Each football season brings new tactics, rules and players, but it seems the more footy changes, the more it stays the same. Forwards remain the competition’s glamour players, while midfielders continue to win almost every award on offer. Defenders somehow still fly under the radar, even though it’s now universally accepted that to win a premiership, defence must be a team’s number one priority. For every ‘Buddy’ Franklin and Jarryd Roughead that might win you a Grand Final, there’s a Ted Richards and Heath Grundy who could save one.
2013 has seen the emergence of a raft of talented young defenders who’ve played critical roles in their side’s fortunes this season – 12 of which have been rewarded with a selection in the Player Association’s inaugural 22under22 squad. 22under22 is a new concept that recognises the best 22 players aged 22 and under for the entire AFL season.
Though key defenders are probably the least fashionable of all modern footballers, they remain some of the most important.
Jake Carlisle’s ability to shut down the opposition’s best defender each week was one of the key reasons the Bombers rose steadily up the ladder early in 2013. The same can be said of Gold Coast’s Rory Thompson, who was pivotal in the Suns developing a steely defensive side that wasn’t on show in their opening two seasons.
Daniel Talia – who won last year’s Rising Star award – has again been steadfast in defence, even though many of his Adelaide teammates have been unable to match their 2012 efforts. Young Bulldog Jordan Roughead is another who has stood strong and continued to develop in what’s been a difficult year for his club.
While these four tall defenders have been given the toughest defensive tasks each week, a range of smaller, more dynamic players have built reputations as offensive weapons residing in the back half.
Paul Seedsman, Aaron Mullett and Clancee Pearce all look the part in the 22under22 squad – Seedsman and Mullett have haircuts too trendy for any key defender to pull off, while Pearce is one of many ‘Gen Y’ kids sporting plenty of ink on both arms. All three play with a youthful energy, providing dash and dare off the half-back line to quickly turn defence into attack. None average more than 20 possessions per match, but each would rank amongst the best at their club in terms of metres gained per disposal.
Tiger Brandon Ellis and Lion Mitch Golby have shown a similar capacity to rebound from defensive 50, while also playing lock-down roles on the opposition’s most dangerous small forwards. Ellis has become an important component of Richmond’s back six, while Golby has finally left behind the injury concerns that disrupted his first three AFL seasons.
The players listed above possess one of two things – an ability to limit their direct opponents’ influence, or a knack of being able to move the ball quickly out of the back half. But in an era where each side focuses heavily on applying pressure in its forward line, another skill has become more important than ever. Players that can maintain composure in a high intensity environment – at the most dangerous part of the ground – are invaluable.
Steele Sidebottom and Trent McKenzie fit this mould. Neither have outstanding pace, but both have a gift of being able to sum up a situation quickly, pick the right option, and deliver the ball effectively.
McKenzie is ranked fifth in the AFL for rebound 50s this season; anyone who’s seen his thumping left boot in action understands why the Suns want the ball in his hands. The fact McKenzie can kick the ball more than 60 metres on a regular basis means he has more options at his disposal at any given time than most other players.
Sidebottom doesn’t share that luxury, but nevertheless seems to constantly make the right decision with the ball. The 21-year-old Magpie started his career as a small forward but now plays in all areas of the ground. Injuries to a number of Collingwood defenders have meant Sidebottom has spent much of 2013 in the back half.
The ability to play in a range of positions is becoming increasingly important for all players, and it’s hard to think of a more versatile young defender than St Kilda’s Dylan Roberton. At 194cm, he has often been asked to mind tall forwards this season, but the former Docker has also shown he’s a more than handy rebounding defender. He’s ranked in the Top 10 in the AFL for rebound 50s and running bounces this season.
Footy has evolved dramatically in the last ten years and will change again during the next decade. It’s hard to know exactly what the future holds for this group of young defenders, but each of them looks certain to play a key role in the game in coming years. For now they remain a group of promising young players, but before too long they’ll re-shape the competition as the next generation of the AFL’s elite. Selection in the 22under22 team marks another step in their journeys.