In the current age of football, there is only one elite forward in the AFL. There, I said it. Just one. His name is Lance Franklin.
As much as experts will tell you that there are others with big upsides, great skills, and huge potential, Franklin is the only one of the current crop of key forwards with significant runs on the board. He is the elite, the only true A-Grade forward in the competition. Josh Kennedy is an excellent forward and may one day kick a century himself. Joe Daniher is well on the way to being an A-Grader as well, but they’re nowhere near Buddy just yet. The big man from Sydney is in a league of his own.
If there is a dearth of top-echelon forwards, how then can former Essendon champion forward, Matthew Lloyd, hail Alex Rance as the greatest defender of all time? A hero is only as great as the villain he vanquishes.
Either Lloyd was on the receiving end of a few too many head knocks throughout his career, or we are seeing another case of recency bias. The same narrow focus was applied by Leigh Matthews last year, when he claimed that Dustin Martin may have completed the greatest season of all time.
Not to disparage the opinion of Leigh Matthews, but it is easy to look upon what’s happening right now in a very favourable light. We are bombarded with hyperbole around current players when they excel, and are a little too eager to anoint someone as the next big thing, or in this case, one of the greats. The exploits of current players are front and centre in an age where every possession, every mark, every goal and, yes… every fend off is analysed by a 24-hour football channel. You then have sports radio and the print media in the mix as well. Whilst there is some merit in celebrating Rance's prowess, we’re traveling at about 15% fact, and 85% hype.
Alex Rance has played on Lance Franklin a handful of times, and is very rarely caught in a one-on-one situation with him. Credit the Richmond defenders with a fantastic team effort on Franklin if you must, but to give Rance all the credit is like saying Dustin Martin won the 2017 premiership. Whilst he was important, there were many moving parts to the Richmond machine in September. Martin was a vital one, but only one nonetheless.
This is also the case with Rance in the Richmond backline. Players like Dylan Grimes and David Astbury carried heavy loads in 2017. As a matter of fact, in the 2017 AFL Grand Final, they took the big jobs. Rance played 62 minutes with Andy Otten as his direct opponent. He also played 39 minutes on Josh Jenkins. Yep, that downhill skiing Josh Jenkins.
So, given that an AFL game runs approximately 120 minutes, how long did Rance; the “greatest defender ever” spend on the most dangerous tall forward on the ground?
Alex Rance spent 15 minutes playing on Tex Walker. Granted, Walker was having a lot of trouble getting near it on the day, and failed to impact a lot of contests. As a matter of fact, his one moment to make a physical impact on a contest, with Nick Vlastuin backing back into his path resulted in an uncontested mark to the Tiger. The fact remains Rance spent half a quarter on Walker as his direct opponent.
All is well that ends well for the Tigers. A collection of premiership medallions indicate that Damien Hardwick knew exactly what he was doing when he allowed Rance to match up on lesser threats, but it also lends weight to the opinion that Rance gets a much easier ride than others considered great. He is not the best defender in the game – he is a part of a very good defensive unit.
Let’s look at the comparison to another who has had some plaudits thrown his way over the years – Stephen Silvagni.
SOS was as good a one-on-one defender as you’ll see. He had to be, standing shoulder to shoulder on multiple occasions with the likes of Dunstall, Ablett, Carey and Lockett, and more than holding his own. He was the last line of defence against an onslaught the likes of which the current league cannot fathom. He was a great defender, beating his direct opponent, and was also good enough to go forward when required.
It is difficult to argue the case against Silvagni and for Rance in terms of who was the better defender. The Carlton champion simply had better opponents to beat, and had less help to do so. You can argue he got away with holding or scragging an opponent much more often than would be permitted today, and you’d be correct. However, Silvagni played within the confines of the rules at the time, and played so well that he was named full back of the century. Not of the year, not of the decade… of the CENTURY. There are those chomping at the bit to bestow these sorts of honours on Rance right now – we’ve still got 82 years of this century left!
How quickly we forget.
Matthew Lloyd was a great full forward. He is one of only three men to kick a hundred goals in a season since the turn of the century, and the only man to do it twice. He has played on defenders like Matthew Scarlett, Darren Glass and Ashley McIntosh. He even played on Silvagni, himself. He wonders how Plugger Lockett would go against Rance, or how the Richmond defender would nullify Ablett Senior? The problem here is that if he went back in time, Rance would be left one-on-one with these stars. That's not the way he plays. The other problem is that we’ll never know, and will be forced to speculate based on the way he plays in the current game.
Rance will continue to receive the adulation of Tiger fans, and rightly so. He is the cog their defence revolves around. He is as important to a defence as any player in the competition, but to claim he is the best defender of all time? Blasphemy.
Matthew Scarlett, Stephen Silvagni, Francis Bourke and David Dench are all rolling over in their graves. And they’re not even dead yet. Let’s see how he’s rated if Franklin kicks five on him… for the third time.