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The Elite - Where did Champion Data go right, and wrong?

We’re just 15 days away from the start of the 2019 season, and here at The Mongrel, we’re getting a little eager.

I spent a bit of time pawing through various publications over the past couple of days, and one thing that jumped out at me was the way some referred to Champion Data rankings as the best way to identify just how effective a player is on his team.

The more I read, and the more others referred to whatever system CD have in place, the more I found myself disagreeing with what the way they’d assessed players.

Patrick Dangerfield as the number one mid-forward in the comp? Maybe if he replicated his 2017 season, but not based on 2018. Whilst they based the ranking on the last two years, thereby taking his outstanding 2017 work up forward heavily into account, there should’ve been a weighting applied, because last season, Danger was nowhere near the best mid-forward in the game. Dustin Martin, who was rated only as a mid despite spending just as much time forward as Danger, finished with more goals in 2018, and was a better bet in one-on-one contests in the forward  line.

Sam Menegola was rated as an elite mid/forward, and Daniel Rich as an elite general defender. Rich is not exactly the name that leaps to mind when you think of elite defenders, is it? The more I read, the more I thought that many of these people who work for Champion Data don’t actually watch footy. They don’t see things you and I see when we watch. Unless it fits specific numerical criteria, it doesn’t register with them.

So, as we’re looking at the season ahead – we know some players will rise, others will fall, and some will solidify their standings as the best in the game. But who will they be?

Below, I’ve listed those Champion Data rates as “elite” at their position at each club. For context, to be rated elite, you have to be in the top ten percent at your position over the last two years. This may come across as a bit of a whine about Champion Data, and in a sense, it is. However, I am acutely aware that advanced stats and analytics certainly have their place in the modern game and will drive how the game is played, and the way many coaches use the information as part of their strategies.

But are stats the be-all and end-all of assessing players and their impact? And do Champion Data have a the final word player assessment? Are they infallible? And is their list of elite players the full stop in the debate? Who is missing? Who shouldn’t be in there? And who will make the leap in the next 12 months to be rated as elite?

And as an aside, I’ve thrown in a couple of highlights where the way they’re rating people is exposed as absolute CRAP! Neither Matt Crouch or Tom Mitchell make the cut… that should give you an indication.

 

ADELAIDE

Players rated as Elite - Paul Seedsman, Rory Laird, Brodie Smith, Eddie Betts, Rory Sloane, Tom Lynch.

I hesitate typing this… don’t shoot the messenger. Darcy Fogarty is rated ‘below average’ by Champion Data. I hope he finds these guys and beats some sense into them. Not only for his rating, but also for Matt Crouch and Bryce Gibbs being rated as ‘average’. Gibbs had an excellent 2018, putting the Adelaide midfield on his back at a time they were struggling for soldiers. Seeing him rated so low makes me wonder if CD were watching Adelaide games at all.

And apparently 32.2 touches per game equates to the output of an average player as well. I’d have Matt Crouch as an elite mid. How about you?

A few of those Crows rated as elite are there due to their 2017 seasons. Betts, Smith and Lynch were all well down in 2018, and given this system takes into account the last two years, they’ll be hard pressed retaining that status.

Looking forward, who has the potential to make the leap upward? Wayne Milera looks likely, cracking the ‘above average’ category, but with the return of Brodie Smith, does he keep the same role?

Brad Crouch also slots into the ‘average’ category. That’ll probably be the only time this season that sentence is uttered.

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BRISBANE

Players rated as Elite - Harris Andrews, Dayne Zorko, Lachie Neale, Daniel Rich

Interestingly, as huge as the deal sending Dayne Beams to Collingwood was, he was rated as ‘average’ by CD. So in effect, the Lions have upgraded significantly if you’re looking at a Beams-Neale comparison. Do you rate Neale that far ahead of Beams? Enough to have one rated elite, and another two categories below him?

Rich’s inclusion as an elite backman is intriguing. According to Champion Data, he is rated above players such as Tom Stewart, Heath Shaw and Michael Hibberd.

