We all love a bit of mongrel in our teams, don’t we? When the chips are down and someone needs to make a stand, inevitably, it is the player that just wants it more that makes a difference.
But how do we define this mystical “mongrel” attribute? It kind of means different things to different people. To some, it may be the player who shows enormous courage, putting his body on the line in contests – someone like Glenn Archer, for example. To others, it could be someone who walks a fine line between what is acceptable in the game, and what is not… someone like Glenn Archer, for example.
I kid… Arch was a warrior and had a huge dose of Mongrel in him whichever way you look at it.
Others, still, would define it as a player who will make an impact on the game physically, or someone who can get under the skin of the opposition. Do any of these interpretations carry more weight than the others?
It’s all rather subjective.
And lucky for me that is is, because really, I’ve had a gutful of being objective and I want to be as subjective as I damn well please in this column.
And so it is that we hit the business end of our countdown. Here are the top ten mongrel players in the AFL.
And here’s the previous ten (and the link to 30-21 on that page)
10 – TOM PAPLEY
We start our top ten with a bloke that was forced to put the Swans forward line on his back in 2020 and then proved a lot of his critics wrong with a more rounded, team-oriented game in 2021.
There is no question, however, that when it comes to being a right mongrel on the footy field, Tom Papley fits the bill. He has no issue getting in the face of an opponent when he beats him and letting him know all about it, loves an over-the-top goal celebration to let everyone know just how bloody good he is, and he is like a dog with a bone when there is a loose ball to be made his own.
I read a few pieces a couple of seasons back that labelled Papley as selfish, or self-important, but watching him in 2021, it is hard not to think those pieces were written at a point when they were simply reacting to one or two pieces of play they’d seen (the non handball running into open goal stands out), however, since then, a settled and comfortable Papley has become a weapon that not only hits the scoreboard, but brings teammates into the game, and his AA selection in 2021 was just reward.
9 – MATT DE BOER
When it comes to stoppers in the modern game, there are none better than Matt de Boer.
He has put the brakes on all the big names over the past – Dustin Martin, Patrick Dangerfield, Lachie Neale, and has been an absolute warrior for the Giants in a midfield that boasts a heap of offensive talent, but may lack a bit when it comes to the defensive side.
What makes de Boer’s roles on some of the best in the business even ,ore impressive is that he gives them the chance to win the footy, often starting on a flank, or on the wing. He then takes on the responsibility of the run-with role after the centre bounce, and in doing so, he makes the lives of those he targets pretty damn unpleasant.
The Giants have really suffered when de Boer has been playing hurt or injured, and never has this been more apparent than in the 2019 Grand Final. Though his team was absolutely smacked, it is a little known fact that de Boer was playing hurt that day and could barely walk after the game, however, such was the faith in him, the Giants rolled him out on one leg to attempt to curtail Dustin Martin once again. It’s hard enough to stay with Dusty when you’re fit, but de Boer, the warrior, attempted it on one leg. Sometimes, he may have been too tough for his own good.
8 – JAMES SICILY
Ahhhh, you forgot about him for a while, didn’t ya?
Time to jog that memory a little. You guys know I am a Hawks man, but even I have to admit that Sic has arguably the most punchable face in the game. Sometimes, the way he carries on, you’re looking at his opponent and you’re thinking you may not blame them for putting one on his chin.
Sicily is a wonderful intercept defender and reads the footy as well as anyone in the game, but he loves to get in the ear of an opponent, and his lack of discipline has been his undoing a few too many times. Has a year and a bit on the sidelines mellowed him?
Part of me hopes yes, and another hopes no. The Hawks have precious little else in terms of genuine mongrel.
7 – CAM ZURHAAR
Oh, what? I hear North Melbourne fans complaining already. Rest assured, the young bull gets a top ten finish, but he is not yet at the level of the old bull. Read on…
Similar to Darcy Fogarty… except Zurhaar has actually been getting results!
The young bull from Arden Street loves to throw his body into a contest – whether it is a contested marking situation, or a ground ball that requires winning, Zurhaar does not take a backwards step.
We’ve seen Zurhaar tackle with the intent to hurt, love being able to lay a hard shepherd (a lost art in modern footy) and hurl himself into marking contests where it looks as though he has no chance… and sometimes he doesn’t. But what he does do is take the pack the hell out as he crashes into the middle of it. And occasionally, he pulls down a hanger!
Zurhaar is such a success story for North. He is one of those players that was not a high pick, and nothing was really expected of, but he has become one of North’s most important players…
… and he did it with mongrel.
6 – TOBY NANKERVIS
All those people who spoke about the way Shane Mumford would “accidentally” fall on people and hurt them… I was always amused by it. That’s because there was a bloke playing for Richmond who was picking people up in tackles and slamming them to the ground just as potently as the Big Mummy, and they just weren’t paying attention to him.
