The AFL is an ever-changing landscape. Just when you think one coach has all the answers, another changes the questions. A system that works one year is “found out” by a rival and exploited 12 months later. The relentless rolling zones made way to an era of skilful delivery by foot, which was also cast aside by the small forward line and relentless pressure of the Tigers as they steamrolled their opposition in the 2018 finals.
Much like game styles, positions themselves become redundant as the game evolves. Wingmen become midfielders, but the return to form of an Isaac Smith or the continued hard work of Andrew Gaff may bring the wingers back into vogue. The dominant ruckman was considered all but extinct just a couple of short years ago until Brodie Grundy, Max Gawn, Stefan Martin and Nic Naitanui made everyone think twice.
And then there is the ugly duckling of the AFL bunch – the tagger.
In 2018, the in-thing to do was to back your own system in to beat the other team’s system. It was almost like a vote of confidence from the coach to look at his list and say “I think we’re giving up too much to have one of our midfielders play a negative role on one of yours.”
It was a narrow way of looking at things, but in a game of few true leaders and innovators, and large amounts of followers, some dare to go against the grain, even if it means a splinter or two along the way.
When you’re up against the best players the game has to offer, it is in the best interests of the club to stop those players and take them out of the game. Only one coach has been brave enough to buck the coaching system and give his most accountable player a job to do each and every week this season. That coach is Brad Scott of the North Melbourne Football Club, and that player has been Ben Jacobs.
In 2018, Scott and Jacobs have gone back to basics, with their North Melbourne team adopting a simple mantra - beat your man. That's in the job description for Jacobs, and it's a role he takes very seriously.
What difference can one man make on a team? Let’s look at North with Jacobs, and without.
The last time Jacobs played an entire season was 2015. Remember that year, Kangaroo fans? You should. You made the preliminary final, falling to West Coast by four goals. Ben Jacobs played 23 games that season, and the Kangaroos went 14-9.
Fast forward 12 months and we see a very different picture. Jacobs played seven of the first eight games of 2016. In those games, North were 7-0. Without him, they were 5-10.
He sat out the entire 2017 season, which saw North Melbourne finish a disastrous 6-16, winning in the final game of the season to propel themselves from potential number one pick in the draft to the fourth selection.
And here we are in 2018. After eight rounds, the Kangaroos now sit at 4-4, already eclipsing the predicted win totals of many experts. It’s a long bow to draw to say that the return of Ben Jacobs to the line up, and the role he plays on the team are the lone determining factors of North’s return to form, but when you look at the numbers alone, the results of the last few years are hard to deny.
Here is a man who leaves his ego in the dressing room, runs out onto the field and sacrifices his own game, his own desire to win the ball, and his own desire to play out boyhood dreams of being the hero who kicks goals and takes species. Ben Jacobs is a man that does what it takes for his team to get the win. Much like Billy Hoyle in White Men Can't Jump, he doesn't mind if he looks bad and wins. He much prefers that to looking good and losing. He is selfless, hardworking and dedicated. You have to be when you’re charged with putting the clamps on some of the best ball winners in the game.
Jacobs’ 2018 has been so impressive that here at The Mongrel, we are starting to wonder how long it will be until his name starts coming up in discussions around All-Australian selection. Well, rather than just thinking about it, let’s start the discussion.
It’s been 11 long years since a negating player has won a berth in the AFL’s team of the year. In 2007, Cameron Ling was an integral part of the all-conquering Cats, and was often charged with a run-with role. His ability to shut down his opponent was recognised with an All-Australian Guernsey.
Ling averaged over 19 disposals himself, but it was his jobs on the stars of the time that afforded him the admiration of football followers everywhere. That, and his resemblance to a big… pink… pig.
Jacobs is averaging 17 disposals and seven tackles per game. Whilst the tackle numbers are good enough for eighth in the league, the overall stats are not numbers that jump out at you as overly significant, and that would be because they’re not. 17 touches per game is unremarkable. What is significant is how brilliantly he has been able to prevent his opponents from being brilliant themselves. Here’s a rundown of what Jacobs has done to the stars he’s matched up on.
ROUND ONE v Jarryd Lyons
Lyons is not one of the biggest names in the game, but he was identified by Brad Scott as a potential match winner. He’s since proven to be a huge accumulator, with big games against Carlton (36 disposals), Fremantle (30 disposals), and West Coast (26 disposals).
Against North, Lyons was matched up against Jacobs directly for 40 minutes. In that time, he had one disposal. One solitary stat in the swimming pool in Cairns, but it wasn't that he was scared of getting into the deep end - for the remainder of the game, he had 22 touches.
ROUND TWO v Seb Ross
Ross is the reigning Best and Fairest winner at St Kilda. Many questioned whether it was a better move to send Jacobs to Jack Steven, but Brad Scott identified Ross’ run and carry as the most damaging weapon in the St Kilda midfield.
Jacobs spent 65 minutes directly opposed to Ross. In that time, Ross collected 12 disposals.
