The six most powerful AFL players of the past 18 years: Part 1

Jay Croucher Columnist

By Jay Croucher, Jay Croucher is a Roar Expert

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    Dustin Martin will be a key player when the AFL season gets underway tonight. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

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    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.

    6. Dustin Martin

    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.

    Dustin Martin of the Richmond Tigers

    (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

    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.

    5. Travis Cloke

    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.

    Travis Cloke of the Magpies kicks a goal

    (AAP Image/Joe Castro)

    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.

    4. Michael Voss

    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.

    Michael Voss of the Lions in action

    (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

    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.

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    The Crowd Says (32)

    • October 12th 2017 @ 7:59am
      Roger of Sydney said | October 12th 2017 @ 7:59am | ! Report

      Is this humour, you cannot not put Cloak and Martin on the same page as Voss, good laugh for a Thursday. No comparison in skill level.

      • October 12th 2017 @ 8:12am
        truetigerfan said | October 12th 2017 @ 8:12am | ! Report

        You need to read this article again, Roger . . . carefully!

        Interesting piece, Jay. Sure to start a lot of conversations and reminiscing. 3 fair calls to begin with.

      • October 12th 2017 @ 8:40am
        Kelly Andrews said | October 12th 2017 @ 8:40am | ! Report

        I was expecting Voss to be number 1. If he is number 4 then I’m intrigued who the top 3 are. J Brown? Does Lockett qualify? To suggest that you cannot put Martin on the same page as Voss, is this humour? Martin is incredibly strong, and over last couple of years has become elite in his skills. He is fast becoming one of the most damaging players of the last 20 years, and his main strength is his strength. Maybe you haven’t watched much of Richmond in the last couple of years?

        • October 12th 2017 @ 5:21pm
          Kemp said | October 12th 2017 @ 5:21pm | ! Report

          Plugger has got to be in the mix.

      • October 12th 2017 @ 8:59am
        Birdman said | October 12th 2017 @ 8:59am | ! Report

        hard marker Roger – the article makes it plain that it’s all about power and Cloke was a beast

    • October 12th 2017 @ 8:48am
      jutsie said | October 12th 2017 @ 8:48am | ! Report

      ranking is about power not skill level. Hard to argue with Martin featuring somewhere on the list. the King of the fend.

      As an essendon supporter I begrudgingly loved watching Michael Voss play. He put his body in places he really had no right to be in, so strong in congestion.

      • October 12th 2017 @ 11:11pm
        Leonard said | October 12th 2017 @ 11:11pm | ! Report

        Agree with you both as a Donsman and about Voss; can recall a conversation about 2005 or 06 where I reckoned I’d happily swap Voss for Hird (well before Hird’s fall from Golden Boy).

    • Roar Rookie

      October 12th 2017 @ 9:10am
      Don said | October 12th 2017 @ 9:10am | ! Report

      When the same articles were written for each of Rugby and Rugby League in the past month there was a clear explanation of the criteria used to put the ranking together.
      Career longevity, endurance etc were all included along with power.
      Rohan Smith was involved in the judging of those too.

      Surprised that for AFL this hasn’t been included.

      Although without the same criteria used / explained there will be heaps more argument and therefore clicks…

    • October 12th 2017 @ 9:11am
      Pumping Dougie said | October 12th 2017 @ 9:11am | ! Report

      I’ve got a feeling Macca and Don will be nominating Cripps and Sandilands.

      Cloke? Are you serious? Surely you can’t be a career spud and still qualify for this list. Barry Hall has to be considered, although his actions in repeating the Staker hit on an unsuspecting, young scrawny man on the field in Queensland a few weeks ago have harmed his reputation indefinitely.

    • October 12th 2017 @ 9:18am
      Michael said | October 12th 2017 @ 9:18am | ! Report

      If Cloke is #5, then I’m expected Big Bazza to be #2 or #1

    • October 12th 2017 @ 9:32am
      Rod said | October 12th 2017 @ 9:32am | ! Report

      Not an avid AFL follower. But I remember a guy who played for the lions in there great premiership teams. He was of PNG heritage if memory serves me correct. He looked like a man amongst boys the guys name is Mal Michaels. He looked as powerful AFL footballer that I have seen

      • October 12th 2017 @ 9:38am
        Michael said | October 12th 2017 @ 9:38am | ! Report

        And at the other end ….. big Jonathan Brown was even bigger and more powerful; I’m also expecting Brownie to make the top 3.
        Thanks for the reminder.
        If Cloke is #5, its going to be very hard to fit all the players that were / are much stronger than Cloke into the top 4 …. ha ha ha ha

        • October 12th 2017 @ 6:28pm
          Rod said | October 12th 2017 @ 6:28pm | ! Report

          Certainly not going to argue he was another big body.

          Don’t think he was as heavy set as Mal
          Michael though

        • October 15th 2017 @ 11:23am
          Col in paradise said | October 15th 2017 @ 11:23am | ! Report

          Don’t forget Lynch at the lions – Cloke is a joke – must be just there to shut the Pies fans up!

      • October 12th 2017 @ 12:36pm
        Perry Bridge said | October 12th 2017 @ 12:36pm | ! Report


        singular on the surname “Mal Michael”.

        Started at Collingwood, went to Brisbane (for the glory years) and finished at Essendon (after he’d retired – surprised – and angered Brisbane – with a comeback for the red and black.).

        238 games over 12 seasons – did well. He was PNG born, PNG mum.

        • October 12th 2017 @ 6:25pm
          Rod said | October 12th 2017 @ 6:25pm | ! Report

          Thanks Perry. Hadn’t realised he played at the other clubs. As league/ union follower he struck me as the perfect build for those games.

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