When you get tackled by the Big Nank, you stay tackled by the Big Nank.
He doesn’t even pretend to look like he cares out there. He reminds me of the way one of the officers described Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. They describe him as carving up a victim and never having his heart rate rise above 85 beats per minute. Not that I think Nank is a serial killer who eats his victims, but hey… if not for footy, who knows where he’d be and what he’d be doing?
You can just see him declining drinks with the boys after a win because he has purchased a nice chianti, some fava beans and is having an old friend for dinner…
Yes, I may have watched that movie too many times.
5 – JOEL SELWOOD
That tape around his head and the copious amount of blood his spills isn’t just for show (though he would have made a great wrestler in the eighties and nineties). Joel Selwood is as hard as they come, and his game style has divided fans for the last 15 years.
You see, the Geelong captain doesn’t just put his head over the ball. No, no… he has also perfected a way of shrugging tackles that causes them to slip up around his neck, and that drives opposition fans absolutely nucking futs!
Never afraid to burrow in and test an opponent’s willingness to do the same, Selwood’s mongrel qualities have been proven time and time again. Hell, he even took out his frustration on his own brother after a clash on the boundary line. It was Joel taking the hit… and it was still Joel getting up first!
You may not like him – personally, I love the bloke – but if you do not think he has copious amounts of mongrel in his game, then I reckon you should stick to bloody netball.
4 – BEN CUNNINGTON
See, North fans… nothing to worry about.
Some will question why Cunnington makes the grade here, but a player like Dustin Martin, who is quite adept at fending people off in his own right, does not. Well, as I said at the start of each of these articles, this is subjective, and I reckon there is a hell of a lot more genuine anger and willingness to make someone pay in the game of Ben Cunnington than there is in Dusty.
Some have labelled Cunnington a dirty player due to a couple of rib ticklers he dished out a year or two ago… please, don’t make me laugh. In the modern game, that’s what is considered dirty?
Cunnington is a competitive beast, and loves both shrugging a tackle, or putting his hand in the chest of an oncoming opponent and saying “not today”. He is quiet, doesn’t hunger for the spotlight, and let’s his game do the talking. And when it does, it speaks volumes about him – he is one of the toughest mongrels in the business.
3 – JAKE STRINGER
Jake is easy to dislike. I think that’s fair to say, but like the bloke above, he takes the game, and his opposition, on and simply wades through traffic like a complete bull. Essendon supporters would have had to love what he provided the team in 2021 – a clearance-winning, explosive beast that refused to be dragged down.
You know, up until last season, I never really gave Jake Stringer the credit he deserves in terms of his strength, but watching him part the midfield like he was the second coming of Moses as he grabbed the footy under his arm and headed toward half forward, I could not help be impressed by just how powerful he was at stoppages.
He retained that swagger that had made him such a divisive character, but he added a good dose of steak to that sizzle in 2021 and when fit, is close to unstoppable.
2 – MITCH ROBINSON
Dustin Martin was viewed by many as indestructible, but without even trying too hard, Mitch Robinson put an absolute stop to his season, and perhaps the season of the Tigers in the process.
If there is one player in the league that will not ever take his eyes off the footy in a contest, it is Mitch Robinson. It does not matter what is coming the other way – he runs flat out and launches himself into traffic. Hell, you’d hate to play a game of chicken with this bloke – he is not going to deviate at all, and is content with wearing whatever damage comes his way.
Robbo is an absolute heart and soul player with the Lions. He gives everything he has in every contest and expects the same of his teammates. He is the kind of bloke that you would love having your back in a confrontation – you know that he will be there for you without fail.
It would take something special to keep Mitch from the number one spot, but that is exactly what we have.
1 – TOBY GREENE
There can be no other number one.
He is the ultimate divisive factor in the league. You either love what Greene brings to the game, or you hate it. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of middle ground when it comes to Toby.
I suppose, in football, there is an imaginary, and often blurred line between what is acceptable and what is not. Whilst some players have been able to successfully straddle that line and meticulously tip toe their way through their careers whilst doing so, Greene tramples all over it, with footprints on either side. Sometimes, he falls headlong into the area that most consider outside the rules, but there have been times where he has tested and prodded to see what he can get away with, and done so successfully.
I guess Giants fans would be torn – they would love seeing him play on the edge, as that is when he is at his best, but they’d also probably like to see him out on the field more often and not restricted to the role of spectator due to his actions.
Despite missing five games over the course of the season, Greene was again selected as an All-Australian, yet his 2021 season will most likely be remembered for making contact with umpire Matt Stevic, which resulted in an initial three-week ban that was then appealed and increased to six weeks.
Such is life for Toby Greene.
Love him or hate him, his talent is simply undeniable and with five games of his suspension left to serve, I’d hate to be the bloke forced to man up on him in Round Six.
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