Well, it’s been quite a journey, but here we are at the top ten. As always, there’s a bit of a spiel about the rankings in general, and about each player’s position in the system, as well as assorted highlights/reasons for their inclusion, but if you haven’t got up to speed, please have a look at the preceding 40 places so as not to complain about something that’s already been touched on.
Here’s the links to the 40 (41 due to a tie) players making up spots 50-11.
In looking at those in the top ten, I was pretty content with how it ended up, with one probably a little too high for my liking. However, rather than allow personal prejudice to push him down the order, I stuck with the numbers and system. I consider his high-ranking somewhat of an anomaly. Maybe I’ll tweak the system next season…
If I compiled a personal top ten based on the last two years, it would be hard to get rid of most of these players from a top ten list. They’ve been very good over the journey and all bar one play for successful teams, meaning that factoring team success into the equation worked for the most part. And the one player it worked against was so good that he made it despite his team’s shortcomings.
Anyway, enough gas-bagging. Look for an in-season power-ranking system from The Mongrel during the 2019 AFL season in what we hope will be a pretty accurate reflection of who the difference makers are over the journey.
10 – Brodie Grundy (Collingwood)
If I had my way, Brodie Grundy would be the highest rated ruckman of the bunch. As it stands, that honour goes elsewhere, but I absolutely loved his 2018 efforts.
I’ve been reading a bit about how Dean Cox changed the way the ruck position was played in the 2000s, and I think we may be seeing things change again. At the forefront of this change is Grundy.
Has there been a harder-running big man in the history of the game? Has there been a better tackler for a big man? Has there been another who puts in the work at ground-level that Grundy does, to the point people are often heard saying it’s like having an extra midfielder in the trenches? I’m sure you could nominate someone who does one of those three things as well, or better than him. Maybe they’d do two better. But how about all three?
That list would be a short one.
Grundy did things in 2018 that ruckmen just should not do. His running, bouncing goal against Adelaide in the wet in Round Two was a sight to behold. The way he handled the ball, the power in his running, the work off the ball to free up space, and the finish… breathtaking stuff, and it certainly sucked the air out of the Adelaide Oval crowd.
What you get from Grundy is 100% effort, 100% of the time. His stats were up almost across the board in 2018. He was +1.79 disposals, +4.22 hit outs, +1.25 tackles, +2.38 contested touches, and +1.26 clearances per game. He made the sort of strides, at just 24 years of age, that great players do. One of the most impressive stats Grundy compiled in 2018 saw him notch 1039 hit outs. Since stats were recorded, only two others have managed that number of taps in a season – Goldstein in 2015, and Gawn in 2018. I suppose Grundy is pretty unlucky to be doing all this at the same time as Max Gawn, but I’ll get into the Gawn v Grundy debate a little more later on.
In 2018, Grundy notched 20+ possessions on 15 occasions, and amongst ruckmen, he was ranked number one in tackles, with 134 for the season. This was also good enough to have him ranked 14th in the entire league. It puts a lot of smaller blokes to shame.
Where to for Grundy in 2019?
He’ll be a year older and another pre-season stronger. He still has room to get better, which must scare the absolute shit out of opposition coaches. His ceiling appears to be extremely high, and with the new ruck interpretation allowing rucks to take it from bounces and not be pinged for holding the ball, Grundy’s positioning, power, and skill become all the more important. It should also see an increase in clearances and overall disposals. If 2018 saw the ruck role thrust back into prominence, 2019 could be the year that the big men truly take over.
Where do I see him in the grand scheme of things? Grundy would be my first player picked every single week. I never question what I am going to get from him in any game, whether it be a grand final, or a clash against the Suns – Grundy brings the same level of intensity to every contest. He’s the kind of player I wish I had on my team, and I’m hoping he brings it in 2019. I really want to see more of the Gawn v Grundy clash. Scroll down for more on it.
Oh, and I still think he was completely screwed over for his tackle on Ben Brown in 2017. That whole dangerous tackle rule pisses me off, actually.