Eric Hipwood is one of three Lions to be rated ‘poor’, which is probably due to the one in four ratio of games where he has an impact to the ones he doesn’t. More consistency, and a few contested grabs from Hipwood will most likely see him ascend the ratings rapidly.

Lions with the best chance to improve their ratings in 2019 would be Stefan Martin, who was rated as above average, but has to be pushing for elite level after 2018. And then there is a quartet rated currently as ‘below average’. They are Jarrod Berry, Hugh McLuggage, Alex Witherden and Daniel McStay.

Does anyone really rate Witherden as below average other than CD?

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CARLTON

Players rated as Elite - Kade Simpson

When Patrick Cripps can’t crack the elite level of any ratings system, something’s up. He slots in at the ‘above average’ tier. That’s like calling Courtney Love a little bit skanky.

The Blues had seven players rated in the ‘poor’ category, bettered only by the Gold Coast list… if bettered is the right word to use in this regard. Of them, you’d be expecting significant improvement from Caleb Marchbank, Jarrod Garlett, Matt Kennedy… and basically everyone on there. Kennedy is the one, however, that could make a significant jump. Struggling with injury in 2018, he battled on manfully, and if he can get a clean run at the beginning of 2019 he will be a great help to Cripps, Marc Murphy and Sam Walsh in the middle.

How long Kade Simpson retains his rating will be interesting. Not many in sports go out on top, and as Simmo extends his career into the 320-game region, he is still the Blues’ best option coming out of defence, and could be a beneficiary of the new kick in rule as well.

Going out on a bit of a limb here, but I reckon Jacob Weitering could really make the leap this season. If his rating isn’t at the ‘above average’ mark by season’s end, I’d be surprised.

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COLLINGWOOD

Players rated as Elite - Jack Crisp, Brodie Grundy, Jeremy Howe, Jordan de Goey

There is no question about Grundy’s inclusion, and the addition of de Goey is indicative of the impact he has on a game, but Howe and Crisp are contentious. Both are part of an incredibly balanced defensive unit, with Crisp’s rebound and Howe’s intercept marking both vitally important. Their inclusion is more indicative of the success of the Collingwood back six than of individual brilliance.

What is interesting is that the Pies have zero elite mids in the opinion of CD. Treloar, Sidebottom, Pendlebury and Adams all get the ‘above average’ treatment, whilst Beams languishes in the ‘average’ section. Interesting that, despite having a midfield hailed as the best in the game, not one of them cracks the CD elite bracket.

I could see Tom Langdon making the next step into the elite bracket this season. He really jumped out of the box in 2018, as did Brayden Maynard, but he is in some pretty company in the ‘average’ category.

Jaidyn Stephenson is the other who has the capacity to move up significantly. His ‘average’ rating is seemingly common for first year players, but the rating of Levi Greenwood as ‘poor’ is indicative of CD’s inability to properly acknowledge the value of defensive midfielders.

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ESSENDON

Players rated as Elite - Orazio Fantasia, Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti, Adam Saad

Joe Daniher tumbles a bit down the ratings with seven pretty ordinary games to his name in 2018. As this system encompasses two years, he’d have a hard time climbing back into the top bracket this season.

The Bombers’ little men dominate their elite player standings, with three slotting in, and Devon Smith the most likely to jump into the upper echelon, considering his mid-forward positioning… which is strange. He is a midfielder, right? That’s where he plays?

Interesting to see Mark Baguley rated so low (below average) but as you’ll read, non-defenders who play defensively are not rated very fairly in this system at all.

The race for Dylan Sheil may not have been as heated had everyone just followed Champion Data’s ratings. They have him listed as an ‘average’ player. Then again, so are Michael Hurley and Dyson Heppell – pretty handy average players, huh?

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FREMANTLE

Players rated as Elite - Nat  Fyfe, David Mundy

I think it’s pretty safe to say that this will be the last time Andrew Brayshaw appears on this list as ‘poor’. Ditto for Adam Cerra. Both are primed to have big seasons and if Brayshaw goes anywhere near following the career trajectory of his brother at Melbourne, the Dockers have a keeper.

