We all love when a coach tinkers with the lineup, don’t we?
You take a good forward, throw them into defence and see what happens… or you whack the shoe on the other foot and take a solid defender and wonder what they’d be like in the forward line.
Surely, nothing can go wrong… or can it?
The history of the league is littered with moves from coaches that were either spectacular successes, or ridiculous failures. One only has to look at the famous 1984 Grand Final where Kevin Sheedy took defender, Billy Duckworth, and threw him forward in the last quarter, resulting in two goals (Duckworth swears it should have been three), aiding the Bombers as they went on a rampage, and turned a 23-point three quarter time deficit into an historic 24-point win.
Or, if you prefer to go back a bit further, Francis Bourke is remembered by many as one of the greatest full-backs of his generation. Half a generation before, he was one of the best wingmen in the game, earning his place in the AFL Team of the Century in that role, as a result.
But it doesn’t always work out as swimmingly.
In the modern game, the big switch can be hit-and-miss. The Mongrel takes a look at a few of the moves that have worked, and some that have fallen flat. Some lasted and some fell flat and were abandoned pretty quick.
Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list – please feel free to add your own.
RORY LAIRD INTO THE GUTS
The Adelaide Crows have a bit of a thing when it comes to taking a skillful half-back and throwing them into the middle of the ground.
They did it with Andrew McLeod, who excelled in the role and is a club, and AFL legend, with two Norm Smith Medals to his name in back-to-back flags, and they’ve done it again with Rry Laird making one of the better transitions in recent history, to become the number one midfielder at Adelaide.
As I mentioned in the Crows’ 2023 season preview, Laird is the only player in the league to average over 32 disposals per game across the last two seasons. He is also one of only two players to average 30 touches and five tackles per game. And also, he is one of two to average 30 touches and six clearances. The other player, in both instances, is Clayton Oliver.
Laird is a workhorse. Not flashy or making highlight reels, by any stretch, he continually finds the footy and makes those around him better, releasing his runners as he gets his hands dirty to find the footy first.
With Matt Crouch injured and out of form, and Rory Sloane out with injury of his own, Laird has been a beacon of light as he sets the standard for his young midfield to follow.
Other teams now seem to be doing the same thing with their younger players – Callum Mills made a great transition from half-back to midfield in recent seasons, and you’d expect Nick Daicos to do something similar either this year, or next.
DARCY MOORE TO DEFENCE
There was a point where I openly wondered whether Collingwood were making a mistake in sending Darcy Moore into defence.
Those were simpler times.
I was of that opinion due to making a correlation between Moore and Joe Daniher. At the time (and amazingly, still now), Moore was two years behind Daniher, yet was tracking on the same trajectory as the then-Essendon forward. Moore’s first three seasons saw him average 1.0, 1.4, and 1.2 goals per game. Daniher was 0.6, 1.3, and then 1.6 per game. Not too much of a difference.
It was year five that Daniher took off, going from 1.9 goals per game to 2.8. It was widely believed at the time that Joe would be a Coleman Medallist. Hindsight, of course, is golden.
Nathan Buckley decided that Collingwood needed a dominant key position defender and thought Moore fit the bill.
He was quite right.
Despite multiple injuries, Moore has become an elite attacking defender, able to hold his own n contests and use his burst speed when the ball hits the deck. It was an excellent move, and though I wasn’t all on board with it at the time, it takes a big man to admit he was wrong, right?
JEREMY HOWE TO DEFENCE
Two in a row for Bucks, whose greatest decision ever seems to have involved the phrase “let’s move him to half-back” given the two entries on this list.
In his time with Melbourne, Jeremy Howe was a spectacular half-forward; a nightmare to deal with one-on-one with the long ball coming in, if you lost body contact with him, he’d soon re-establish it, usually with is knees and the back of your head.
But for all the high-marking greatness Howe displayed at Melbourne, he seemed to fit into the category of being very handy, but never dominant. With a career-high of four goals (once), Howe was basically a more spectacular, yet less efficient version of Bayley Fritsch.
Once he moved to Collingwood, Buckley had other plans for him.
Moved to a half-back role, Howe’s ability to read the footy and get a clean run at it as a defender, enabled many more high marks, but also permitted him to use that athleticism to close the gap on opponents and both kill contests and make intercepts.
Since the move, Howe has finished in the top ten of the Copeland Trophy on five occasions, including four in a row from 2016-19. And the greatest part? The high wire marking efforts didn’t low down at all.
DAVID NEITZ TO FULL FORWARD
From strong centre-half back to Coleman Medallist as a full forward, David Neitz well and truly proved that he could excel at either end of the ground.
Initially viewed as one of the bookends of the Melbourne Football Club, a knee injury to David Schwartz forced then-coach, Neil Balme to pull the switch, sending his defender forward, and the results were excellent.
