So, before we get going, below are the links to players 50-41 and 40-31 in our rankings. If you’re unfamiliar with what is happening here, I suggest going back and reading those articles first to get a better grasp of how things are working.
OK, are we all set now? Excellent.
Before getting into this countdown, I want to touch on something that’s becoming a bit of a bone of contention for some, and the messages I’ve received regarding it have fluctuated between informative and up for debate to openly insulting… and that’s fine – I’m a big boy. The matter that has people a little upset is the factoring in of win-loss records and finals records in this system.
What I wanted to do here is have a list of players who were the best players on the best teams. I titled it power-rankings simply because… well, it sounded pretty good, and they do use this a lot in US-sports. I enjoy the fluctuations in the lists from year to year and even week to week during the season. Actually, it’s more than the fact I like the way it sounds – it is a reflection of impact the players have on the competition. These are the powerful players – the ones having an influence on the way the seasons are shaped. They’re not passive passengers riding along on teams going nowhere. They’re influencers as to how you will remember the year.
I’ll give you an example.
Jack Steven at St Kilda is a very good player. I would never doubt that. He is a great run-and-carry player, and is like a rabid dog when the ball is there to be won, but is he the kind of player that shaped 2017 or 2018? Would you consider him a highly influential player in the AFL landscape?
I sure as hell don’t; not based on what he, and his team delivered last season. They were simply making up the numbers in the competition, and playing well on that St Kilda team was akin to guys dropping 50 points in the NBA whilst languishing at the bottom of the standings.
You heard of a guy named Devin Booker? In 2017, he dropped a mammoth 70 points in an NBA game, and his teammates were going nuts on the bench as he poured in basket after basket. Yes, it was a remarkable achievement, particularly for one so young. Only Wilt Chamberlain (The GOAT did it six times), Kobe Bryant, Elgin Baylor, David Thompson and David Robinson have ever scored that many points in a game. Even Michael Jordan could only manage 69 as a career-high.
But you know what was crazy about that game? Booker’s team lost. They got 70 points from this kid and they still stunk it up as a team. So, in effect, that 70-point blast was wasted. His teammates were cheering, hollering and hooting as he scored his 70th point. Allexcept one. Former NBA champion, Tyson Chandler wasn’t acting like a clown on the bench because the team was fucking losing! That’s where the value is – in winning. He had an NBA title under his belt. He understood where an individual achievement in a loss stood, and he was in no mood to celebrate a loss, irrespective of Booker’s achievement.
So without disparaging Jack Steven’s efforts for the Saints, if you’re not providing these efforts in wins, I’m not going to be kissing up to you on this list, particularly when there are players on worse teams doing even better. And for the record, Steven was ranked #53.
I suppose this stems from the rating of a player like Shaun Higgins, who had a great year, but saw his team finish 9th. There has been arguments that he should be rated above Shane Edwards given Higgins’ last two years have been excellent for North. Higgins was 39th on our list. Edwards was 31st.
The distinct differences between the two is finals appearances, and win-loss records. Over the past two seasons, Edwards’ win-loss record stands at 34-10 – it’s outstanding. Higgins clocks in at 17-24. In this system, we reward the same thing that all players aspire to – winning. Edwards has a flag, and he has as many All-Australian selections as Higgins. Simply put, he does what he does on a better team. He is successful. If you’re asking me who has been more influential over the past two AFL seasons between Higgins and Edwards, I have no hesitation stating it was Edwards. He was there when it counted. He was an integral part of a premiership team and was neck deep in the finals again this past season whilst Higgins was already on holidays in both years.
So, we rate great players on great teams higher than great players on middle of the road teams, because I want this list to reflect success, and I hope it does.
Now watch Patrick Cripps completely screw this up for me as we continue the countdown.
Let’s get on with it.
30 – Josh Kelly (GWS)
After an excellent 2017, big things were expected from Kelly in 2018, but he was another who fell to the dreaded injury curse, restricting him to just four of the first ten games of the season. Upon his return, Kelly reminded everyone of the reason he is so highly rated by those in the AFL fraternity.
In his first four games back from injury, he averaged 32.5 touches per game as the Giants started to get their season back on track. It was no coincidence that Kelly’s return to the side resulted in four straight wins for GWS – he has that kind of effect on the team.
The Giants finished with a record of 13 wins, eight losses and a draw. With Kelly in the team, they were 12-4. Not sure you need more proof as to his impact on that team.
I find it a bit sad that there are already stories circulating that Kelly will return to Victoria following the 2019 (and I compound them by addressing them here, right?). He has the opportunity to become the first legitimate GWS legend if he continues at the club. His 2018 numbers may have been down on 2017 (-3.19 touches per game for those playing at home) but his influence is undeniable.
