An opportunity exists in the AFL right now for a team to grasp onto an identity and build their club around.
In an age where teams are very friendly with each other, both off and on the field at times, the scope for genuine rivalry, and the passion that comes with it is somewhat lost. If not lost, then at the very least diluted.
Most of the long-standing VFL-based rivalries are now dwarfed by the intensity of the South Australian Showdowns, or the WA Derbies.
Sure, there have been marquee games between long-time rivals, such as the annual clash between the Bombers and Pies on Anzac Day, or the Hawks and Cats on the Queen’s Birthday Monday, and many of the rivalries have ebbed and flowed when it comes to significance – to the point where they are strictly defined by the team you follow and their ladder position. There are no clear-cut heroes and villains in the league anymore.
And it is about time that changed.
When you think of the great NBA teams of the late 1980s and early 1990s, where do you land?
Is it the Chicago Bulls, with everyone’s favourite marketing tool as the figurehead? Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Phil Jackson led the Bulls to the first of two championship three-peats in 1991, 92, and 93 as they vanquished their demons and threw their hat into the ring for discussion as as to the greatest teams of all time.
Is it the Los Angeles Lakers, boasting the likes of Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson, James Worthy, and the legendary, but ageing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? Or maybe you liked the Boston Celtics, with the Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish nucleus?
Most NBA fans from that era seem to gravitate toward one of those teams.
Not many loved the Detroit Pistons.
The 1989/90 back-to-back champions weren’t exactly likeable… unless, of course, you enjoyed their brand of smashmouth basketball that often descended into brutality.
Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer, Rick Mahorn, Dennis Rodman… none of them had any qualms about putting a driving Michael Jordan right on his ass as he ventured into the lane. Most times, the defence would collapse on him and send him to the floor. They simply did not care for the welfare of the opposition. No lay ups. No easy baskets. The Jordan Rules
They just wanted to win.
And that’s exactly what they did.
In a time when the NBA was looking for their own marquee matchups and players to market worldwide, the Pistons rained on the parade of Michael and his Bulls, Larry and Celtics, and Magic and his Lakers. They forced the league to acknowledge them, and though history has seen them portrayed as thugs, they looked at a league that was heading on the fast track toward pretty basketball, and out-uglied the lot of them.
But we are talking about events from 30 years ago. Even 25 years ago, the defence-oriented New York Knicks couldn’t put it together to claim a title. Since then… it has been a procession of good basketball, with very few rivalries built on and expanded.
Jackie Moon was right with his mantra when it came to basketball, and it seems his thoughts are echoed in the AFL.
“Everybody love everybody!”
Is there room in the modern AFL for a team that does not subscribe to the notion that everyone has to get along? Is there a team capable of bending the rules, occasionally breaking them, and still managing to hit the winners’ column more often than not? Is there a team comfortable enough in themselves to embrace being the villain and squeezing every last drop of success out that tag?
The Hawks tried it on as part of their premiership dynasty. They’d probably be the last ones to successfully implement a noticeable degree of nastiness to their style of play. GWS attempted it, and damn near pulled it off in 2019. They used the Western Bulldogs as their personal crash test dummies in the Elimination Final, and that style of footy took them all the way to the Grand Final… where they ran into a Richmond team that completely destroyed every semblance of their supposed toughness.
And since then…
… no one has really picked up the ball that GWS fumbled on the last Saturday in September.
But that doesn’t mean no team ever will.
There are teams who have their brand set at the moment. They may be uncompromising, at the footy, but they still pick an opponent up off the deck and stand their smiling with them after a loss. Teams like Carlton are building a brand with ball winners and painfully fair players – Curnow, Cripps, Walsh, McKay. Melbourne are the same – the number of times I have seen someone crash into Gawn’s exposed back in a marking contest and leave the scene without remonstration is evidence enough that their focus is the footy and the footy, alone.
How about the Swans? If Buddy was five years younger, I reckon he could lead a mongrel-led assault on the competition and plenty of his troops would fall into line behind him. Not now, however. He’s mellowed.