9 – Tom Hawkins (Geelong)
OK, I’ll come clean and state that this didn’t sit well with me. I have no qualms about saying that Hawkins is the best “power” forward in the game right now. And when I say power forward, I mean contested mark and shot at goal kind of forward. He is a monster, and would be a nightmare to deal with one-on-one if the ball was even remotely kicked to his advantage.
But seeing him in the top ten… I just get the feeling he was more in the 10-20 kind of range. Maybe I can convince myself otherwise by looking at his numbers. Unless you’re a Cats supporter, I think you will probably take a bit of convincing as well.
So, in order to make myself feel better about Hawkins placing so high, I went back and looked at his 2018 season. What I found was enlightening.
Hawkins averaged career-best numbers in disposals and marks for the season, whilst going on an impressive run from Round Seven, where he strung together a series of 11 straight games where he averaged 3.81 goals, 16.63 disposals and 7.72 marks. They are the modern key forward dream numbers.
He finished 2018 +1.89 disposals, +2.02 marks and +0.54 goals on his 2017 numbers. See, now I am starting to feel better about his inclusion this high. All this is jogging my memory about how through the middle of the season, Hawkins was the best forward in the game and was rapidly closing the gap on Ben Brown.
By the end of the season, he almost got him, too. Hawkins finished with 60 goals to Brown’s 61, but he had more score involvements, more tackles, more disposals, and more marks – both contested and uncontested. Hawkins was simply a better all-round player in 2018. Brown just kicked straighter.
So, have we seen the best of the Tomahawk?
It’s hard to see him improving on what has been a very good career. As a deep forward, he is as dangerous as it gets in the modern game, but like Brown, his defensive efforts aren’t exactly what you’d call elite… and then I look up his stats and his 1.4 tackles per game inside 50 ARE apparently considered elite – I don’t know what to think any more. I watch games… I don’t see Hawkins as an elite defender inside attacking 50, but I guess that’s why I don’t get paid to do this, huh?
I think we’ve seen the best version of Hawkins we’re going to see. Losing Daniel Menzel puts a little more pressure on him, but as we’ve seen, Hawkins doesn’t shrink in big moments. A lot of how he performs will fall to how well the Geelong midfield can supply him. You’d think that with Danger, Ablett, Selwood, Kelly and Duncan as the main distributors, you’d get some pretty decent service, but as we’ll touch on in a minute, a lack of silver service from the rucks to the mids doesn’t allow them a free passage from the centre breaks.
If Hawkins can get a bit of help from Brandan Parfitt, who showed plenty in the games I watched him last season, and Jamaine Jones who looked good, if raw, a forward line with Hawkins as the focal point, those two and a fit Nakia Cockatoo and Quinton Narkle could cause some real issues. Throw in a forward-dwelling Gary Ablett and you have a Geelong forward six equipped to kick a big score.
Let’s say Hawkins matches his 2018 output - Geelong are bound for another finals series. However, if he falls down, it could be a long season for the Cats. Who are the other options to play out of the square? Danger? Ratugolea? Then what?
8 – Steele Sidebottom (Collingwood)
The Gary Ayres medallist had a brilliant 2018, and has gone a fair way to establishing himself as the most important piece of Collingwood’s powerhouse midfield.
To me, it looked like Sidebottom had taken a few leaves from Scott Pendlebury’s book, cocking the handball to buy himself time, thinking things through before releasing, and hurting the opposition whether by hand or foot.
2018 was very much a coming out party for Sidebottom. He was +2.11 in possessions, and had career-high numbers in clearances, contested possessions and inside 50s. He picked up his career-best 43 touches in Collingwood’s Round Four statement game at Adelaide Oval, announcing to the football world that which Magpie supporters already knew – he was the real deal. However, it was his 41 disposal performance against Richmond as the Pies despatched the Tigers in the Preliminary Final that will be remembered as his signature outing in 2018. He was too much to handle for every Richmond midfielder, and punished them whenever he got the ball.
Sidebottom polled extremely well in the Brownlow, and had 25+ possessions in 20 games in 2018. We’ve touched on the apparent looming midfield squeeze at Collingwood, but given Sidebottom’s effectiveness and impact on the team, you’d be a fool to think his midfield minutes will be sacrificed.
