Everything has to start from somewhere.
“With Adelaide joining the competition this year, we believe the timing is right to introduce an AFL All-Australian Team,” said then-AFL executive commissioner Alan Schwab in a mid-August 1991 edition of the Footy Record.
Born from a concept proposed by Mal Brown and derived from generations of ranking and comparing things, the AFL’s All-Australian Team has evolved from this humble start.
The All-Australian Team follows a long lineage of listing the best players and forming hypothetical teams.
The VFL had a number of semi-official media teams in the past, and interstate carnivals used to select an All-Australian side from the best on show.
But the modern awards are a far bigger show.
There are also rewards for making the team these days. Beyond the honour itself and dark green blazer, most AFL players have contractual bonus clauses tied into post-season honours.
That’s beyond the ego boost of being in the top 3 per cent of league players in any year.
From the club based nomination process, filled with information packs, to the semi-secretive meetings of the selection panel, the All-Australian Team is simultaneously extremely public and private.
This year’s initial 44-player squad has thrown up a number of surprises, and a number of cases worthy of selection.
Here’s who we think should have made the team based on the initial 44-player squad.
What makes a team?
At the time of its inception, the concept was explained simply by Schwab.
“We believe that it will become a very prestigious award by recognising the 20 best players by position, coach and field umpire each year,” he said.
Since then there has been much conjecture about the balance between best players and position-based selection.
When appointed to the All-Australian panel, Kane Cornes stated that: “It’s very easy to pick 10 midfielders, but you want to pick the players in the positions they’ve played.”
Other All-Australian selectors have noted that they opt for a focus on the best, with an eye on the ability to perform a role.
“Did (Tom) Papley have a better year than (Patrick) Dangerfield?” fellow selector Glen Jakovich asked hypothetically on SEN in 2020.
“To put Papley in you have to take Dangerfield or (Marcus) Bontempelli out … these guys actually played forward and kicked goals in crucial games.”
The AFL Coaches Association, when picking a team of the year in 2015, eschewed traditional positions (such as half-forward flank) and selected for modern roles (such high half-forward) instead.
They surmised that nine midfielders accurately represented how modern footy was played.
That tension — between structure and talent — is at the heart of the argument of who should make an All-Australian Team.
It’s easiest to start at forward as that seems the most clear cut this year.
Charlie Curnow and Taylor Walker have been the stand-out key position forwards this year. In a hypothetical team both would be complementary, with Curnow’s one-on-one and aerial ability being supplemented by Walker’s skill to score from deep and on the run.
Toby Greene is the game’s best … whatever he is. Usually he’s just an agent of chaos forward of the ball, causing problems for opposition defences. Charlie Cameron fits in a similar category as he is often the focal point of the deadly Lions attack.
Christian Petracca falls in the middle of the midfield-forward mix. He’s able to influence the game wherever he goes. He presents as a credible forward target and often the most likely to take the ball out of the clinches.
The final spot should go to a taller forward, but all cases are somewhat flawed. Nick Larkey and Oscar Allen compiled admirable raw goal totals, tempered significantly by the amount of ball they received.
Both provided little when they weren’t kicking goals. The incredible season from Kyle Langford is also worth mentioning, but he falls marginally short here.
Joe Daniher also had a solid season, and a big part of the appeal is his around the ground work and back-up ruck craft. His importance to one of the four most effective forward lines in the league is the tiebreaker here.
In a perfect world, an extra pressure forward would be ideal as the sixth forward — such as Dan Butler, Jamie Elliott, Lachie Schultz or Kysaiah Pickett.
Pickett would be the choice here if named in the squad. While a lot of attention has gone to the importance of wings, the value of forward pressure remains under recognised.
Speaking of wings, two(ish) were chosen in the squad of 44 — perhaps foreshadowing their inclusion in the final side.
The contribution of wings is one of the hardest things to evaluate, with most of their impact coming from off ball acts and positioning.
The two wings named made much of their contribution on the ball, however.
Josh Daicos was as close to a pure “wing” this year as anyone this side of Ed Langdon. He fits the brief, and was a reliable part of the minor premier.