Neitz warmed to the role, 33 goals in his first run as the main target, before jumping to 56 in 1996. From there, a steady diet of snags saw Neitz total 631 goals for his career, making him the number-one ranked Demon of all time.
FRASER GEHRIG TO FULL FORWARD
Unless you’re a West Coast fan, you probably don’t remember much about the G-Train at the Eagles, but he was everything you’d expect as a defender, given what you know about him in his latter seasons.
Gehrig was a wrecking machine, both as a defender and a forward, and he switched roles often as an Eagle. However, it was only after getting the green light to become a hulking brute and remain close to the goal square that he truly started to shine.
That came during his time at St Kilda.
After a period of plainly mainly defence at Moorabbin, Gehrig was switched to the full forward spot, where he kicked 55 goals one year, followed by 103 the next… the 100th coming in a final against Port Adelaide that saw the crowd rush onto the field, effectively killing St Kilda’s momentum, in the process.
Not a man to be trifled with, the G-Train had two more 70+ goal seasons before hanging up the boots in 2008, with 549 goals to his name.
DOUGAL HOWARD TO THE FORWARD LINE
Uh oh… a misstep from Ken Hinkley, here.
Searching for a way to bolster their marking power up forward, the Port Adelaide coach decided he wanted his young defensive spoiler to have a crack as a forward.
And thus ended Dougal Howard’s tenure with Port Adelaide. Clearly not comfortable in the role, Howard was told he was welcome to explore his options when Hinkley indicated his future at Port was in the forward line.
Howard did just that and landed at St Kilda, where he went back to anchoring their defence and has now tarted looking like the player he was meant to become at Port.
BAILEY DALE FROM FORWARD TO DEFENDER
Luke Beveridge is unafraid to pull the trigger on a move… or on a journalist he thinks is a bit out of line.
Bailey Dale was the type of forward you’d term a “middling” forward, I suppose. But as a defender, you can call him “All-Australian”.
Making the move to defence after the 2020 season, Dale was a revelation, picking up AA honours in his first year as a backman.
GARY ABLETT SENIOR TO FULL BACK
You may choose to remember the Round 16, 1992 clash between the Hawks and the Cats as the day Jason Dunstall brought up goal number 100 for the season. I prefer to remember it for another reason.
That, my friends, was the day that Gary Ablett Senior was sent to full back to play on the rampant Hawthorn full forward.
Frustrated at the way the Cats were unable to stop the flow of football from end-to-end, Malcolm Blight threw caution to the wind and moved his superstar onto Dunstall in the last quarter. The Cats made a bit of a comeback, but two goals to Dunstall, with Ablett as his direct opponent put the icing on yet another big day for the Hawthorn forward, as he kicked nine for the afternoon on the road.
Of course, there was another move involving Ablett switching to the role of permanent full forward that was a little more fruitful…
Kevin Sheedy did the same thing as Blight at one point with James Hird, throwing his young star onto Dunstall late in a game where the spearhead was getting off the leash. It ended much the same as you’d expect.
TONY LIBERATORE FROM BALL WINNER TO TAGGER
Yeah, yeah… I get it – many of you don’t like Libba.
I do, however, even if he tried to push in front of me at a cafe once. Sure… you didn’t know there was a line – cheeky little bugger.
With his career on the line, Libba made an incredible transformation from one of the best ball winners in the game into the league’s most feared tagger. Using everything at his disposal (I’m shocked he didn’t pull out a foreign object when the umpire’s back was turned and hit someone with it), Libba put the clamps on some of the league’s best midfielders, frustrating them and baiting them into retaliatory tactics.
Yes, some of it was distasteful, but when confronted with the very real situation of his career being in jeopardy, Tony Liberatore took on the role his coach needed him to, and was willing to do whatever it took to succeed at it.
LIAM JONES FROM FORWARD TO DEFENCE
Playing forward comes with a lot of pressure, and that proved to be to much for Liam Jones, who was under intense scrutiny from Bulldog fans.
After five years, their patience was wearing thin and they were a little tired of waiting for Liam Jones to emerge as a go-to man in their forward half. The Dogs had Barry Hall as their main target, but the backups, in Jones and Jarrad Grant, just weren’t able to hit the scoreboard often enough to punish teams. Something had to be done, and it was.
Liam Jones found himself at Carlton to commence the 2015 season and despite showing very little as a forward there, the Blues started to think about changing tack with him.
Jones switched to defence in 2017 and started to have a big impact. With young star, Jacob Weitering they combined to create a strong duo for the Blues to build around, leading to two top-ten finishes in the Carlton Best and Fairest Award in 2020 and 2021.
Now back at the Dogs after a year out of the game, Jones will be determined to show Bulldogs fans that their frustration with him is well and truly a thing of the past.
As I mentioned above, this is by no means a complete list. Not by any stretch – Goodes, Pavlich, Darren Jarman… so many more could be added. These ones were off the top of my head, so feel free to throw your own out there.
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