That said, he has shown the ability to go forward and convert, with two three-goal returns last season. Sidebottom is good overhead, and can trouble most midfielders in the air. I’ve been shouted down many times (and I’ll be shouted down once again, damn it!) but I think there are a lot of similarities to Ben Cunnington in the way they are both unflappably calm with the ball in hand and have such sure hands in marking contests. They both just get the job done with minimal fuss.
It’ll be hard for Sidebottom to top his 2018 season. He emerged as a genuine leader at the club, and I would not be at all surprised if there was a change in leadership at Collingwood sooner rather than later. If there were one thing Sidebottom could do to improve on things, it would take the Pies making another Grand Final. Sidebottom’s 14 disposal outing was his lowest output for the season. He picked a very bad day to have a bad day, and the Pies will require more from him when the going gets tough in September 2019.
7 – Patrick Cripps (Carlton)
OK, what I want to do here is focus on the player, and not the team. However, before that, I’ll address the elephant in the room. Rated at number seven in this system, how bloody high would he be if Carlton’s win-loss ratio was anything like Richmond, West Coast, or Melbourne?
Funny you should ask - I can answer that.
“If” Carlton had a similar record to West Coast, Cripps would jump to into the top three overall. It’d also give him a chance to earn votes in the Norm Smith and Gary Ayres medal awards, which could push him toward the top two, and maybe into the number one overall slot.
But he doesn’t play for a team with that record, so I’ll stop dealing with “ifs” and start dealing with actuals. He plays in a team that won two games in 2018, and here he is, slotting in at number seven as a reult. As much as losing penalises him personally in this system, he is simply too great a talent to have it damage him to the point where he becomes an also-ran.
Cripps is a monster – a midfielder in the body of a power forward. He busts packs, has beautifully clean hands, and is a hard man to bring to ground. His ability to collect and dispose of the ball whilst under extreme pressure is at the pointy end of the AFL. He was ranked number one in the league in 2018 for contested possessions with 17.5 per game, and sat second overall in clearances with 7.6 per contest.
The funny thing is, as much as people banged on about his 2018 (which was excellent), his clearance work in 2016 was actually better! He averaged 8.81 clearances in 2016, before dropping to 6.67 in 2017. Still, it’s not a bad collection of numbers, is it?
I wrote a little earlier section of the rankings about certain players making others on their teams walk taller. Cripps is one of those players. His very presence in the Carlton side imbues knowledge for the youngsters (and I am aware that Cripps himself is still considered a youngster) that the Blues are a big chance at getting first hands on the ball at every stoppage.
But it worries me that they are so reliant on him in close. Kids like Dow, Walsh and Stocker will take a lot from the way Cripps plays, but outside Marc Murphy and Ed Curnow, where is his assistance? He has broad shoulders, but how long can they carry this weight?
Matt Kennedy shows potential, but looks like a less-dynamic version of Cripps. The rest of the Carlton midfield looks… thin. My fear is that if Cripps goes down injured (and Carlton have had about enough of their top-tier players going down injured – the dual knee injuries to Sam Docherty have been a brutal blow) the Blues will fall in a heap yet again. Murphy’s best footy is behind him, and he cannot fill the role Cripps plays. No one at the club can. Actually, maybe one or two players in the entire league could do what he does for Carlton.
There are few players in the game whose clubs’ success or improvement are so closely tied to an individual. Franklin in Sydney is one. Daniher at Essendon is another. Cripps is the third. Every time he hits the track in the 2019 pre-season, the Carlton brains trust will be watching his every move. They will recoil at every collision, wince at every tackle or awkward landing. They will be praying he gets through unscathed. So important is Cripps to what they are building, to lose him would be a disaster even Carlton – so used to disasters recently – could not shrug off.
The ceiling for Cripps is non-existent. Whilst others have hit it, or have it in sight, Cripps smashed through it in 2018. He is a potential Brownlow medallist, a potential MVP, and a potential transcendent player that could very well go down as one of the all-time Carlton greats. He could be the best player in the game in the right environment. He just needs a few others on his team to start bridging the gap now, so they can help him get there.