ROUND THREE v Clayton Oliver
Oliver is a contested ball beast. He is currently fifth in the league, with 16.4 contested touches per game, and 10th overall in the league in disposals with 28.3 per game.
Jacobs ran with Oliver for 59 minutes in their clash, and Oliver returned just nine touches. he was one a couple that had to be moved out of the midfield due to Jacobs' shutdown role.
ROUND FOUR v Patrick Cripps
You don’t have to look far to see something being written about how good Patrick Cripps has been this season. Another contested ball monster, 18.8 of his 27.8 disposals per game are of the contested variety, making him a very hard man to contain.
But Jacobs was more than up to the job. Cripps and Jacobs clashed for 79 minutes, and the interim Blues captain could only manage 11 touches in that time.
ROUND FIVE v Tom Mitchell
At this stage of the season, Mitchell was averaging an unbelievable 40 touches per game. He was the Brownlow favourite and people were talking about the possibility of records falling every time he played.
Jacobs would have none of it. He sat in Tom Mitchell’s back pocket, playing directly opposite him for 85 minutes. That is basically three quarters. In that time, Mitchell returned 14 touches. It was a wet-blanket job. Mitchell finished with 19 disposals – under half of his yearly average to that point.
ROUND SIX v Robbie Gray
Gray showed what he was capable of with a five goal blast against the Crows in Round 8, and is one of the most dangerous players in the game.
Jacobs had him for 57 minutes of their clash, and Gray managed 15 disposals, in probably the best performance against the North tagger to date. Given the other results, you have to ask - just how good is Gray?
ROUND SEVEN v Luke Parker
In the tight confines of the SCG, Parker usually thrives. He has been known to win games off his own boot up there, and is a hard man to contain.
Against Jacobs, he had 14 touches in 45 minutes of direct combat. Respectable.
By this stage it looked as though teams might’ve started working out how to get around Jacobs’ stifling and suffocating defensive style. Gray had got off the chain a little, and Parker followed with a hard, in and under style to get his hands on the pill. Maybe Jacobs’ role would need to change?
ROUND EIGHT v Dustin Martin
Or maybe his role wouldn’t have to change at all. Many expected Trent Cotchin to have to contend with the North nuisance at Docklands, but when Jacobs went to Dusty, North fans began to salivate. Not only was this their team’s opportunity to prove they belonged in the mix for finals; it was Jacobs’ chance to show the world just how effective he could be in stopping arguably the best player in the game.
This wasn’t even a contest. Martin was moved forward late in the third quarter after being blanketed…no, dominated… no, obliterated by Jacobs in the midfield. He finished with 16 disposals, several of which came in the last quarter when Jacobs wasn't on him. As a midfielder, he was smashed by the relentless pressure and constant attention of Jacobs. Whilst some will criticize Martin’s will to compete in these situations, none will criticize that of Jacobs.
To truly understand just how great Jacobs was on Martin, you have to look at how much work he'd put in before the game. He'd worked out how to best set up defensively, getting his positioning at stoppages just right. At no stage would Jacobs allow Martin to confront him face to face. He stayed behind Dusty at all times whenever the ball was in dispute, eliminating the number one weapon of the reigning Brownlow medallist – the fend off.
As soon as Martin’s hands touched the ball, he was harassed. As soon as he bent down to pick it up, another North Melbourne player would knock him out of the contest. It was a wonderful defensive team effort, channelled through their number one tagger.
The last time Martin had less than 16 disposals in a game was Round 1, 2015 against Carlton. Unless they meet in the finals, we won't see a second round between them until next season.
There are those that will argue that it is much easier to play a negative role than an offensive role. People often say that most defenders at the elite level are failed forwards, and that may be true in some cases, but is it the case with a tagger? Are they just failed midfielders?
In regards to ease of the role, one must ponder whether putting the brakes on a runaway train like Martin is any easier than getting handballs around the back like Gary Ablett does? Is preventing two of the best contested ball winners in the game (Oliver and Mitchell) from getting their hands on it a vastly simpler task than being a link in a chain of disposals through the middle? Is holding a man on a record-breaking run (Mitchell) to half his regular output less difficult than picking up 30 touches? To say yes to any of those questions is to downplay the impact a selfless player like Ben Jacobs has on his team, and on his teammates.
You want someone to go the extra mile to help you achieve success? Then you’d want Ben Jacobs on your team. You want someone who will put his hand up to curtail the brilliance of the brilliant and the effectiveness of the most effective? Ben Jacobs would be the first pick.
It may have been 11 years since a tagging player stood amongst the league’s best players for the season, but the results are starting to pile up, and they’re starting to point towards Ben Jacobs. Some players have the job of getting kicks. Some have the job of making great spoils. And a select few have the role of shutting down their direct opponent. Ben Jacobs is the best in the business in the role assigned him, and though there is a long way to go in the 2018 season, right now he is deserving of wearing a suit and tie, standing to be photographed with some of the players he’s humbled in 2018.
Ben Jacobs’ claim on an All-Australian slot is legitimate, and it’s gaining momentum, game by game, and scalp by scalp.