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The Roar



Debating the fate of AFL players in the twilight of their careers

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10th May, 2023

As the subject of when is the right time for AFL players to retire rages on, it is worth taking a look at some machinations of the decision through the lens of recent events and cases.

The debate brings to light the delicate balance that teams but also fans and the AFL community face as their (very) senior players get long in the tooth.

Emerging players are typically given little grace in team selection. Known but inconsistent players may get several tries or a block of matches to prove themselves before being axed for underperforming.

Well-established players usually get the benefit of doubt or a week or two in the twos to set some things straight.

Apart from a managed break here and there, the greats of the game have traditionally been Teflon-coated when it comes to making the 22+.

Even when their tanks empty faster and their legs lose half a metre, coaches are likely to persist with these thoroughbreds, citing things like level-headed decision-making, steadying the ship, on-field leadership and other tropes.

Sure, these qualities can turn a game, but do they count for the full four quarters? Do they make up for fewer touches and metres gained, clumsier handling, and the other niggles that often come with age?

Let’s be clear here, some players never look likely to succumb to the gradual cell death that marks the aging process – and even seem to get better with it.


Scott Pendlebury and Tom Hawkins come to mind. In the late stages of their careers, Brad Johnson and Eddie Betts were still very hard to stop. But the rest of the mere ‘mortals’ age takes its natural course.

Tom Hawkins of the Cats competes with Jeremy Finlayson of the Power.

Tom Hawkins of the Cats competes with Jeremy Finlayson of the Power. (Photo by James Elsby/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Is sentiment waning?

No doubt fresh after watching Moneyball and understanding that every player has to pull their weight in much tighter competitions, AFL team selection is starting to show tell-tale signs of being less sentimental towards its legends.

A third into the season, pressure is mounting on teams circling the top eight. ‘Take one for the team’ conversations are probably being held right this minute.

Or more subtly communicated positional moves are being orchestrated, ‘where the pace is less frenetic’.


Trent Cotchin is a perfect example here. In Richmond’s case, the fact that they hired two mid-field guns who both seem to be getting on with the job clearly puts Cotchin’s game out of sorts.

The irony is, he is still a very good in-and-under ball follower and excellent decision-maker, more in the Highlander class with Pendlebury than the Unforgiven class with the rest.

Some players do see the writing on the wall, and don’t wait for that tap on the shoulder. They choose to stop at the height of their powers. Richmond again offers recent examples in Alex Rance and Sean Griggs, retiring in the midst of a premiership spree.

Trent Cotchin reacts

Trent Cotchin. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

Still at Punt Road, others like Jack Riewoldt choose to ignore the graffiti – opting to tough it out well into those sunset years.

Some weeks the decision seem wholly sound. At other times, including recent outings when his match-winning skills were more needed than ever with spearhead Tom Lynch being out, nagging doubts must be creeping in.

Fans are probably torn between wanting to see their heroes out there on the field and wanting their team to have the best winning chance every week. And if there is any doubt that these two won’t align, it is up to the team selectors to make the tough decisions – putting fans out of their misery.


What opposition fans think of these senior players and whether they’re onboard with decisions to drop (or keep playing) an esteemed player is of course irrelevant.

Teams need the best bodies on the field and those players deserve full respect, regardless of age. Always. They all earned their shot one way or another!

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