There is perhaps a bigger question of whether he fits the brief of one of the “best” players of the season.
The case for Errol Gulden is different. No player had more metres gained or inside 50s this year than Gulden.
However, he spent only a portion of the year on the wing with a fair chunk on the inside. Sydney also utilised him slightly unconventionally compared with other wings, allowing him to roam free at times and utilising a seventh defender to cover.
It’s likely that the selectors pick both, but our team only tabs Gulden.
The ruck battle is also quite difficult to split between early leader Tim English and fast-finisher Rowan Marshall.
English is better at winning uncontested ball, but Marshall the better at winning hard ball. Both are hard to split, with Marshall’s slight edge in clearances, contested marks and making the finals providing the edge.
Max Gawn and Jarrod Witts can count themselves unlucky not to make at least the squad of 44, if not the final team as well.
There are some far easier calls as well.
Marcus Bontempelli has arguably been the best player this year, despite his Bulldogs side missing the finals. He is able to keep his side competitive throughout a game and emerge as the matchwinner at the end.
Sometimes footy is about the coalface and the hard ball won, and his Bulldogs teammate Tom Liberatore won more clearances than any other player this year.
But there’s more to Libba than just that, as he is able to impact the game in a variety of ways. He warrants selection after a long journey to the top.
It is also hard to overlook the two most important parts of Port Adelaide’s resurgence: Zak Butters and Connor Rozee. They are a package deal in the middle — inside and out, hard at the ball and class on the outside.
Rozee makes the bench here instead of the starting side.
The final wing spot is more undecided, however.
Jordan Dawson has the ability to play both on the inside and the outside. He’s also the best kick in the league when considering threat and retention.
In reality, wing is just a starting spot for him. In a real game multiple players often rotate onto the wing, with some sides deploying six or more in a game.
The midfield is the deepest pool of talent in the league, with at least 10 names unlucky not to make the 44-player squad.
Defence is the hardest thing of all to evaluate in modern footy. So much of an effective defence is a lack of opposition impact, not any impact of their own.
To work out the best defenders this year, the easiest starting point is to look at the best defences and work backwards.
Nick Daicos and Darcy Moore are two of the easiest selections in the side, despite missing games at the end of the year. Both are critical to Collingwood’s success and finals campaign ahead.
Callum Wilkie has long been a favourite of analysts across the league, surprising many with his ability to not only battle one-on-one but also close down space. He’s been the focal point for an airtight St Kilda defence, and deserves selection despite his low profile.
Nick Blakey has the ability to defend solidly and create on the counter, helping the Swans steer their way to another September appearance.
He’s the type of hybrid defender and creator built for modern footy.
James Sicily deserves one of the remaining spots, despite missing four and a bit games and being a part of the league’s worst defences.
Maybe the biggest selling point in his case is how much worse the Hawks have been without him. Simply put, his impact is huge, dragging those around him up.
The last spot is hard to choose, with balance indicating a near-pure smaller defensive option. However, those aren’t as readily present in the selected squad.
Options such as Trent Rivers, Connor Idun and Ed Richards would likely balance the squad better. Tom Stewart may also be an apt selection here.
For taller defenders, Harris Andrews and Jacob Weitering are very unlucky here, as are Sam Taylor, Steven May and Jake Lever. Taylor in particular has been the league’s best defender, but missed a third of the season.
Instead, a high powered option such as Jack Sinclair could provide even more drive out of defence. St Kilda’s defence has been so good this year that they deserve a second selection, even if a less defensively minded one.
As is dictated by modern footy, more mids are probably the order of the day.
Caleb Serong is also strong on the inside but generally operates a little more in uncontested situations.
Likewise Stephen Coniglio, the cornerstone for a resurgent GWS midfield group. Lachie Neale moves more on the inside, behind just Liberatore for the most clearances this year. Underestimate him at your own peril.
The aforementioned Rozee also grabs a spot on the pine.
The All-Australian selectors may opt for a second ruck on the bench instead of a midfield-heavy group, but both workhorse rucks above can battle almost all day.
Our All-Australian team
Source: AFL NEWS ABC