Mundy is a star, and I was thinking we might see him drift back to half back at times this season to give the Dockers another option to deliver the ball into the centre, but with the departure of Neale and the injury to Connor Blakely, he will spend significant time in middle at the beginning of the season, at least.

I fully expect Brad Hill to move on out of that ‘average’ bracket this season. If he stays injury free, he is close to an elite wingman. And Alex Pearce has no business being saddled with the title of ‘average’ key defender. He is class, and was brilliant early in 2018. If he has a good year in 2019, surely his baseline is ‘above average’?

Michael Walters has a prime opportunity to move into the mid-forward elite bracket in 2019. He was close last season, but will need either better than 20 touches per game, or 30 goals to do so. 19.8 and 22 goals just doesn’t cut the mustard or any other condiment.

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GEELONG

Players rated as Elite - Patrick Dangerfield, Tom Hawkins, Sam Menegola

Here’s some news for you, Cats fans… Joel Sewood is an average player according to CD. Yep, I almost fell off my chair when I read that. Readers of The Mongrel will know I love the way Selwood goes about it. Seeing him rated so lowly is a little heartbreaking.

I touched on Danger being rated as a mid-forward, but I reckon 2018 gave us the lesson that he is a midfielder that should only be used up forward very sparingly. Opposition coaches were a wake up to it in 2018, and reacted accordingly. Danger went from 45 goals in 2017 to 24 in 2018.

Despite the criticism, Gary Ablett still slots in as ‘above average’ but a return to elite level could be on the cards if he starts spending more time up forward and converts opportunities.

Despite an AA selection, Tom Stewart couldn’t convince CD he was more than an average player in 2018, yet Sam Menegola could, huh?

I expect we’ll see Brandan Parfitt jump from the ‘average’ category into at least the next best one, and if Mitch Duncan sucks up the midfield numbers vacated by the Ablett/Selwood combo (Selwood to half back/wing continues to be the word out of Geelong… I’ll believe it if I see it after Round Two) he may venture into elite territory.

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GOLD COAST

Players rated as Elite - None

As the only team to have no one in the elite bracket, I hope there is a huge amount of F-U about the Suns this season. As a matter of fact, I want them to do well so much that I went out and bought a Suns membership.

Their only ‘above average’ player according to CD is Nick Holman, with players like Alex Sexton, Jarrod Witts, Jack Bowes and Jarrod Harbrow making up part of the ‘average’ cohort. Of those, I expect the most improvement from Sexton. He showed definite signs of being a classy player in 2018, and if it continues, he might be a bit better than ‘above average’ by the end of the season.

Couldn’t believe I saw Brayden Fiorini’s name listed in the ‘poor’ category. He hit almost 22 touches per game in 2018, and will be better this year. His rating as ‘poor’ is the classic chance to stick it to CD with a breakout year.

Interestingly, had Aaron Hall remained with the Suns, he would’ve been their only elite player. Amazing… I wonder how highly he’d be rated if he actually ran defensively? Whack…

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GWS

Players rated as Elite - Zac Williams, Callan Ward, Toby Greene, Lachie Whitfield, Phil Davis

I have no idea how Williams gets in here. Yes, his comeback story in 2018 was great, and he had a good 2017, but as an elite defender? In his own team I’d have Nick Haynes and Heath Shaw above him.

Toby Greene’s 2017 obviously holds him in good stead, particularly given his 2018 was so hit and miss. No problem at all with Davis, Whitfield and Ward’s ratings – they’re stars.

Jacob Hopper made the most unkind cut, rating as ‘poor’ on the CD scale. With 21 touches per game, and almost ten contested possessions in 2018, you think he’d have been rated higher. Perhaps that comes after a similar, or better year in 2019.

Tim Taranto will blow his ‘below average’ mark out of the water this year, and you’d think that both Stephen Coniglio and Josh Kelly have the capacity to move into the elite bracket. Coniglio was the workhorse of the GWS midfield all season in 2018. He deserves a lot more credit than the ignorance of the majority of those in positions that determine a player’s worth – AA selectors, in particular. His omission from the squad of 40 was one of the glaring errors of 2018.