There are players who cause others on their team to walk a bit taller. Some do it via a physical presence. GWS have a couple of those in Callan Ward and Phil Davis. Others do it by way of their ability with the ball. Josh Kelly is one of those players.
29 – Rory Laird (Adelaide)
So I watched a lot of Adelaide games in 2018, and as I watched Rory Laird pick up possession after possession across half back, I wondered why opposition coaches weren’t sending someone to run with him. The only one I saw do it was Ken Hinkley, but given the Crows-Power rivalry, part of me thinks he just doesn’t want any Crow getting an easy ride in those games and gave Rory a bit of an F-U by throwing Wingard at him.
I wondered whether coaches perhaps thought Laird wasn’t hurting them as much as others and were simply picking their poison amongst the Adelaide backs, but he was hurting them, over and over. I watched him a little more intently each week, wondering when people would wake up and place a defensive forward on this bloke to stifle him. Then I realised – you can’t really stifle him.
It’s not as though he is just an outside runner – he earns his touches. The bloke is like a miniature tank. If Mark Roberts at North Melbourne was ‘The Fridge’, then Laird is like “The Esky” – one that is packed full, as well. You ever tried to move one of those bastards when they’re packed full? It isn’t easy. He’s got a low centre of gravity and is deceptively strong. He holds his ground, rarely loses his feet, and bounces off contact like a pinball. The more I watched him, the more I thought he was simply unstoppable.
Laird picked up his second consecutive All-Australian berth and provided Adelaide with a genuine bright spot in what was a pretty dimly-lit season. Over the past four seasons, Laird’s numbers have gone through the roof. Starting with 15.94 touches per game in 2014, Laird averaged over double that, with 32.20 disposals per game in 2018. After averaging 29.44 touches in 2017, he was +2.76 in 2018.
Whilst it is hard to see Laird topping his 2018 output in 2019 (he couldn’t, could he? Seriously, if he averages 34, opposition coaches should be shot)), if he is anywhere near those sort of numbers again, questions have to start being asked around where he rates in terms of all-time rebounding defenders. 32.20 disposals per game is just ridiculous for a flanker.
But Laird is that sort of player – ridiculously good.
28 – Lachie Whitfield (GWS)
There must be something about Whitfield that other teams dislike a little. It seemed to me that whenever the opportunity to tackle him hard to the ground became apparent, opposition players revelled in driving him into the turf.
Does he have a tag of being a little soft, or disliking the contact? I reckon he may have shed that last season. He took the hits in 2018, got up, and kept on working his backside off. With Tom Scully sidelined, the Giants were lacking a bit of their run-and-carry. Whitfield did all he could to rectify that situation. He averaged a career-high 26.75 touches per game as an outside runner – 20 of his touches per week were uncontested.
His effectiveness landed him his first All-Australian selection, and he stood up in both GWS finals appearances in 2018, averaging 30 touches in those games.
If I’m looking at an area Whitfield can improve again in 2019, it would be getting on the end of a couple of forward thrusts (he should consult my old pal Joe Ganino – he’s been on the receiving end of so many forward thrusts over the years…). Whitfield finished 2018 with just six goals to his name. He needs to hit the scoreboard more – with that long, raking kick, he should be able to punish teams from outside 50. If we see more of that in 2019, Whitfield has the ability to rank very highly not just on lists such as these, but in AFL awards in general.
27 – Tom McDonald (Melbourne)
After missing the first five games of 2018, McDonald returned to the team and made a huge impact, so much so that Jesse Hogan is now no longer a Melbourne player.
What struck me as the benefit of TMac was that when the Dees played quality opposition, he was the one to stand up in the forward line. In eight games against eventual top eight teams, he averaged 2.87 goals per game. In contrast, in games against eventual top eight teams, the man he replaced, Jesse Hogan, averaged 1.33 goals. It kind of makes the decision to go with McDonald as the number one option a bit easier when you look at things like that, doesn’t it?
TMac doesn’t shrink against the good teams – he rises to the occasion.
Going into 2019, the weight of expectation is now firmly on the shoulders of McDonald. He is now the undisputed focal point of the Melbourne forward set up. Whether Sam Weideman can command enough attention to keep his opponents accountable and prevent defences collapsing on McDonald will be an intriguing side story to the season. TMac and Hogan combined to kick 100 goals in 2018. How much will the McDonald/Weideman combination provide?
