After Port Adelaide acquired Tom Rockliff, Steven Motlop, and Jack Watts in last year’s trade period, thereby essentially trading out of the draft (first selection came at pick 44), it was clear that the club was loading up for a finals tilt.
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Harris Andrews is ushering in the era of the super key defender.
Of course Alex Rance has revolutionised the position in the modern era and will go down as an all-time great with his inspirational style of play winning Richmond a premiership.
Yet it’s Andrews, at 201 centimetres, who is leading this charge of the ultra-tall key defender, who has the height and reach to conquer the biggest of key forwards with spoiling while having the Rance-like smarts to read the play and intercept the most dangerous of attacking forays.
Brisbane’s vice-captain had 24 disposals, 12 marks (nine of which were intercepts) and 20 spoils against Essendon in Round 1. Although quite clearly deserved, recency bias leads to most believing this was Andrews’ breakout game.
The truth is that Andrews is the All Australian full back halfway through the season and has been brilliant for the Lions under immense pressure given the overall quality of the team.
Champion Data ranking points are always a controversial talking point when assessing a player’s performance, but the numbers don’t lie. Andrews averaged 69 ranking points per game in 2017 and has improved this to 97 ranking points per game in 2018. In a system where key defenders aren’t particularly prolific, this is an incredible rise.
Despite being just 21 years of age, younger than most other starting key defenders, Andrews is a leader in an increasingly deep field of monster key defenders.
Dougal Howard is listed at 199 centimetres and comes from a similar mould to Andrews. He doesn’t quite have the body mass of his Brisbane counterpart, but the one-on-one work, the spoiling and most recently the marking is there.
Howard and Andrews are in a groove at the moment, breaking each other’s AFL spoiling records this season. Howard has seven games in which he has had at least ten spoils and has added a degree of stability to Port Adelaide’s aerial defence.
In the two weeks following the Power’s bye, Howard has taken seven marks and four intercept marks in each game. The 22-year-old is an established part of Port Adelaide’s team now and may soon emerge as another one of the league’s best if he continues on a similar trajectory as Andrews.
Then there’s Howard’s former teammate Logan Austin, who turned himself into a new-age style of key defender after spending his first few seasons as a dour full-back in the SANFL.
Austin is listed at 196 centimetres and 92 kilograms, but there’s a bigger presence about him than those numbers perhaps suggest. It took until halfway through the 2017 SANFL season for Austin to completely turn his game around, but it was clear immediately that the move to St Kilda would be beneficial to both parties.
In his first three games in the red, white and black Austin has averaged ten marks and six spoils per game while having a miserly one-on-one contested loss percentage of just 12.5 per cent.
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Having played only a handful of games to this stage of his career, Austin will begin to make a name for himself as St Kilda’s premier key defender while also working with 201-centimetre teammate Jake Carlisle in continuing to develop his intercepting game.
Oscar McDonald has taken up a more defensive position in 2018, but the numbers he posted in the 2015 to 2017 period suggests he could develop into an excellent, balanced tall defender.
It’s easy to compare him with his brother, but one could argue Oscar has the better defensive nous between the two while Tom is the fitter and more versatile one.
At 196 centimetres and 100 kilograms, McDonald has impressed in 2018 on key forwards, while his first three seasons showcased his ability to read the play. It won’t take long for both these attributes to click and for McDonald to enter the new bracket of defenders.
With players like Aaron Naughton (194 centimetres), Sam Taylor (196 centimetres), Jacob Weitering (195 centimetres) and the slightly older Sam Durdin (197 centimetres) all showing strong signs of being well-balanced key defenders who can take on the monster players later in their careers, there’s been a clear shift in what is expected from the position.
First-year players Naughton and Taylor in particular have room to physically grow, especially with their slender frames, which make them imposing threats in the future.
Then of course there is the versatile 201-centimetre Ben King entering the competition in 2019. He will be one of the top names come draft night with his Andrews-like skills as a junior. His stocks will continue to rise in the current environment.
This is the new era of what to expect from a key defender, and many clubs are aware of it.
Tall defenders like Alex Pearce (200 centimetres) will spend plenty of time over the next nine months developing their game to keep up with the growing requirements needed to be the leader of the defensive pack at an AFL club. The one-dimensional key defender is a dying breed in the modern game.
For as good as Alex Rance is and as much as he has revolutionised the position, his height leaves him susceptible to the odd monstering at the hands of the likes of Charlie Dixon and Jesse Hogan.
Let us appreciate the constantly developing game and acknowledge the fact that players such as Harris Andrews putting in performances as he did against the Bombers may well be the new norm.
His is a name the average fan will no longer ignore, for he is the new face of a defensive revolution.