6 – Patrick Dangerfield (Geelong)
His ranking here is powered by a blistering 2017, but Danger didn’t quite scale the same heights in 2018, and I reckon I know why.
It was erectile dysfunction.
Nah, just kidding – I’m sure he goes alright! What happened was that he didn’t convert up forward the same way in 2018 that he did in 2017. It was no longer a surprise to see Dangerfield wandering forward halfway through a quarter. Opponents weren’t caught off-guard, and coaches were waiting for it.
After snagging 45 goals in 2017 (and 32 behinds to go with it – a huge amount of shots for someone primarily playing in the guts), Danger was restricted to 24.23 in 2018 (still good enough to have him ranked as the number one mid-forward by Champion Data who clearly don’t think Dustin Martin plays that role last season… stoooopid). The floating forward role he played so well a year before was nullified because coaches do their homework these days, and later in the year, those who were burned at times by Martin put measures in place as well. Teams adapt, and they adapted to the move of sending Danger forward. In 2018, it simply did not work.
Whilst his main numbers dropped again from 2017 to 2018, Danger gave the Cats 28.14 touches per game (-1.78 from 2017) and was named All-Australian vice-captain for his efforts. Whether that was justified or not, I’m not sure (actually, I’m sure it wasn’t given you had an actual club captain in the side who wasn’t considered for a leadership position on the team…) but the fact remains that amongst the AFL fraternity, Danger is considered one of the biggest presences both on and off the field.
He will turn 29 early in the 2019 season, and teamed with 34 year old Gary Ablett, 30 year old Joel Selwood, and Tim Kelly seemingly with one foot out the door, you get the feeling this is a bit of “now or never” for Danger heading into the season.
I think it’s fair to say we have seen Danger’s ceiling. His 2016 season was one of the all-time great years, culminating in a Brownlow and Leigh Matthews Trophy combination. His 2017 was almost as good, particularly when you throw in the elevation of his goal kicking. So whilst we may have seen a regression from Danger in numbers across the board, can we expect a revival in 2019?
Surprisingly, I reckon the answer may sit with a bloke named Esava Ratugolea. A bit of a weird statement, huh? Hear me out.
When I watch Dangerfield play, the one thing I notice about him is his ability to burst away with the ball tucked under his wing. It is a very “Danger” kind of move, but in order to do that, he needs a ruckman that will work with him at stoppages, and allow him to get on the move with some chance of actually having the ball directed to his area. At the moment, it’s almost expected that the opposition will win ruck contests, which leaves Danger (and Ablett, and Selwood, and Duncan) guessing more often than not, and probably a bit on the back foot in regard to their positioning.
In 2018, the leading ruck for the Cats was Rhys Stanley. Second in hit outs was Ryan Abbott. Do you trust either of these guys to be able to get the ball down to Dangerfield, or into his path when they are competing with players the likes of Grundy, Gawn, Stef Martin or Todd Goldstein? They’re basically in there to try to curb the influence of those players… and failing.
Max Gawn had 1119 total hitouts in 2018, with 400 to advantage. Brodie Grundy had 1039 with 333 to advantage. Jarrod Witts had 854 with 211 to advantage. Between Stanley and Abbott, the Cats racked up 522. 139 of them were to advantage. Their mids are behind the eight ball before the ball is even bounced.
Geelong recruited Dangerfield as this amazing burst player. And they have failed to give him what he needs to continue to be that player. Ratugolea is an athlete. He has a great leap, and a strong body –if he can spend a bit of time in the middle, get his hand on the ball first and actually get it going Geelong’s way, we may start to see a bit of that electrifying run out of the middle from Dangerfield that was lacking in 2018. If not, I’m sorry – we’re going to get a watered down version of the player he could be.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s still a pretty bloody good asset to have; many teams would kill to have a player even remotely like Dangerfield in their rotation, however I would much rather the version of Danger that sits right around the seven clearances per game number, than the one who sits at five. And call me crazy, but I don’t think there are many Cats supporters who’d prefer the latter, either.