So, rather than go through who will not adopt this aggressive mindset, perhaps it could prove more productive to explore teams that genuinely could elevate the level of aggression on the field and make themselves a nightmare to play against. Who knows how far it could take them?
I know that this can viewed as me sitting back here imploring teams to employ dirty tactics, but that is not the case. I just want to see proud professional footy sides treat their opponents like the enemy. I want to see a defence that takes goals kicked it against them personally. I want to see a midfield so invested that they want their opponents to pay whenever they contest the footy. It makes for a fantastic, gladiatorial spectacle.
And really, in that regard, I am a pleb in the bleachers at the Colosseum.
THE LIKELY SUSPECTS – DARCY FOGARTY, TAYLOR WALKER, SAM BERRY, BEN KEAYS
There was a point where I thought Darcy Fogarty had the capacity to be the most hated player in the league. Then he kind of just lolled about at Adelaide, doing a whole heap of nothing for a couple of years… until 2022.
Now, he may finally fulfil that mongrel potential.
I could legitimately see him lining up someone silly enough to block his leading lane, and putting them in the hospital. He has a mean streak.
With Keays and Berry in the midfield and their relentless attack on the footy and the man, and Tex Walker adding a strong and maligned presence inside fifty, the Crows’ aggression has a four-man leadership group that will either lead them out of the bottom half of the ladder…
… or into a bit of trouble at the tribunal.
Some may question the absence of Rory Laird in this little list. I couldn’t do it – he is a purebred. Great tackler, but he is not a mongrel by any stretch.
THE LIKELY SUSPECTS – CALEB SERONG, LACHIE SCHULTZ, JOSH TREACY, SAM SWITKOWSKI, BAILEY BANFIELD
An emerging group of mongrels, this one.
Caleb Serong plays the game as though he has just been released from footy prison. Hard at it, relentless, and never taking a backwards step, he plays like his life relies on each contest. Meanwhile, Lachie Schultz sometimes reminds me of another cheeky little forward pocket that used to get under the skin of the opposition. He has a long way to even begin to reach the levels of annoyance that Hayden Ballantyne achieved, but the seeds are there – they just need to be nurtured.
His combination with Switkowski inside fifty has the potential to be a real handful.
Josh Treacy instinctively does what teams wish their key forwards would do, and that is crash into the pack like he wants to cause damage – you just can’t teach that. Did you ever see Rory Lobb do it?
Of course you didn’t. He just never did it, and he won’t start at the Bulldogs, either.
And Bailey Banfield – give him a job and he does it. Ask him to become the most voracious tagger in the game… I would expect he would do just that. He just needs to be let off the leash.
THE LIKELY SUSPECTS – ZACH TUOHY, JED BEWS, TOM ATKINS, MARK O’CONNOR, TOM STEWART, JEREMY CAMERON
I hesitated to put the Cats in the mix, as they are usually scrupulously fair.
An then sometimes… they get a bit of mongrel about them. Tom Stewart almost decapitated Dion Prestia in 2022. Jeremy Cameron KO’d Harris Andrews a few years back. Hell, even Dangerfield put Nick Vlastuin into another dimension with an elbow in the 2020 Grand Final. I would just about back Mark O’Connor and Tom Atkins in a midfield tag team match against any other on-ball tandem in the league.
Throw in Tuohy and Bews, who would run through a brick wall for the team, and you have a group that, should things get a little willing, would not hesitate to fly the flag.
Speaking of flags, we’ve seen teams become a little belligerent after winning flags. The Cats now expect to win. If the opposite starts occurring, I’d love to see them start roughing a few teams up.
THE LIKELY SUSPECTS – CHARLIE DIXON, SAM POWELL-PEPPER, ZAK BUTTERS, JASON HORNE-FRANCIS, WILLEM DREW, SCOTT LYCETT
Serious question – is it about time Charlie Dixon went at a contest and took someone out standing in front of him, as opposed to jumping at the footy somewhat sideways and somewhat off balance with only one hand going after the ball?
