Tall Or­der

IN THE SWIRL OF MOD­ERN AUS­TRALIAN FOOT­BALL, THE GAME VERGES ON THE PO­SI­TION-LESS. ONE CLAS­SIC EX­CEP­TION RE­MAINS: THE KEY FOR­WARD, WHO CAN STILL TOWER OVER A MATCH, A FI­NAL OR EVEN A PREMIER SHIP SEA­SON.

Inside Sport - - CONTENTS - BY ROBERT DRANE

The key for­ward still looms over the mod­ern game of AFL foot­ball, able to turn a match – or even the course of a premiership sea­son.

T

hey’re still the glam­our. Their re­tral col­leagues might save games up back, but these blokes win them. Their co-work­ers in the mid­field might at­tract the most um­pire at­ten­tion and win gongs, but the sight of a tall for­ward cleav­ing a pack like a split­ter thump­ing a block of ghost gum, run­ning in to slot a set shot, or con­clud­ing the mat­ter from gen­eral play with large mam­mal’s rhythm and grace, is still a re­minder to all of us why we watched the game in the first place.

These pashas of the pad­dock are of the lin­eage of Lock­ett, Hud­son, Dun­stall, Carey, Hart, McKenna. Those men them­selves evolved from an ear­lier gen­er­a­tion of cen­tu­ri­ons who were, iron­i­cally as we shall see, known for their agility and ball-get­ting abil­ity, be­fore coaches struc­tured the game to en­able their kind to stay at home and be “fed” – men like Bob Pratt, Dick Lee, John Cole­man, Ron Todd and, to a lesser ex­tent, Gor­don Coven­try. The rise of the fo­cal-point for­ward – be he a full­for­ward or cen­tre-half for­ward – af­fected the dy­namic of the game for a long time. All roads led to Hud­son. McKenna rang the bell and Price ac­com­mo­dated with a pre­cise Pavlo­vian punt. Hart and Bal­dock at cen­tre half-for­ward prac­ti­cally made a full-for­ward re­dun­dant. “Pa­gan’s pad­dock” decades later en­sured Carey, like a roost­ing hawk with the sun at his back, saw the world as his smor­gas­bord.

The way key for­wards dom­i­nate to­day dif­fers. Con­trast Franklin’s 100 in

2008 with that of, say, Hud­son in 1971. He’s rarely cred­ited with it, but the man who carved this path for the mod­ern for­ward did so just by force of ex­tra­or­di­nary tal­ent: Gary Ablett, the el­der. Ablett was put into the full-for­ward role in the fi­nal three full years of his ca­reer, and mirac­u­lously kicked 100 goals in all three. But be­fore he as­sumed that role, he was ac­cus­tomed to kick­ing dou­ble-fig­ure match hauls from half-for­ward and the wing! He left us all a lit­tle wiser as to the sub­lime pos­si­bil­i­ties of a mo­bile, mark­ing, goal-kick­ing for­ward.

Through­out the early 2000s, the key for­ward was re­de­fined as more trails to goal were hewn, and with the no­table ex­cep­tion of big men like Alas­tair Lynch, Matthew Richard­son and Jonathan Brown, it seemed his in­flu­ence had waned. But the dy­namic of this pro­tean game has shifted, and the goal-kick­ing for­ward is again de

rigueur. When the pen­du­lum swings back, it usu­ally brings some­thing new with it. The dif­fer­ence is that to­day, he of­ten makes his own name as a for­ager and blocker. This power preda­tor takes many forms.

Much more is ex­pected these days even of the pro­lific goal-kicker. Not only is he a more ac­com­plished ath­lete, he’s a more ver­sa­tile foot­baller. What were once the idio­syn­cra­sies of, say, a Jason Dun­stall are now ev­ery for­ward’s habits. The mo­not­o­nous “high­light” reels of Dun­stall lead­ing, lung­ing, grasp­ing and goal­ing be­lie his role as a pi­o­neer who set new ex­pec­ta­tions in the mid-1980s. He was a mas­ter­ful dis­trib­u­tor who gave away as many goals as he kicked.

The big for­ward has de­vel­oped to sur­vive and thrive in a new en­vi­ron­ment. What were once sup­ple­men­tary skills are now core com­pe­ten­cies. In June this year against Carl­ton, Tom Hawkins seemed to dis­cover that his own metier con­sists not only of be­ing a mark­ing and kick­ing tall for­ward. He re­turned to form by work­ing his way into the game. He wound up with his equal-high­est tally of goals – six – and it co­in­cided with his high­est to­tal of dis­pos­als and in­sid­e50s (seven). Most of his 27 pos­ses­sions were im­pact­ful ei­ther for him­self or his team, and now peo­ple have seen what he can do with pos­ses­sion as he moves in­side a greater space, ex­pec­ta­tions will be high. It proved Hawkins has a tank, and it’s barely ever been emp­tied. For Gee­long, it ef­fec­tively amounts to a new weapon, and it came at a time when they needed Hawkins up ground as the star mids played deep. That he de­liv­ered so spec­tac­u­larly and then re­peated it sur­prised many. It au­gurs well for the Cats in the fi­nals.