5 - Jack Riewoldt (Richmond)
I’m not sure we’ve seen a transformation so dramatic as the one undertaken in the last few years by Jack Riewoldt. Dare I say it – he has become Dunstall-esque in his ability to not only kick goals for his team, but to create opportunities for his teammates.
On two occasions in 2018 (there may be more, but I didn’t watch every single Richmond game), he made goals out of nothing for teammates, and they were instances where doing the “safe” thing and taking the ball out of bounds was completely acceptable. In fact, I am sure a lot of coaches, when viewing the footage of Riewoldt chasing the ball to the boundary, would’ve preferred he let it run out in order for the team to set up for a stoppage.
But Riewoldt has taken things to another level for current AFL players, and on those two occasions, his knock back into play, over his head, resulted in a teammate running onto the ball and kicking a goal. He doesn’t get a stat for it, as there is no disposal, but his efforts to keep the ball alive, at the risk of the opposition getting a relatively easy defensive clearance, are part of what made Richmond special for the majority of the season. They backed themselves, and they backed their teammates, and it was most evident in the play of Riewoldt.
If we go back a few years, my thoughts on Jack would be markedly different to now. I think until that point, I’d seen the worst of Riewoldt; the petulant, pouting, demonstrative “me first” forward. But the maturation of Riewoldt into one of the unselfish leaders of a successful team is credit to him, Damien Hardwick, and the others involved in his embracing of the team ethos. I actually thought he may be a bit of a smoky for the All-Australian captaincy.
I suppose there could be those who liked the old Riewoldt. I mean a 3.55 goal average in 2010 is hard to ignore, and I’m sure there were kids back then who are young people now who have fond memories of what he was doing, but for mine, team success supersedes any individual accomplishments. When Jack started to be a little more embracing of structure and teamwork, the success soon followed.
Only one player had more score involvements in 2018, and that was his teammate, Dustin Martin.
Riewoldt has become the complete forward, and with his third Coleman medal now in the trophy cabinet, he has the opportunity to join such names as Doug Wade, Tony Lockett, Peter Hudson and contemporary, Lance Franklin with four awards should he have another stellar year in front of the big sticks.
So, what’s stopping him?
What I think you’ll see initially is a concerted effort to integrate Tom Lynch into the Richmond forward system. It’ll change things slightly, and with Riewoldt. Lynch and Caddy all sharing the goal kicking responsibilities, bags of goals may become harder to come by. Maybe it costs Riewoldt a Coleman, but should that three-pronged attack work, the pay-off for the team would be huge.
The Caddy and Riewoldt combination combined for 116 goals in 2018. How many can the Caddy-Lynch-Riewoldt combination create in 2019?
The answer might be the difference in whether Richmond does what they should’ve done in 2018, and claims the flag.
4 – Lance Franklin (Sydney)
There’s a few things for certain over the last ten years. Rising petrol prices, ill-advised political leadership challenges, and Lance Franklin firmly entrenched in the top handful of players in the competition. Heading into the 2019 season, nothing’s changed.
It’s been a decade since Buddy kicked his ton, but his presence at the top, or close to the top of the goal kicking charts has become expected. With 917 goals to his name, a huge season by Franklin in 2019 could see him reach the magical four figure mark – a feat achieved only by Dunstall, Lockett, Wade, Coventry and Ablett. That’s some pretty esteemed company.
However, given recent history, an 83-goal season for Franklin seems a little far-fetched. After his dominant 2008, he has never again reached 83 goals in a season, peaking at 82 in 2011, and reaching 81 in 2016.
His 57 goals in 2018, and 73 in 2017 are more likely to be around the mark of what to expect from him in 2019, particularly with a delayed start to pre-season due to a groin issue. We may have to wait until 2020 to see him reach 1000 goals.
That said, Franklin has been a force of nature in the AFL, and if there was ever anyone who could completely reverse a trend and rack up some big numbers, it’s him. When fit, Franklin is close to impossible to stop. His Round One performance against the eventual premiers in 2018 was a stark reminder that when Buddy is up and running, he is the difference between the Swans being a good side, and a great one. That eight goal blast was the determining factor in the Swans beating the Eagles on their home deck. If not for an awkward landing and subsequent heel injury, more games like that may have been in the offing.