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HAWTHORN

Players rated as Elite - Luke Breust, Jack Gunston, James Sicily

Looking at the Hawks, it may appear that they’ve got this right, and then you remember about a bloke called Tom Mitchell.

Some of you may be aware – I’m a Hawthorn man, so there may be a little vitriol here. How the hell can a guy who has averaged over 35 touches per game in both 2017 and 2018, and had over seven clearances per game in that time NOT be rated as elite? What are they not seeing at Champion Data? Having both Mitchell and Matt Crouch not rated as elite (with Crouch rated as ‘average’) indicates a system that is flawed.

With more responsibility and almost a full season under his belt, an injury-free Jaeger O’Meara would be the one you’d think could establish himself as an elite statistical player, and I can’t see Connor Glass continuing to sit as the only Hawk rated as ‘poor’. And no, that doesn’t mean I think we’ll see him joined by several others – I think he’ll prove his worth as the season progresses.

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MELBOURNE

Players rated as Elite - Clayton Oliver, Max Gawn, Jake Lever, Tom McDonald    

So, how about that ‘average’ Angus Brayshaw, huh? Averagely came third in the Brownlow, and just this past weekend picked up an average 37 touches against the Tigers in JLT one. Preeeeety average player.

The Dees are stacked with ‘above average’ defenders. Hibberd, May, Lewis, Salem, Hunt and Jetta all rate equally in the Melbourne defensive half, but realistically, Lewis routinely spends time in the middle, as does Salem. Still, the team at CD have chosen to rate them strictly as defenders.

Interestingly, the only Melbourne player rated ‘poor’ is Sam Weideman… you know, the guy whose form convinced the Dees they didn’t need Jesse Hogan. I reckon that might be evidence that Melbourne take Champion Data’s analysis with a few grains of salt.

Oliver, Gawn and TMac as elite selections are good, but you’d expect Lever to fall out of that spot this season after his long absence.

In another note of interest, all those listed as ‘below average’ have big upsides, and even though you’d expect every team to have a couple who finish in this category, I don’t see anyone who doesn’t have a capacity to get out of there – Josh Wagner, Charlie Spargo, Kade Kolodjashnij, Joel Smith and Jay Kennedy-Harris are all highly capable players. I would not be surprised to see them all rated higher as 2019 concludes.

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NORTH MELBOURNE

Players rated as Elite - Jared Polec, Majak Daw, Aaron Hall, Ben Cunnington, Trent Dumont

So three of the North players listed as elite are wingmen. Hmmmm… pity there’s only two wings.

Just how Dumont and Hall are rated above Andrew Gaff is a complete mystery to me, and probably anyone else not completely brain dead, but there we go.

Ben Brown being unable to crack the elite level as a key forward is quite amazing, especially as he is the only forward to have back-to-back 60-goal seasons in the last two years.

Again, a defensive midfielder was rated as ‘below average’ simply because CD cannot concoct a way of measuring defensive presence on an opposition midfielder. There are some (The Mongrel amongst them) who believe Jacobs is in the top five most important players at North Melbourne. If you need evidence, check the win-loss record with and without Jacobs in the team over the past 4-5 years.

Shaun Higgins is rated by many as elite, and could easily push into the “official” elite bracket with another solid season. His improvement over 2017-18 has been spectacular. He is has gone from 16.67 touches per game in 2016 to 27.40 per game in 2018. Is he capable of topping 30 touches per game in 2019? Surely he can’t be denied if he does.

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PORT ADELAIDE

Players rated as Elite - Robbie Gray

This was an interesting read, as with only one player rated as elite (had Gray not been rated as elite, there may have been a tantrum here), there is a heap of room for improvement.

Justin Westhoff has been categorised as a key forward, but really could fit into any of the wing, mid-defender, mid-forward roles. Basically, he is a category unto himself. After a career best year in 2018, could he go one better in 2019?

