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.
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.
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.