So where do we see Buddy in 2019? With a groin operation to start his pre-season on the wrong note, chances are we see a similar Franklin to the one we saw in 2018, which could be either a blessing or a curse. A physically right Franklin staying close to goal is a headache, and if he doesn’t have the endurance to run up to half back and double back as we’ve been so used to, he could provide some painful moments for opposition coaches in 2019.
I saw Buddy do something that I was unfamiliar with in 2018. He started taking one-out marks. Long thought a weakness in his game, Buddy’s contested marking has benefitted from his additional size. He is now heavier than he’s ever been, and despite what you hear, it’s not all just excess weight – he is bloody strong. His ability to hold off a player and take a grab has improved. In 2018, he took two contested marks per game; just the fourth time he’s hit that mark.
You know what else will work in his favour? These “zone” rule implementations. Someone has to stay deep – it’ll be Franklin, and someone will have to go with him. Buddy one-out within 30 metres of goal – that’s like a bad dream for a defender. This is foreign territory for coaches, and if Franklin and Longmire can work this to their advantage early in the season, we may see Buddy get a flying start to 2019.
And here’s something else that’ll impact things. You heard that hands in the back is no longer an automatic free kick, right? You can now use your hands to hold a player off and mark over the back. I can see this playing right into Buddy’s hands, pardon the pun. He is stronger than most backs, now. Bigger, heavier, and with the reach usually in his advantage, being able to hold off an opponent legally with his hands, and then reach for the mark will benefit not only Franklin, but a lot of key forwards
This coming season is interesting on so many fronts for Franklin. He has the looming milestone only five men have achieved. He has recovery from delayed surgery hampering his preparation. He has two rule changes that could help his game. He has his heir apparent sitting across from him in the Sydney locker room, in Nick Blakey. And he has the clock ticking on his time to win a flag with the Swans.
As he demonstrated when he started in the league, Franklin thrives in pressure situations. Well, as we head into 2019, the pressure is on. It’s up to Buddy to respond.
3 – Max Gawn (Melbourne)
I know what I wrote about Brodie Grundy above, but if you wanted a ruckman to do what a ruckman is supposed to do – give his on-ballers first use of the footy – you simply cannot go past Gawn. He did it so well that he broke records in 2018 (which helped his high ranking here).
He now owns four of the top 20 games for most hitouts ever, and became the only man to top 1100 hit outs in a season. His ability to put the ball right into the path of his midfielders is unparalleled in the current AFL.
Gawn had a couple of moments he’d rather forget in 2018 – his shanked shot at goal in Round One is the sort of thing that could really mess with someone’s head (and it looked like it did when he was confronted with an almost identical shot later in the year against Hawthorn) but Gawn had the sort of season that spoke of a man who has been able to put ghosts of goals-missed past behind him. The way he controlled the air in some games were more indicative of a man who knew he was the most physically dominant player on the park.
With Jake Lever going down injured, Gawn took it upon himself to drift back into the hole many times, taking intercept marks and shutting down opposition forward forays.
His increased fitness base, and career-high numbers as a result in disposals, marks and uncontested possessions made Gawn the toast of the town in the lead up to the end of season awards, most of which of course ignored the fact he was close to, if not THE most influential player in the game for 2018. The exception was the Coaches award for most outstanding player.
Gawn became the first ruckman to be honoured by the coaches since the award was instituted in 2003, indicating two things. 1 – that ruckmen have been criminally undervalued, and 2 – that times, they are a changin’.
So what do we expect from Gawn in 2019? If he has a similar year to 2018, the Dees are right in the mix. His presence in the middle, and willingness to throw himself in the way of forwards as he drifts back into the hole, will see him remain one of the most dominant presences in the game. If he somehow manages to improve… wow. Can he improve? After smashing the all-time hit out record, where else is there to go? Can he top it again? Maybe become the only player to ever top 1200 hit outs in a year?
Now, not to hijack this, but I’m gonna spend a couple of minutes writing about something that could end up being special – the Gawn-Grundy rivalry.