Paddy Ryder looked to be over his Achilles problems in JLT 1, but tweaked an ankle so his fitness is the only thing stopping him from moving back into the elite bracket. As a matter of fact, Port may make this positional system obsolete with Westhoff a true utility, and Ryder playing ruck-forward. Currently they have to be assigned a specific role, even though the way they’re playing does not fit nicely into the system created to measure their performance. Hardly seems fair, huh?

Tom Jonas and Dougal Howard give the Power a strong defensive component of their spine, and as Howard matures, he won’t be getting any worse.

Looking at those lowly rated, Scott Lycett comes in as ‘below average’, as does Sam Powell-Pepper. I can’t see either of them staying at that level. Joining them there is Tom Rockliff, who is teetering on the verge of irrelevancy, Riley Bonner, who has all the tools to improve, and my favourite Sticks Marshall. If he isn’t a force this season, it’ll be next season.

Ollie Wines rating as ’average’ would have to sting a little. I know it’s just nerds on computers, but no one of his calibre wants to be rated average when you’re clearly one of the better big-bodied mids in the game.

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RICHMOND

Players rated as Elite - Dustin Martin, Jack Riewoldt, Shane Edwards, Kane Lambert, Alex Rance, Josh Caddy

The ‘average’ rating for both Trent Cotchin and Dion Prestia seems strange. Obviously leadership is not factored into the CD equation, nor is halving contests you had no business being part of. If they were, Cotchin would be much higher.

The upside of Jack Higgins continues to look bigger by the game. Already rated ‘above average’ he could very well move into the ‘elite’ territory if his classification as a general forward continues.

David Astbury was rated as below average… yeah, I know – I couldn’t believe that garbage either.

Kane Lambert’s inclusion as an elite will most likely shock some, but when you check his classification, you’ll see he is a mid-forward – the same as Shane Edwards. Thing is, Edwards is a mid-forward. Lambert is not, and should be listed as a midfielder.

Great to see Caddy recognised. His contributions to the Richmond forward half in 2018 were under-appreciated by most external to the club. And it’s hard to see Jason Castagna have another year where he is rated ‘below average’. The return of his fellow forward line hunter, Dan Butler will aid him tremendously.

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ST KILDA

Players rated as Elite - Jade Gresham

Slim pickings for the Saints at the top, but there is always plenty of potential just bubbling below the elite level. Some would call me crazy, but Jack Billings could be knocking on the door to that club with just better accuracy when kicking for goal. That’s the only thing holding him back.

It’s concerning that Dan Hannebery was rated as ‘below average’ by CD, as was Dean Kent. There’s no question the Saints are taking punts on both of them, and any increase in output will see both of them rated a whole lot better come season’s end.

Paddy McCartin is sitting about as low as it gets in the ‘poor’ category, but having watched a fair few St Kilda games in 2018, he’d probably have a lot better chance of improving his rating if his mids, you know… kicked the ball to him when he leads.

I mentioned Billings’ ability to rise into the elite category, but Seb Ross will surely do better than the ‘average’ ranking he currently has. As a mid, he’s currently behind both Jack Steven and Jack Steele – I really like Steele; one of the accountable mids not to be rated lowly in the entire comp.

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SYDNEY

Players rated as Elite - Lance Franklin, Jake Lloyd

The fall of Josh Kennedy down into the realms of ‘average’ players is probably indicative of where he’s at now, sadly. The Swans are in the process of replenishing their midfield, and Kennedy’s impact dropped off in 2018, but that is nothing compared to the fall from Kieren Jack, who was perilously close to falling into the ‘poor’ area.

George Hewett’s rating of ‘below average’ gives more ammunition to those who think the people compiling these ratings are blind. As a stopper, his role is to negate the opposition mids. There is no category for him to be rated in other than lumped in with the mids. He should be categorised as a defensive mid, with criteria as much based on his direct opponent’s influence as his own output.

Alas, Champion Data don’t work that way, and if you think they may be off the mark with their assessment of Hewett, you’re probably “a flog with an opinion”. One of the less savoury descriptions of footy fans who don’t agree with the way they operate.

