Leadership is always a hot topic in the AFL. All it takes is one premiership and we go from a player being a good leader to a great one.
In some cases, it is a case of redemption, with the leader ascending to the throne after years of having his efforts questioned. Just yesterday, I published an article on Trent Cotchin’s rise to prominence as a leader and the pathway he travelled to get there. It wasn’t all smooth sailing for him, but the destination was well worth the journey.
In 2023, we see a new crop of leaders meshing with the older heads. Rebuilding clubs have put their faith in younger players to lead them, whilst others have old heads that can barely get on the park lead to lead their side holding the title of captain.
Based on their 2023 output, who are the best captains in the game, and where do they sit in The Mongrel’s 2023 Captain’s Ladder?
* Note – I am not the greatest fan of the shared captaincy, as you’ll see. Also, I somehow forgot to do this last year, so no “last time” in parentheses this time around. With all the changes in captaincy, was probably redundant, anyway.
1 – DARCY MOORE (COLLINGWOOD)
This is your All-Australian captain. Mark it down right now.
Moore has been outstanding as the key defender and leader of the Collingwood machine in 2023. His combination of on-field production and leadership is everything Pies fans would have dreamed about when he was named leader of the club.
And his game against Carlton… wow.
2 – JORDAN DAWSON (ADELAIDE)
He has embraced the Adelaide Crows completely, and they, in turn, have embraced him.
Dawson is demonstrating aspects of his game we were unaware of until he was put in the leadership role with the Crows. He is brilliant, belligerent, attacking, defensive, flies the flag, and lifts his teammates with his actions. He has slotted into the role of captaincy as though he was born to own it.
3 – TOBY GREENE (GWS)
If you’re not watching Toby Greene this season, you’re missing out. There is no other way of putting it.
There were those who turned their nose up at the decision to name him the sole captain of this club, but no other player bleeds for their club like Toby Greene does for the Giants. The way he responds when the Giants need him, almost willing his team over the line at points, is incredible.
If there is a captain who says “follow me” by way of his actions, Toby is it!
4 – ZACH MERRETT (ESSENDON)
I have been surprised by how good Zach Merrett has been in the role thus far. I’ll be honest – I have always viewed him as a good outside player who lacked a bit of… well, grunt I suppose. That is a nice way of saying it.
However, with the team looking to him for leadership, Merrett has displayed some toughness, and his on-field actions indicate that he has taken the honour of captaining the Bombers very seriously.
5 – MAX GAWN (MELBOURNE)
He is still standing under the footy, getting barreled into by every player that can make the ground and crash the pack, and he keeps getting up to do it all over again.
Big Max has always been an unlikely captain. Unconventional is perhaps a better word. However, when it comes time for him to put his body on the line, he does it without thought. Every time.
6 – MARCUS BONTEMPELLI (WESTERN BULLDOGS)
Almost a travesty to have him this low, I know.
Bont is the heart and soul of the Bulldogs and has been for a long while. As he goes, so too go the Dogs. He, like his arch-nemesis, Toby Greene, is able to lift his team via his actions. There are just not that many players that can drag a club along with them on willpower alone. Bont is one such player.
7 – JAMES SICILY (HAWTHORN)
We’re waiting at the moment to see whether Sicily can get off at the appeals board following a three-week suspension for a tackle, so im hedging a little with him down a little lower. Yeah, it makes me sick that football acts are being punished in a manner more in line with punches or elbows, but this is what the AFL wants.
When Sicily is patrolling half-back, the Hawks walk taller. Just look at the difference between the Port Adelaide and Brisbane games. One had Sicily on the sidelines, and Port sliced through the Hawks like they were melted butter. The game against Brisbane had Sicily control the footy, and the Hawks controlled the game. A great season in a team that was always going to struggle.
8 – TOBY NANKERVIS/DYLAN GRIMES (RICHMOND)
Nank has his faults – we all do. However, I watched this bloke last week take on Luke Jackson in the wet and completely dismantle him. Oh, Jackson had plenty of the footy, but Nank did what mattered most and did it often. He controlled the ruck, he gave his mids first use, and, as always, his second efforts were top notch.
Had someone comment that he is the best wet-weather ruckman in the game, and it is hard to disagree. If you want a captain who’ll get down in the trenches with his troops, Nank is the best man for the job.
As for Grimes… well, I look at his role as more of an honorary one when Nank is the bash and crash of the team. Probably a couple of years too late for Grimes, to be honest. So much so, I forgot to add him, initially.
9 – LACHIE NEALE/HARRIS ANDREWS (BRISBANE)
The second of the shared captaincy teams sees two genuine stars in the spotlight.
Harris Andrews has been spectacular in holding the Brisbane defence together in a year that many thought it would be their weakness, whilst Neale has relished the opportunity to work alongside Josh Dunkley, giving him a reliable and potent offsider to team up with at stoppages.