The gap between Big Max and Brodie Grundy isn’t a huge one. It’s as though these two push each other to perform just a little harder. Each time one has a big game, the other responds. Whilst it’s a stretch at the moment, eventually I reckon comparisons with other great sporting duels could start to be made. Larry v Magic. Wilt v Russell. Ali v Frasier. Gawn v Grundy in the ruck could turn into one of the classic AFL individual rivalries.
Think about it – the ruck is basically the only positional battle where you’re guaranteed a one-on-one match up on level-footing. If you have two great forwards in the same game, they’re at opposite ends of the ground. A great forward and great defender – the deck is stacked in favour of the defender. He just has to halve the contest to see it considered a win. Midfielders? Well, rarely do they go head to head without rotations influencing things. But in the ruck – it’s the last man-against-man duel we have in the game, and we’re getting a classic in Grundy and Gawn that’ll only get better.
Both these guys are young. Gawn is 27. Grundy is 24; they’re veritable babies in AFL ruck terms (Sandilands is 36). They have years left of classic tussles. I’ve already circled Queen’s Birthday on my calendar. And I’ve also got Saturday August 10th circled as well as we add to the rivalry. Here’s hoping we get a finals match-up to round out a 2019 trilogy for ruck supremacy.
Gawn v Grundy is a battle for the ages, and though my personal preference is Grundy, in this ranking system Gawn gets the nod. We’ll see if that changes in 2019.
But to finish on Gawn, 2018 marked the first year he seems to have taken his craft seriously. Yeah, he was effective prior, but cutting back on the things holding him back (smokes and beers) saw him reach heights that would otherwise have eluded him. If he knuckles down again, stays healthy and applies himself with a renewed vigour, I feel for the part time rucks that will oppose him. It’ll be a massacre, and records could fall again.
2 – Dustin Martin (Richmond)
He was so close to cracking the number one spot, despite having a season that paled in comparison to his exhilarating 2017. But that is nothing to be ashamed of – most seasons of even the very best players of all time pale in comparison to Dustin Martin’s 2017 season.
If we erase the memory of 2017 and look at Martin’s 2018 as a stand-alone achievement, he still had a ripping year, which seemed to deflate a little with an injury-hampered finale. With an injury causing bleeding into his knee, Dusty simply wasn’t Dusty in Richmond’s capitulation to Collingwood. It kind of took the shine off what was another fantastic season from the Richmond champion.
Numbers won’t be Dusty’s friend in this analysis, mainly due to the powerhouse 2017 performance making anything he did in 2018 seem less by comparison. Mainly because it is less by comparison. He was -4.42 in overall disposals, -1.43 in tackles, -2.69 in contested possessions, and -1.1 in clearances, yet those numbers were still enough to see Martin rank 16th in contested touches, 11th on metres gained, 1st in score involvements, and 15th in clearances. He was still one of the most powerful forces in the game.
Early in the season, Dusty drifted forward, and put a couple of team defences to the sword. His five goals against Adelaide weren’t enough to get the Tigers over the line in the Grand Final rematch, but his six goal bag against the Brisbane Lions was a virtuoso performance.
In Round 19 against Collingwood, Martin found himself getting close attention from Levi Greenwood. He was moved forward, dragging Greenwood to the goal square, where he proceeded to snag three goals. It was a lesson Nathan Buckley took on board. Perhaps Damien Hardwick should’ve kept that move in his pocket for when the stakes were a little higher? When the Tigers tried the same thing in the Preliminary Final, Collingwood were ready, and Greenwood deferred to more seasoned defenders to stifle the Richmond powerhouse.
Looking at Dusty’s year, he was still a star, but his 2017 made him seem less so. In this system it’s a blessing and a curse. Had we swapped his 2017 and 2018, he would be a runaway number one. But this is weighted to give more recent achievements more credit. Whilst his 2017 still gets him a huge amount of traction, his 2018 sees him slip slightly.