So, who jumps into the elite category this season? Heeney is the obvious choice, though he is listed as a forward-mid and also plays in the backline so a permanent midfield position may see him settled, but also up against very tough competition.

Callum Mills was also close in the list, but he’s listed as a general defender, and if things go as expected, he’ll also be a midfielder.

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WEST COAST

Players rated as Elite - Jeremy McGovern, Shannon Hurn, Nic Naitanui, Tom Barrass, Josh Kennedy

So, the Eagles have no elite mids. Didn’t need them, did they. Closest were Shuey and Yeo, but the big exclusion was Gaff, who couldn’t crack an elite rating on the wing, despite averaging 29.7 and 30.7 in the last two years and generally being acknowledged as the best wingman in the game. Ahead of Gaff are Jared Polec, Trent Dumont, Lachie Hunter and Paul Seedsman. None of them are close to Gaff, though Hunter’s numbers are impressive.

The recognition of Barrass is a pleasant surprise, as he is possibly grouped with Dylan Grimes as the best unsung key backs in the game. However, how Brad Sheppard is below average stumps me.

Here’s one for the books – Mark Hutchings was rated ‘poor’ by Champion Data. I’ve already expressed my displeasure at the low ratings of George Hewett and Ben Jacobs, but this one takes the cake. Hutchings is a defensive midfield maestro. The fact that CD have him rated so lowly exposes a significant flaw in their rating system.

With the amount of coin they are making from the AFL, their system of recognising defensive mids is appalling, and really is a discredit to players like Hutchings, Jacobs, Hewett and even kids like Bayley Banfield (below average) who are being given specific roles to do, and are doing them well – in Hutchings’ case, brilliantly.

So, who makes the jump up to the elite level for the Eagles. I think Yeo is already there, but if he goes injury-free, Jack Darling could be appearing there by season’s end. Gaff is being robbed at the moment

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WESTERN BULLDOGS

Players rated as Elite - Lachie Hunter, Matthew Suckling

So, I immediately want to get to Bont, who CD have rated as a mid, despite the fact he spent more time forward last season than Patrick Dangerfield at Geelong. It’d be interesting to see if the change in positions would push Bont into the ‘elite’ bracket. As it stands, the best competition seems to come from Danger, the Dogs’ own Mitch Wallis, David Mundy (how did he get rated as mid-forward?), Michael Walters, Christian Petracca, Chad Wingard, Isaac Heeney, Sam Menegola and Robbie Gray.

I reckon only Gray and Danger have Bont covered. Surely he’s better than Menegola, who was rated as elite?

The fact Jack Macrae can’t get a look in is criminal. Those ahead of him as elite mids are Clayton Oliver, Dustin Martin, Cal Ward, Ben Cunnington, Rory Sloane, Nat Fyfe, Dayne Zorko and Lachie Neale. Macrae is in the conversation, but I guess the question is – who does he replace in that bracket?

The two great forward hopes of the Dogs – Tom Boyd and Josh Schache both rated as ‘poor’ by CD, and even Billy Gowers, who was far better than anyone expected, finished as ‘below average’.

In other horrible news if you take this stuff as gospel, Taylor Duryea was also rated as ‘poor’. Personally, I don’t rate that rating – he was often the whipping boy of the Hawthorn fans despite taking the oppositions’ best small forward every single week

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So, what did all this waffling teach us? Champion Data don’t rate players who play the defensive midfield role (Mark Hutchings, Ben Jacobs, George Hewett), nor do they rate the in-and-under types as highly as they should, irrespective of how much footy they get (Matt Crouch, Tom Mitchell, Patrick Cripps).

They looove good users of the ball (Daniel Rich, Kade Simpson) but probably overrate metres gained as a stat (Paul Seedsman).

And they have no answer for hybrid players who don’t slot nicely into a role, or combination of roles they have created (Ryder, Westhoff, Heeney).

Who did they get right, and who did they get wrong? Who makes your elite brigade of AFL players, and who gets the boot?

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