The answer to that may give a very good indication as to whether Melbourne improves on 2018, or laments letting Jesse Hogan walk. If McDonald kicks 50 again, or maybe even 60, he could be the difference between the Dees holding a premiership cup aloft, and the drought continuing.
26 – Elliot Yeo (West Coast)
People finally took notice of this bloke in 2018. A best and fairest in 2017 was nice, and internally, those at the Eagles adored him, but in the season just past, Yeo put his stamp on the competition. In some cases, he didn’t just put his stamp on it – he put his foot on its throat and stepped down.
A second best and fairest – this one in a premiership year – makes him one of the highest regarded mids going around. And it isn’t just because he is an offensive weapon – not at all.
Yeo is one of the best two-way runners in the game, and this was encapsulated in a scintillating display against Dustin Martin and Richmond in Round 9. Initially thought to be injured, Yeo re-entered the fray and put the clamps on Dusty, en route to a best on ground performance. His 29 touches and six tackles were the catalyst for the Eagles running over the top of the reigning premiers.
There are a couple of games where I thought players in a defensive role really stood out in 2018. Phil Davis blanketing Buddy Franklin in the Elimination Final was one, and Elliot Yeo’s game on Dustin Martin was the other. For more on this game – check out our review here – I loved it.
In 2019, Yeo has the chance to cement his place as one of the best mids in the game – as if back-to-back best and fairest awards don’t already do it. His omission from the All-Australian team in 2018 is something that should be rectified next season, but he will probably need to increase his 24.60 disposals per game to do so. People love numbers…
25 – Dylan Grimes (Richmond)
Whilst many will point to Alex Rance as the lynchpin of the Richmond defence, both Dylan Grimes and David Astbury are the down and dirty defenders that take on the big jobs and allow Rance to be the best intercept defender in the league.
Of those two, it’s Dylan Grimes that shows the versatility to play on both bigs and smalls with aplomb. He seems to be Richmond’s Mr Fix It of their back six, and whilst both Astbury and Rance are capable of putting the brakes on most forwards, it’s Grimes who competes in the air and on the ground like few others.
If you were going to advertise the role Grimes performs for the Tigers, you’d do it simply and effectively – much like the way he plays. He’s like one of those heavy duty cleaners; doing the job that no one else is capable of doing, and doing it with no mess, and no fuss.
Whilst many will look at the star-studded Richmond team and pick out five or six players vital to their success (Riewoldt, Cotchin, Martin, Nankervis and Rance all leap to mind), the efforts of Grimes are often overlooked. He is rarely beaten one-on-one, runs like a greyhound, and does not shirk the issue when there is a physical contest to be had. I’d think that if he were playing in any other team, he’d be lauded as their best defender. Fact is, he plays alongside Rance, so as it stands, he sits second in the Richmond pecking order.
However, in the league as a whole, I’d be pretty comfortable having Grimes sit in the top five defenders in the game.
24 – Robbie Gray (Port Adelaide)
There are some players who think a little differently to others. No, I’m not talking about those like Mark Jackson – they tend to think differently to most humans. But on a footy field, there are those who seem to be a step or two in front of others, and have an ability to make things happen. Players like Jason Akermanis or Darren Jarman just seem to know how to impact a game at crucial moments – Robbie Gray is not too far removed from those players.
When watching Port Adelaide, they seem to have a plethora of players who can impact a game… to a point. Westhoff has been excellent, with close to a career-best season in 2018. Wines had a solid season. Ryder, when fit, is a hard player to stop. But there is only one man who looks dangerous every single game, and every single time the ball heads into his area. That player is Robbie Gray.
His six-goal haul against the Crows in Round Eight, earning him yet another Showdown Medal (four in total now), was the kind of game that should be shown to potential small forwards entering the league. After an ordinary first half, Gray unleashed a third quarter for the ages, snagging five goals to not only drag Port back into the contest, but put them in a position to win it. It was close to the best quarter of footy by a forward all season, and it came in a high-stakes contest.
History will look kindly on the career of Robbie Gray. As he enters season 13, he has already accrued four All-Australian blazers and has 83 goals over the past two seasons. Whilst others may have had a bigger impact as small forwards, there is none, on their day, that are as good as Gray.
23 – Scott Pendlebury (Collingwood)
This one kind of shocked me. I had expected a slight fall from grace for Pendles, but that’s the thing about champions, isn’t it? They don’t fall easily. Is he slowing down? Mike Sheahan said early in the 2018 season that he no longer considered Pendlebury an A-Grader.
Pendlebury’s response? A string of games where he combined with Steele Sidebottom and Adam Treloar to power Collingwood into contention. From Rounds 6-15, Pendlebury averaged 27.25 touches, a goal, and 5.25 tackles per game. They’re A-Grade numbers.