Who knows what Jar­ryd Roug­head might have achieved but for an ill­ness­in­ter­rupted ca­reer? In the pre­vi­ous three sea­sons be­fore he missed the en­tire 2016 sea­son, Rough­head proved, sta­tis­ti­cally and in ev­ery other way, to be the most

The­goal-kick­ing for­wardis­again de­rigueur…The dif­fer­ence is that to­day,he­often­makes hisown­nameasa for­ager and blocker. This­pow­er­preda­tor takesman­y­forms.

valu­able for­ward in the AFL. He kicked 50-plus goals in those sea­sons. But even more im­por­tantly, his ball-get­ting and dis­per­sal abil­ity (19.3 dis­pos­als per game) were a great ben­e­fit for his team.

For the Bull­dogs, Tom Boyd is the ul­ti­mate “glam­our” for­ward. But he has two men, Bon­tem­pelli and Stringer, who could both eas­ily play al­ter­nat­ing roles up­field or in the for­ward arc. That’s one way the key for­ward has evolved. Chris­tian Pe­tracca is ca­pa­ble of the same at Mel­bourne, and will be of great as­sis­tance to the ris­ing Jesse Ho­gan, who kicked six in his first match back in the sea­son’s penul­ti­mate round af­ter a cancer scare and busted col­lar­bone.

Tom Lynch for the Gold Coast Suns is prov­ing pre­co­cious and prodi­gious. Still only 21, he al­ready has an all-Aus­tralian, cap­taincy and a great goal­kick­ing record. One of the more mo­bile of to­day’s lofty lead­ers is North Mel­bourne’s big-mark­ing Ben Brown, who also hap­pens to be one of the best set shots cur­rently in the game.

Josh Kennedy for the West Coast Ea­gles fits, in many ways, the tra­di­tional tem­plate. He leads, he mus­cles, he runs in and kicks set shots. He has two Cole­man Medals and an All-Aus­tralian to show for it. Im­por­tantly, he’s a hard-work­ing Her­cules who has sin­gle-hand­edly heaved his team to vic­tory on many oc­ca­sions with well-timed plucks and price­less goals.

So keen are teams to place a sig­nif­i­cant big man up front, they some­times jeop­ar­dise young ca­reers in the process. It’s ar­gued that Darcy Moore has been rushed at Colling­wood. Josh Schache and Paddy McCartin have felt the pres­sure. Char­lie Dixon, Hawkins and Kennedy, on the other hand, have been salu­tary ex­am­ples of what a big man can be­come with time and pa­tience. Jesse Ho­gan long bore the im­pact of op­po­nents, fan ex­pec­ta­tions and crit­ics to be­come the piv­otal man he is at Mel­bourne. Rarer are the Tay­lor Walk­ers and Jeremy Camerons of the world, both of whom kicked a prodi­gious num­ber of goals in their first two sea­sons. Or Joe Dani­hers, who learn hun­grily on the job, rel­ish ev­ery op­por­tu­nity and show great flashes of mas­tery, few of emo­tional fragility.

These days we have a great va­ri­ety of types la­belled “key for­wards”. They range from the ter­ri­to­rial ti­tan to the new brand who has proven that agility and quick move­ment need not be the do­main of smaller men. What ac­counts for the change in pro­file? Tall tar­gets have been af­fected in their evo­lu­tion by en­vi­ron­men­tal fac­tors.

To­day, feed­ers pro­lif­er­ate on the for­est floor of the for­ward line, and these men, too, are ex­pected to kick goals. A “KPI” of to­day’s key for­ward con­cerns his abil­ity to en­able them to do so. He is also ex­pected to ex­e­cute tack­les.

As more think­ing back­men be­came coaches, like Sheedy and Roos, de­fence be­came a means of at­tack. What was once ex­clu­sive to “fi­nals” foot­ball – the claus­tro­pho­bic, the de­fi­ant, the des­per­ate, the in­tense – is now com­mon­place amongst the bet­ter sides. And the mark of such foot­ball is de­fen­sive pres­sure all around the ground. The tack­ling for­ward, in this sce­nario of am­pli­fied de­fence, has be­come a crit­i­cal com­po­nent.

