For every player, in every team, the mechanical action of kicking a goal is the same.
Boot meets ball. Ball goes between the big sticks.
But there are many different paths to get to that last kick. While every goal is worth the same, some are harder work than others.
There’s only one individual AFL award based purely on statistical achievement: the Coleman Medal. While other awards are based on how well someone else thought a player did, the Coleman Medal only cares about one thing — goals.
Traditionally, the Coleman Medal was dominated by centrepiece forwards, but as footy has evolved, so have the faces at the top of the scoring race, with contenders from all categories now featuring.
So who might be in the running for the Coleman this year, and where will their goals come from?
Much of footy’s rich lore focuses around the spearhead. From Coventry to Lockett, Hudson to Dunstall, the stay-at-home target has brought fans to the game and brought victories to teams.
Carlton’s Harry McKay exemplified the concept of a spearhead more than any other player last year. McKay led Carlton from the front, winning the Coleman for a side that struggled to find other pathways to goal.
The calling card of the spearhead forward is the ability to snag marks in tough situations, especially inside the 50. No player was better at converting contested marks into goals than McKay last year, standing alone in scoring more than a goal per game from such opportunities.
McKay often beats out multiple opponents on the ground and in the air to take those marks. He uses his considerable size and natural speed to break through opponents, and times his leaps to take the ball above the fists of spoiling defenders. Manning McKay can be an exercise in futility.
Even when he doesn’t get his big mitts on the ball, the attention he draws from the opposition frees teammates up, creating room for them to thrive. Against Richmond in Round 1 he was kept to just one goal, but worked harder further up the ground to create for teammates.
Big and mobile
Footy’s obsession with the spearheads who racked up tons of goals is well known, but smart footy fans have long been drawn to a different type of tall forward — the roaming tall. Think the old centre half forward, covering territory and being able to gather the ball on the ground or in the air.
These days all players have to be a bit mobile, and mobile talls are being sent further and further up the ground. This creates extra room for other forwards to work in, and improves the entire attack.
That’s not to say these forwards can’t get their own. And it’s a Geelong pairing that sets the standard.
Although there’s a solid temptation to label Tom Hawkins and Jeremy Cameron as stay-at-home spearheads, they often do their best work when they come up the ground as well. While both take contested grabs, the Cats are stellar on the lead and when the ball hits the deck.
Cameron scored 40 points last year from ground-ball gets, while Hawkins sits in fourth amongst the talls. Hawkins also led the league for points from marks inside 50 — a demonstration of how well rounded he is as a player.
Their propensity to roam and set up their teammates causes fits for defenders. The two players often interchange their roles, dragging defenders away from where they want to be.
The new crop of promising young talls are generally more mobile than those of eras past. There’s potentially a time in the future where the mobile big makes the traditional spearhead obsolete. Two very mobile older heads, Lance Franklin and Taylor Walker, also showed last year they could pile on the goals as well.
The tall small
As much as the spearhead and the roaming tall were celebrated, another type of player was derided. The hybrid forward, or the tweener, has probably been the subject to more pejoratives from a side’s fans than any other type of player.
In recent years, the tall small forward has become key to exploiting mismatches. A good hybrid will be able to out-mark a rebounding defender in the air, or run circles around a hulking gorilla of a tall defender.
There is no better hybrid forward right now than Bayley Fritsch, who kicked more goals than McKay last year by the time finals were wrapped up. At 188cm, Fritsch’s size was cited as a reason that he was overlooked in the draft initially, with clubs unable to see how his game would translate to the big stage.
For Fritsch, several years of solid lower-level performances and a shift in the way the game was played gave him the opportunity.
At Melbourne, he thrives in a set-up where he is often the fourth tallest forward. With the other three near 200cm, Fritsch can pick off smaller defenders, guiding the Demons’ upfield players into good leading routes and isolated situations.
When the Dees have one or more of their bigs on the bench, or in different roles, Fritsch can beat taller defenders when the ball hits the deck. He scored 58 points last year from ground-ball gets, comfortably in the top 10 in the league.
Resting big-bodied midfielders often fill-in this role as well, leveraging mismatches against opposing midfielders or smaller defenders. The ability of the game’s elite midfielders to use their bodies means that all bar the most seasoned defenders can be exploited if left alone on an island.
Toby Greene, out until round six this year, also works as a tall small, despite being more firmly on the small side. Collingwood have also operated with a variety of these types in the past, with Brody Mihocek being a key example.
Let’s get small
If the spearhead shows the pure strength of Australian Football, then the small forward is the perfect demonstration of its guile and artistic merit. The goalsneak operates from the shadows, ducking and diving and almost always heading to the goals.
Some of the game’s finest individual highlights have come courtesy of small forwards, from ridiculous goals to electric chase-downs.
Increasingly, small forwards are also being relied upon to generate scores from forward-50 stoppages, and show the ability to fly high. Small forwards quite often have to be a master of it all.
Currently, there is no more effective attacking small forward than Brisbane’s Charlie Cameron.
Cameron can quite literally do it all. In the air, he can fly higher than almost all, scraping the warm Brisbane skies. He’s also adept at beating opponents on the ground.
And no player is better at the subtle art of sneaking away unnoticed than Cameron, leading to a large number of uncontested marks inside 50.
Small forwards are also increasingly used in a defensive manner. They are relied upon to put pressure on attempted rebounds from opposition sides, and to create repeat attacking opportunities. Without solid defensive principles, small forwards will struggle at AFL level.
The Melbourne duo of Kysaiah Pickett and Alex Neal-Bullen are stellar in this respect, helping the Dees set up repeat entry after repeat entry.
A new small forward leapt on the scene last week, with Josh Rachele kicking five goals in his first game of league football. While he’s unlikely to repeat the feat every week, his future is bright.
Source: AFL NEWS ABC