an imposing figure. But there was a time when Cloke was universally regarded as the premier ‘power forward’ of his generation, the type of player that some commentators would argue was the first key position player one would take in a hypothetical draft of building a team from scratch.
Those commentators would be wrong, of course, but they couldn’t be laughed out of the room – only asked to leave amid muffled sniggers.
There are many better players than Cloke who haven’t made this list, and many better athletes too. But raw, brute strength is the most traditional archetype of power, and on that level, Cloke had few peers.
Rohan: Cloke has the strength to hold people off, pushing them out of the way appearing immovable at times. But he can really move for a big man.
Lots of his contests are won simply by holding off his opponent on the ground with his upper body strength. He also has a booming left foot kick, another demonstration of power.
Jay: Michael Voss never entirely looked the part of the best player in a sport. If he walked down the street in New York City in 2002, no one would have given him a second glance. People would have seen 183cm and 88kg, a stocky nugget in a league full of chiselled jawlines and bodies carved of some derivative of Greek stone.
But Voss’s stature in the game was towering even if his physical profile was not. For a stretch, he was the competition’s best player – a Brownlow medallist and three-time premiership captain, the sport’s undisputed most inspirational leader.
Voss’s legend was born from his fearlessness, abandon and outstanding skill. But how much of an athlete was he? Was he really one of the AFL’s most powerful?
There is a tendency to correlate athleticism with height. It’s understandable – when you see a human who stands well and truly over you, you can’t help but feel in awe, and it’s awe that drives our sense of what constitutes real athleticism.
But the beauty of Australian football is its diverse spread of athletic profiles. Mitch Robinson and Charlie Cameron can both live in this world and thrive.
Not every powerful athlete has to be a centre-half forward. And once we remove height from the equation, Michael Voss was as powerful as they come.
He was a human cannonball, exploding into bodies, bouncing off them when bones felt like they should have been broken. His Scott Burns moment in the 2002 grand final remains one of football’s most iconic and absurd. Rarely does a six-second sequence entirely capture the essence of an athlete’s existence, but that particular one did for Voss.
He was always a sneakily dynamic athlete, his stockiness belying his ability to soar, especially in his younger days a forceful aerial threat. But he did his best work on the ground, a bulldozer in midfield, someone whose universe was the ball and the path it would take to win it.
He would smash and get smashed, and then he would get up, immediately – again and again. His ability to cause and endure pain with such consistency was breathtaking.
It was powerful.
Rohan: Voss endured countless tough collisions but had the ability to simply get up and get on with the game. A competitive animal.