At 32, he needs to put the fear of god into those looking to clog up the hole (as in the forward line leading lane… not one of Joe Ganino’s Thursday night specials).
Zak Butters has some real mongrel in him and does not hesitate to throw his body in, even against much larger opposition, and Sam Powell-Pepper looks as though he needs to remind himself not to kill someone in contests, at times. Throw in the ruck bully, Scott Lycett, the dogged tagger, Willem Drew, and the man most of footy fandom already dislikes, JHF, and you have the nucleus of a pretty damaging bunch of rogues.
Let the boys play.
THE LIKELY SUSPECTS – BEN CUNNINGTON, CAM ZURHAAR, HUGH GREENWOOD, KAYNE TURNER, JACKSON ARCHER
A bit of a stretch throwing young Jackson Archer into the mix so early, but a good trainer always checks the bloodline (I learnt that watching the Phar Lap movie – Harry Telford was convinced the horse had the correct breeding).
With Alastair Clarkson at the helm – a man not known for being Mr Nice Guy when it comes to competition) – I expect North Melbourne as a whole, to operate with a little more brutal efficiency in 2023. With Ben Cunnington back in the guts and the walking collision, Cam Zurhaar up forward, North have some pretty impressive pieces to start throwing their weight around.
Let’s not forget Clarkson was at the helm when Jacob Koschitzke had an unfortunate run-in with Mitch Lewis’ fist during a boxing drill while he was at Hawthorn. Pretty sure the league banned boxing drills after that, didn’t they?
If you want one thing guaranteed in 2023, it would be that North will fight harder than they have over the last couple of seasons. I don’t think their coach would tolerate anything less.
If there is one team that could be sparked by the actions of one man, it would be GWS, and the man in question would be Toby Greene.
When Greene plays on the edge, he is at his best, and when GWS have the same fire in the belly that Greene possesses, they walk taller as a collective. Under new coach, Adam Kingsley, the Giants remain a highly-talented team, but adopting an “us versus the world” attitude could be the thing that lights a fire under the team once again.
Is Kingsley in for the slow build, or will the Giants adopt a new mindset heading into the 2023 season and make people remember just how potent their top-end talent is? And just how dangerous they are when they follow their spiritual leader to the edge and walk it with him
THE LIKELY SUSPECTS – TRENT COTCHIN, JACK RIEWOLDT, TOM LYNCH, DYLAN GRIMES, MARLION PICKETT, TOBY NANKERVIS, LIAM BAKER
Ding ding… we have a winner.
The Tigers are a dead-set collection of mongrels, and I mean that in the nicest possible way. They give away a tonne of free kicks, and at times, it seems as though they do not give a damn.
I wrote above that Geelong may find themselves a little disgruntled when things don’t go their way – teams with flags to their name have that edge about them, and this has been the case for the Tigers for a while, now. This team is surly. They expect to win and still have the cattle to do so. Anything less leaves them feeling as though they have underachieved, and so they tend to get a little loose when the opposition gets on a roll.
And you know what?
I love when they do that because it shows they care.
Cotchin is a desperado, Nankervis looks like he genuinely enjoys hurting people, Lynch is not against giving a short, sharp one to the ribs, and Jack Riewoldt is the master of kicking people in the back in marking contests (you know he does it…).
If this team wants t be absolutely despised by the football community, they have the exact selection of players to get that job done. And if that ends in success, they’ll drink the tears of opposition fans like wine.
So, who will be the 89/90 Detroit Pistons of this group? There no teams that are the AFL equivalent of those Lakers, Celtics, or Bulls poised to dominate, but there is always the potential for a team to be physically dominant. Who can, and more importantly, WILL embrace the hatred and put everything else aside in the pursuit of the ultimate glory?
Or perhaps have we moved past the days when winning is all that matters?
If they choose to do it, I reckon Richmond is best-placed, and Port are not too far behind them. Someone has to wear the black hat in 2023 – why not you?
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