The Collingwood captain is in a strange position in the team at the moment. There is no longer the need for him to rack up 30+ disposals in order for the Pies to have a chance to win. His 26.8 possessions per game were his lowest average since 2010 (not a bad year for the Pies either, huh? Maybe there’s something to this…). There are others to shoulder the load now. Pendlebury doesn’t have to do it all.
With Adam Treloar, Taylor Adams, Sidebottom and the returning Dayne Beams all requiring significant time in the Collingwood midfield, the soon-to-be 31 year old may find himself with a different role to play in 2019, however he will be no less valuable. Picture this – you’re a leading half forward and the ball is rebounding out of the Collingwood defence. You push off your opponent and make space, and the ball hits you right on the chest. It does that because it came from the boot of Scott Pendlebury. You know he’s going to hit the target.
A move to half back for Pendlebury, with the option to spend some time in the guts when required, would spell trouble for the opposition. It may be a role that could see a year or two added to the back end of his career. The Pies’ midfield is amazingly powerful at the moment, with young talent like Brayden Sier ready to emerge as potential inside mid presences. The time for Pendles to take a back seat could be upon us. Pendlebury as a half back… what a luxury.
22 – Jack Gunston (Hawthorn)
There were a few significant reasons for the re-emergence of Hawthorn as a contender in 2018, though the straight-sets exit may indicate those reasons may not be enough. Whilst many will put it down to the coaching of Alastair Clarkson (I have to admit, I do get a bit sick of hearing that), the turnaround in form of Jack Gunston must rate highly as well.
His selection to the All-Australian team in 2018 was indicative of the impact his form had on the Hawthorn team. After a lean year in front of goal in 2017 (19 goals from 21 games due to being used as a half back to plug holes), Gunston returned to more familiar surroundings in 2018, and notched his fourth 50-goal season in the last five years.
Combining with Luke Breust, Gunston was able to play tall or small depending on the needs of the team, and was still able to work back into defence when required.
There are not many players in the league that can comfortably play at either end of the ground and remain effective. Gunston has shown the versatility to drop into the backline when Hawthorn is under siege and stop the bleeding.
However, it was his work up forward in 2018 that saw him impress the most. He kicked four or more goals on five occasions in 2018, with his five goal effort against Essendon earning him best on ground honours. With the Hawks struggling for a marking option up forward(and looking like they might again in 2019), Gunston’s presence around the 50-metre arc will be vital to their success.
How he fits in with the newly arrived Chad Wingard will be interesting to watch. A three-pronged attack featuring Gunston, Wingard and Breust would have a few opposition coaches a little nervous.
21 – Alex Rance (Richmond)
Look, I’m really hoping that this lays to rest cries of bias against Rance from me. I respect the hell out of him. I will admit that those anointing him as one of the greatest defenders of all time after 2017 kind of annoyed me a little – if anything, I found it a little disrespectful to those who had gone before. He may be the best of the modern game, but defending now is a different beast – I thought that should’ve been acknowledged a little more. And whilst I was a little dubious of his All-Australian captaincy (as I am Lance Franklin’s and Patrick Dangerfield’s leadership positions on the 2018 version), I will never, ever believe that Rance is a poor player – he is a star!
Right, that’s out of the way.
What you get when Alex Rance goes to the deepest forward every week is a genuine highlight match-up. Against Geelong, my eyes lit up when, at one point, Dangerfield went to the goal square and Rance dropped back to pick him up. That, right there, is a marquee matchup. Rance beat him – easily. Danger didn’t even register shot at goal, and though my memory is hazy, I cannot recall a one-on-one win for danger against Rance at all.
Rance didn’t have as easy a time with other match ups throughout the year, however, with Mason Cox getting a hold of the entire Tiger back six in the Preliminary Final. Josh Jenkins, Jake Melksham and the combination of Josh Kennedy and Jack Darling all had the better of Rance at points as well. But you know what – he is as honest as the day is long as a defender. He has a red hot go, and more often than not, he wins his battles. Sometimes he wins them in incredibly convincing style.
He is a polarising figure in the game, and has plenty of critics who see him more as a zone-off defender, but numbers do not lie, and in genuine one-on-one contests, Rance is rarely beaten. He is the number one player in the game for intercept possessions, and controls the space inside defensive 50 as well as anyone else in the game.
It seems that people either love him or rail against him, but there is no question in my mind that, as far as top-tier defenders go, Rance is perennially in the top handful, and if you think he isn’t, there’d be no reasoning with you on the subject.
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