As a tandem, Neale and Andrews are doing great, but they get half the credit each, so they’re down the ladder a bit.
10 – JACK STEELE (ST KILDA)
Marked down a bit for missing games and his numbers falling away a bit this season.
Steele is a combative beast and is at his best when the going is tough in the middle of the ground. You would think that Ross Lyon would love coaching a bloke like Steele, whose defensive work is just as good as his offensive side.
That said, he doesn’t strike me as the most charismatic fella in the league, and personally, I want a captain with a bit of personality leading the team. To each, their own, I suppose.
11 – ALEX PEARCE (FREMANTLE)
Has copped a bit of a bad wrap this season, even from some Freo supporters. Is following Nat Fyfe as captain, so there was always going to be a harsh learning curve for him, but on the whole, Pearce has had more personal wins than losses in his first year at the helm.
Before you decide to whack Pearce, go back and watch his recent games against the Cats and Dees. I thought he was tremendous in both.
12 – JARROD WITTS/TOUK MILLER (GOLD COAST)
The duo has played 16 of a possible 24 games this season, with Miller missing for most of the year to date.
Witts is workmanlike, and would rate higher had he not been in a shared role, but even then, he has missed a couple of games along the way, as well. The Suns are looking like they could give September a crack this year, but they’ll need both these blokes out there fit, and firing to do so.
13 – LUKE MCDONALD/JY SIMPKIN (NORTH MELBOURNE)
It’s tough being in charge of a team that is not performing. A lot of the responsibility, and therefore, the blame can rest on the shoulders of the leadership.
Given that, maybe it’s a good thing that North have two blokes to shoulder the load. McDonald has been dependable but never spectacular, and Simpkin has seen a drop in production as compared with his B&F year last year. I reckon both guys need more time to adjust to the role.
14 – LUKE PARKER/CALLUM MILLS/DANE RAMPE (SYDNEY)
Well, the Swans have three leaders and two of them have spent the majority of the year on the pine, so it is hard to rate them highly.
Luke Parker has been the one bloke fronting up, and even he missed last week, so the Sydney leadership, as shared as it is, has not really worked this year due to injury. As such, they’re waaaay down the list.
15 – PATRICK CRIPPS (CARLTON)
Here’s the thing – I reckon Patrick Cripps votes for coaches with his form. Prior to the sacking of Brendon Bolton back in 2019, Cripps had three games where his form fell off a clifff. Afteraveraging 30.5 disposals per game to that point of the season, Cripps notched totals of 12, 28, and 11 disposals in three games. Bolton was sacked, as is appeared Cripps was obviously displeased.
Lo and behold, David Teague steps in and Cripps goes bang immediately, with 38 disposals and four goals in the new coach’s first outing.
Interestingly, Cripps was averaging 30 touches per game this year as well, but the last six weeks have seen him average 21.66 touches. Be careful, Michael Voss… be very careful.
Now watch him kick four against the Suns to put me in my place!
16 – PATRICK DANGERFIELD (GEELONG)
He is following one of the greatest leaders the game has seen, so the drop off is understandable. In truth, I think Dangerfield was the only player Geelong had that could follow Joel Selwood, as everyone else would be standing in the shadow of a giant. At least Danger has a career of brilliance to back him up.
That said, 2023 has not been brilliant. Danger has missed games and has not been at his best when he has been on the park. That said, mad respect for him playing out the game against the Power with a cracked rib and a deflated lung. That’s 89 Grand Final levels of tough!
17 – TOM JONAS (PORT ADELAIDE)
Can’t get back into the Port side after sitting out for a week via suspension.
The sad truth is that his form did not warrant a spot in the team, and he was starting to look like a man the game has passed by early in the season. Here’s hoping that he had a few injury niggles that were slowing him down and when he does return (that’s when, not if) he is able to play the hard-nosed defence that made him a good leader in years prior.
18 – LUKE SHUEY (WEST COAST)
His body just won’t let him play, and as captain of a team that is in dire need of leadership, sitting on the sidelines and clapping for them when they finally do something good just doesn’t cut it.
With Shuey continually banged up and his body breaking down more often than not, the Eagles will be having plenty of discussions about leadership for 2024. Odds are, they won’t include the name of Luke Shuey.
So, I am sure some of you want to yell at me. Go ahead… that’s a sane thing to do, right?
These rankings are not official, they’re based on what I have observed this season, so if you have a difference of opinion, be my guest and re-rank them in the order you prefer. No skin off my nose – your opinion is just as valid as mine. Cheers.
Like this content? You could buy me a coffee – I do like coffee, but there is no guarantee I won’t use it to buy a doughnut… I like them more. And I am not brought to you by Sportsbet or Ladbrokes… or Bet365, or any of them.