At the start of 2016, some com­men­ta­tors, lament­ing the re­duc­tion in in­ter­change ro­ta­tions from 120 to 90, an­tic­i­pated more time in the mid­field for key for­wards as mid­field­ers went for­ward for a rest and re­placed them. They were pre­dict­ing, in a way, the demise of the key for­ward’s in­flu­ence up front and his his­tor­i­cal role in the game. At the same time, Port

coach Ken Hink­ley was fore­cast­ing the op­po­site: the re­vival of the power for­ward, with a dif­fer­ent role.

Four years ear­lier, In­side Sport wrote: “The game has been re-en­gi­neered … Teams can no longer af­ford a ‘glam­our’ for­ward whose sole pur­pose is to per­form spec­tac­u­lar acts cul­mi­nat­ing in goals. To­day’s Car­man or Blight ex­e­cutes the sec­ond and third ef­fort, sur­rounded, usu­ally, by team-mates from all around the ground … in­creased de­fence all over the ground has enor­mous im­pli­ca­tions. It’s given rise to the blis­ter­ingly dam­ag­ing goal-sneak and the big for­ward who, for a while, ev­ery­one thought a di­nosaur. As path­ways to goal in­creased, teams were win­ning with­out him. But as close check­ing causes the ball to ping around for­ward 50s, the man who tow­ers above the des­per­ate throng can be more im­por­tant than ever … [but they] dif­fer from their Juras­sic an­ces­tors – they are nec­es­sar­ily more mo­bile, deft and skil­ful.”

The “de­fen­sive press” that be­came pop­u­larised a few years ago also led to the dust­ing off of the long kick to lib­er­ate the ball. Hence, the big man to re­ceive it. But some­times, he’s the man bring­ing it into the for­ward 50. That’s a no­table change.

The de­fen­sive fo­cus is so in­tense that even the phrase “con­tested mark” means some­thing very dif­fer­ent to the mod­ern for­ward. Goals are ex­tremely hard to come by, and it’s an­other rea­son why skyscrap­ing scav­engers have again be­come so im­por­tant.

An­other cru­cial change has been the sim­ple evo­lu­tion of the “type”. In­nu­mer­able in­flu­ences on the game have meant

We still pay homage to it, and a team is laid out in its five sets ofthree­play­ers­fromthe­back­to­for­ward­lines,with­fol­low­ers and in­ter­change, but the re­al­ity barely rep­re­sents it.

that size, skill, speed and strength have in­creased no­tice­ably over the last 50 years. This goes with­out say­ing. The new big man is no longer a lum­berer. He’s not only big­ger but faster and more ex­plo­sive.

A tall tar­get is a tar­get in­deed and in the ex­e­cu­tion of his job he some­times looks like Kong swat­ting jets, or grap­pling Godzilla. No longer does the goal-kicker have one ornery ad­ver­sary like Ray Bif­fin, fists bunched in readi­ness to ad­min­is­ter just that. Rather, he has a skilled stop­per with plenty of help as a di­rect op­po­nent. That back­man’s ball-get­ting and dis­tri­bu­tion skills have also evolved, and a turnover can mean a sud­den shift in mo­men­tum and a goal up the other end within sec­onds.

As “po­si­tional play” has been de­con­structed, the old de­pic­tion of the team, fa­mil­iar to all of us who watched tele­vised match pre­views or read In­side

Foot­ball, is barely even rel­e­vant. We still pay homage to it, and a team is laid out in its five sets of three play­ers from the back to for­ward lines, with fol­low­ers and in­ter­change, but the re­al­ity barely rep­re­sents it. The game has gone from one-on-one match-ups and play­ing to po­si­tion, to ev­ery man be­ing within 3040 me­tres of the ball at any given time, a seething, pur­pose­ful swarm, all chas­ing the ball and one-an­other, the great mass of them rolling around the bound­aries, or end-to-end, like mar­bles in a bucket. Ev­ery­one is a fol­lower.

Hawkins seems to have dis­cov­ered a mo­dus operandi that was al­ways fa­mil­iar to for­wards like Nick Riewoldt and Franklin. Riewoldt, at 193cm, ac­tu­ally isn’t re­ally all that out of place in a mid­field these days. Evolv­ing key for­wards are flex­i­ble and mo­bile, able to en­ter the mid­field fray, ex­tri­cate the ball, em­bark on ex­cit­ing runs and kick goals on the run, or dab­ble up­field and set up plays. We’ve wit­nessed an in­crease in their phys­i­cal abil­ity to carry out the new role. Riewoldt has been a pi­o­neer. While he hasn’t the speed of a Franklin, his per­pet­ual-mo­tion run­ning, ver­sa­til­ity and dura­bil­ity have made him an on­field force. He com­bines ob­vi­ous ath­letic tal­ent with workrate, courage and skill. No one at­tacks a

ball, in the air or on the ground,

The­newswarm­ing game­broughtwith ita­cor­re­spond­ing plague of statis­tics an­d­anal­y­sis… Ap­pre­ci­at­ingthe game­was,frankly, be­com­ing­toomuch of a men­tal ef­fort.

with his tenac­ity, and he’s taken more marks in his ca­reer than any­one, ever. For a tall for­ward renowned for many a daunt­less mark, Riewoldt has an un­usual rep­u­ta­tion for going out, get­ting it and bring­ing it back. His ex­e­cu­tion and dis­tri­bu­tion are the sorts of skills Hawkins is now ex­pected to aim for, if not to the same ex­tent.

