It was mid-2017 – that strange jumbled year when no one really wanted to win the premiership – when Chris Scott decided to play a hobbled Patrick Dangerfield up front against Alastair ‘System’ Clarkson’s Hawthorn.
Tactics were smashed here, as Dangerfield racked up an astonishing 5.6 as a makeshift forward and the Cats squeaked in by three points.
It was incredible that a specialist midfielder – half-injured, no less – was able to grab 11 scoring shots and adapt to the very particular position of full forward, when these days even our best forwards consider it job done with maybe a 3.2 haul. Despite shonky goal-kicking, for once the AFL media agreed with me, throwing away negativity for one week to celebrate the greatness of Dangerfield.
Dangerfield’s face is rather too out there sometimes, to the extent that a Suisse commercial is surely around the corner, but greatness is what that performance was.
Richmond then occasionally used Dustin Martin in the same way in that year’s grand final, when Martin’s goal as a resting forward before halftime sent Richmond on their way, before his bag of six goals as a pure forward against Brisbane in the 2019 finals series.
What is it about these two midfielders that can adapt so well to the very specialised position of full forward? Other elite midfielders of the late 2010s, Nat Fyfe and Marcus Bontempelli, have also had their moments up front although are not as prolific on goal.
Twenty years ago, no one was moving Nathan Buckley or Michael Voss to full forward as a quirk. Forwards could go on the ball and have a crack on a slow day in front of goal, but seemingly not the other way around.
What does it take to be a full forward? It is different to all other positions, which are mostly about getting the hard ball, then pass-and-move with the ball and pressuring and out-bodying your man without it.
Being full forward involves leading patterns running into space and marking strength. Your back is to the goal and you are facing the play, which is the opposite of any other position. You are heavily dependent on teammates’ ball delivery to shine, to the extent that Leigh Matthews realised that captains can never be forwards because they cannot take the game by the scruff of the neck single-handedly.
The maverick whisperer Malcolm Blight (who led Gary Ablett Sr and Darren Jarman) has stated that a forward has to make an effort to lead to and grab the ball, then double back to make a second effort to score the goal, which was double the effort of any other position, where players only need to charge through the ball once.
Ideally modern forwards integrate forward lines by attracting the ball (which a traditional full forward does) and giving off hand passes to runners, which is a midfielder trait. Martin, famous for the don’t-argues of 2017, is well suited as an assister as well as scorer. This makes Jason Dunstall the greatest ever forward. He scored a million goals but also integrated teammates and tackled.
Modern forwards are now also expected to make the third effort of tackling at the expense of scoring bags of goals, so perhaps the position is more interchangeable than before.
But strength and ball-attracting charisma are still required to pull off being a full forward. Few players have the knack. It shows what tremendous stars the 2020 grand finalists Dangerfield and Martin are.
The most versatile AFL player I can think of was Jimmy Bartel, who could get the ball in midfield, go for runs, mark high, kick goals, and even had a year in defence in 2013. A team of 22 Bartels would potentially beat a team of 22 of any other player in history, but even he was not given a full forward gig.
The greatest star of the 2000s, Lance Franklin, also revealed a strange string to his bow in the 2016 preliminary final and grand final. The sheer variety of goals Franklin scores defies typecasting. Nonetheless Franklin showed here that he was not just a full forward.
The playmaker position in sports, analysing things at the three-quarter field position like a point guard in basketball (Magic Johnson and Steph Curry) and attacking central midfielder in football (Diego Maradona), does not really exist in Australian rules footy. At best the old-school centre half forwards like Wayne Carey were supposed to be it, but the game has become too rushed for a playmaker to set up a chessboard in the AFL now.
A half-hobbled Franklin, who as playmaker had set up most of the Swans’ first-quarter barrage against Geelong, tried hard to reinvent this position in the 2016 grand final against the Western Bulldogs. Franklin has been appreciated for his pace, strength, scoring instincts and long-distance goal kicking.
In this match he often came deeper and would set up shots on goal for others with intricate passes to forwards. Among other examples, his measured pass into space set up Josh Kennedy’s third-quarter mark and goal, and his laced pass from the centre circle speared a late shot for Ben McGlynn, Sydney’s last chance to win.
The Brownlow medallists of the 2010s have featured one competition lynchpin passing the baton to the next uninterrupted, from Fyfe to Dangerfield to Martin. The latter two are still the main two stars of the AFL and occasionally go head-to-head in midfield with the rest of us drooling.
But if this happens it may not last long, as Dangerfield may be bypassed in the midfield altogether. While Martin can gravitate between midfield and goal-scorer seamlessly, with Dangerfield there are two extremes: will it be 30-possession Dangerfield in midfield, or 15-possession, 5.6 Dangerfield?
The answer may decide the 2020 premiership.