Can Dusty get back to 2017 levels? If he does, start engraving the premiership cup. The bloke won everything a player could win in 2017. He was the AFL’s version of the undisputed champion. To say someone else was better was to basically take your credibility and flush it down the hopper, but 2018 made him seem… mortal.
We’ve seen Dusty’s ceiling. It is higher than most will ever be able to see, let alone reach. His power in the middle, his long, penetrating kicks, his fend offs, his goals, his celebrations, and his undoubted ability… they all combined with an injury-free run to give him a season made in footballing heaven. 2017 was a Richmond dream made possible by Dustin Martin’s personal football nirvana.
Chances are he won’t get to that level again, but even if he gets to 90% of that year, it’ll still be enough to have him firmly entrenched in the conversation as to who is the best player in the competition.
1 – Tom Mitchell (Hawthorn)
Recency bias is what this system is all about, and though Mitchell did not get a clean sweep of the awards in 2018, he grabbed a couple of the big ones, and set some records along the way.
His Brownlow/MVP combination was enough to power him to the number one ranking over Martin, but only barely. Believe it or not, it wasn’t Mitchell’s 2018 season that got him home, but the residual effects of a stellar 2017. Whilst everyone was in rapture’s about Mitchell’s accumulation of disposals last season, his 2017 was just as impressive.
In 2017, Mitchell racked up an amazing 35.77 disposals per game, bettering his 2018 average of 35.33. What he did have in his favour in 2018, which actually got him over the line against Dusty, was that he recorded the most disposals in a season of all time, with 848. Mitchell now holds two of the top five seasons of all time in terms of total disposals. And he has accomplished that in the last two seasons.
Mitchell also claimed a record for the most disposals in a game of AFL footy, notching 54 in the Round 1 match against Collingwood. He went close again in Round 15 against GWS, notching his second 50-disposal game of the season. Mitchell now three of the top eight games for total disposals – ever! What we’re seeing right now in Tom Mitchell is history in the making.
Given some of the commentary around his efforts, and whether or not his disposals “hurt” the opposition, I actually don’t think people realise just how incredible these efforts are. Seriously, I reckon there are players with a lot of talent who retire from professional footy with less than 50 possessions for their career!
The recruitment of Tom Mitchell from Sydney was a brilliant move by Hawthorn, and probably evens up for the lop-sided trade that sent Josh Kennedy to the Swans to allow him the chance to develop away from a team choc-full of players at their peak. Mitchell was a star in the making at Sydney, but with Kennedy still there, and support still readily available from Hannebery, Parker and Jack, the clubs did something rare, and acted in the best interest of the player.
I still think this was a wink from Sydney to Hawthorn after the Kennedy-trade that benefitted them years before.
Does Mitchell have the capacity to take it up a notch in 2019? Surely he can’t push up to 37 touches per game, can he? His contested touches went up in 2018, as did his clearances. If his teammates start to work to get him even more room on the outside, records could tumble again, and guess who’ll be back at number one again next pre-season?
But the season is a long one, and as we’ve touched on, coaches are not idiots… well, most of them, anyway. If they’re giving Mitchell enough rope to go out and rack up multiple 50-possession games again in 2019, they should take that rope and use it for another purpose.
Maybe we’ll see more players in the vein of Mark Hutchings, George Hewett and Ben Jacobs, with defined roles to shut down damaging players like Mitchell? Or maybe they’ll disrespect him to the point where the tag goes to Isaac Smith to keep him to 12 touches whilst Mitchell hits the 40s?
It’s another side note to a season that is already intriguing me. As it stands right now, Tom Mitchell reigns supreme as the number one power player in the game. Like it or not, numbers do not lie, and in this system, numbers are king.
Brownlow, MVP, records tumbling… Tom Mitchell just edges Dustin Martin.
The Mongrel will be instituting fortnightly Power Rankings for the home and away season in 2019. After Round Four, we will publish our first rankings, and update it every two weeks thereafter. As it stands, I am currently in the process of formatting a system to rank players, but to be honest, I am hitting a few snags.
I’d like the system to be as fair as possible, and as such, welcome your input. If you’d like to hit me up and have your say, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org
All the best, and I hope you enjoyed this count down. I’m tired…
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