Riewoldt is the tem­plate for the for­ward who can no longer pre­sume to stay at home and ex­pect de­liv­ery. He out­worked even the most ded­i­cated de­fend­ers. Rather than com­ing down to their level, he chal­lenged them to de­feat him on his terms. Few did. If it’s pos­si­ble to talk about “elite-level” courage, Riewoldt was up there with Carey and Jonathan Brown.

Lance Franklin, with his unique abil­i­ties, is, they say, the ne plus ultra of mod­ern mo­bile for­wards. He’s a tar­get and he’s a link man. The fur­ther he wan­ders out, the more taut the in­vis­i­ble elas­tic con­nect­ing him to the goals be­comes, and Franklin snaps back swiftly, with mus­cle, feeds team-mates ac­cu­rately and slots ma­jors. Though he seems to be held more of­ten these days, set free he can turn a match in a few min­utes. Since his cen­tury in 2008, he’s al­ways been in con­tention for the Cole­man.

But as is of­ten the case with Aussie Rules, as the dy­namic had al­tered a shadow side emerges. In this case, cer­tain stay-at-home su­per-for­wards are also flour­ish­ing. Tex Walker, Jack Riewoldt and Josh Kennedy are ex­am­ples.

These men suf­fer no iden­tity cri­sis. We know for cer­tain that they are “key for­wards” in a game in which struc­ture has been re­placed by role. Other roles are a lit­tle more amor­phous, but can be de­scribed in gen­eral terms: tall de­fend­ers, in­side/out­side mids, third for­wards/sec­ond ruck­men, etc. We know

who they are, but we of­ten don’t know where they are. The po­si­tions of the game and the play re­volv­ing around those po­si­tions were once eas­ily recog­nis­able to fans of other sports. This is no longer the case. Whereas once the struc­ture made the game, now each in­di­vid­ual game makes the struc­ture. The post­struc­tural spec­ta­tor is no longer privy to po­si­tion. Only the coach and his team are aware of it.

How­ever, some things haven’t changed. There’s still the glam­our. The gi­ant goal­grab­ber is back and no mere won­der of the an­cient world. In this en­vi­ron­ment the tall for­ward has re­gained promi­nence, along with his new job de­scrip­tion. What all the for­wards men­tioned so far have in com­mon with their an­ces­tors is an un­com­mon abil­ity to take a grab over a sav­agely con­test­ing mob and con­vert it into a goal.

The new swarm­ing game brought with it a cor­re­spond­ing plague of statis­tics and anal­y­sis through­out the last two decades. Ap­pre­ci­at­ing the game was, frankly, be­com­ing too much of a men­tal ef­fort for the av­er­age fan. These numbers over­ran the most im­por­tant statis­tic of all: the num­ber of six-poin­t­ers a team could kick and its cor­re­la­tion to vic­tory. For many years, we watched mid­field­ers chip­ping around, teams re­tain­ing pos­ses­sion – all of which had their own statis­tics – while the taller of the four posts stood tan­ta­lis­ingly within dis­tance of a rel­a­tively short kick. It was frus­trat­ing to watch, and it made a tac­tic like “Pa­gan’s pad­dock” look like the work of ge­nius in com­par­i­son. Coaches are thank­fully be­gin­ning to con­clude that the goal is the point. It’s why peo­ple go to games. It’s why peo­ple play. Roll up! The strong­man is once more front and cen­tre – right where he be­longs.

Nick Riewoldt, good at going out and bring­ing it back. mid­dle right Gary Ablett carved the path for the mod­ern­for­ward.

Lance Franklin: tar­get and link man. Coaches are thank­fully be­gin­ning to con­clude that the goal is the point.

Jonathon Pat­ton, a po­tent pres­ence whose ball-get­ting, goal-kick­ing and phys­i­cal­ity are made for fi­nals.

Tom Boyd is the ul­ti­mate “glam­our” for­ward. Jesse Ho­gan be­came a piv­otal man at Mel­bourne.

The tall for­ward has re­gained promi­nence, along with his new job de­scrip­tion.

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