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Opinion

How AFL lists have changed ahead of season 2020

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Expert
14th January, 2020
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The 2019 trade period was dominated more by deals that failed to get done than those that did, as the narratives of Joe Daniher and Tom Papley captured popular attention only to fall through in the final hours.

Those topics are falling on tired ears now though and as the 2020 AFL season draws closer, we can turn our attention to how clubs’ lists were shaped not just by player movement during the October trade period, but new arrivals in November’s draft.

In this column we’ll look at how clubs went about changing their lists and what the results of that have been.

To start off, the chart below shows – using a calculation based on the draft value index – how clubs split their resources between pursuing mature players from rival clubs, or going to the draft.

Only St Kilda and West Coast opted to invest the majority of their assets into mature recruits. They went about a similar strategy in noticeably different ways.

The Eagles paid a massive price for a single player, landing Tim Kelly a year after he originally requested a trade to the club, at the price of their first-round draft picks in 2019 and 2020, and two second-round picks they held in 2019.

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The bounty is roughly equivalent to the value of pick 1 if measured on the AFL’s draft value index, though this will fluctuate depending on where their 2020 pick falls in the eventual draft order this November.

Where the Eagles made only a single yet significant move, St Kilda took a far more transformative approach as they seek an end to an eight-year finals drought under new coach Brett Ratten.

The Saints added six mature players, paying at least some small price for all but one of them (former Geelong ruckman Ryan Abbott joined the club as a delisted free agent).

None of those five recruits came at so hefty a cost as Kelly, but combined they outdid the price paid by West Coast, with St Kilda spending roughly the DVI equivalent of picks 1 and 25 on their mature additions.

The two clubs also contrasted in how they gained the assets needed to secure deals. West Coast’s spend was almost purely organic – picks they had naturally available to them already, or obtained from other pick swaps.

St Kilda, on the other hand, dipped into their own playing list to find the currency needed – presumably this was also partly due to a need also to make the salary cap room required for so many mature recruits.

They got only a late third-round pick for Jack Steven but were able to use it as part of the deal to land Brad Hill, and the second-round selection they got from the Western Bulldogs for Josh Bruce enabled them to strike deals for Zak Jones and Dan Butler.

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The outcome of this can be seen in the impact on both clubs’ overall list experience.

West Coast were one of only four clubs not to lose any players to trade, and have shot from being 2019’s eighth most-experienced list to fourth overall.

St Kilda have only moved one rung up the ladder, from 11th to tenth, and still have 126 fewer games of experience than the AFL average.

The Eagles as such find themselves poised for an assault on what would be a second premiership in three years, while the Saints – despite their best efforts – remain in an awkward mid-table region of no man’s land, stuck between rebuilding and contention.

That’s not to say the side can’t play finals – Brisbane, Essendon and the Western Bulldogs all did exactly that in 2019 despite being in the bottom five for list experience. But one can understand why some expectations have been tempered.

Tim Kelly

Tim Kelly (Photo by Daniel Carson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

One of the biggest movers on list experience is Carlton, who have shot from being second-last and 519 games short of the league average in 2019 to ninth and only 30 games behind the benchmark going into 2020.

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Eddie Betts’ 316 games of experience is the most telling addition, but 97 and 155 games from two Jacks, Martin and Newnes respectively, doesn’t hurt either. Had they successfully landed Tom Papley, the Blues would be ahead of the average.

The club will presumably lose 600-plus games of experience in the next one or two years as Betts and Kade Simpson retire, but it’s clear the rebuild is approaching an end.

And speaking of the progress of rebuilds, Gold Coast have crept off the bottom of the table to now boast a more experienced list than three rival clubs.

This will go under the radar as breakdowns like that on the AFL website rank clubs on average experience per player – but this is misleading when it comes to the Suns, who already have 50 listed players for 2020 thanks to being granted an expanded rookie list for the season.

Two other big movers on the experience chart are Sydney and Adelaide – albeit in the opposite direction.

Both sides were top six for experience in 2019 but find themselves in the bottom three, behind the Suns, ahead of season 2020.

The Crows were the league’s most active side when it came trading out experience, sending 705 games to other clubs – more than double that of the next biggest total (St Kilda, with 323).

The Swans lost fewer than 100 games through trade exits of Zak Jones and Darcy Cameron, but delisted or retired more than 1100 games of experience from their list. Brisbane, losing 659 games, were their closest rivals.

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For Adelaide in particular, this also led to a marked shift down the age ladder. The Crows were 2019’s second-oldest list, but have dropped into the bottom six for age, while an already-youthful Sydney dropped from fifth to second youngest.

Of the eight sides to be above the age average last year, Adelaide were one of three to not make finals. While the Crows responded to this by drastically paring back, the others – Hawthorn and North Melbourne – have doubled-down for another go around.

The Hawks, 2019’s oldest list, have got a little younger – making way for Collingwood and West Coast to take the top two spots – but are still in the top four.

North have more than tripled the gap they had on the AFL average age in 2019, rising into the top-six oldest lists in the competition, just two years after being in the bottom four.

A notable riser here also is the Western Bulldogs, who through a mix of landing mature recruits and natural progression have moved into the top eight oldest lists.

They were the league’s most trade-focused club last offseason after the obvious top two of St Kilda and West Coast – spending nearly half their assets to land Josh Bruce and Alex Keath, but managing to retain their first-round pick in the 2019 draft.

Many are bullish about the Dogs’ prospects and this move up the age ladder shows why. It better illustrates their progress than experience numbers do, since Keath entered the AFL late and has a relatively small number of games under his belt compared to most 27-year-olds.

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Melbourne and Port Adelaide, whose coaches will likely be under the most pressure, both remain outside the top eight for average age, though Port are in 2020’s top five most-experienced lists.

Perhaps this suggests expectations on the two sides should be lessened heading into the new year – or, given that both find themselves just narrowly behind 2019 premiers Richmond, perhaps it does not.