History will record 2017 as the year of the Tiger, but it was also a year in which clubs continued to defy the AFL’s attempts to open the game up and make it more like old-style Australian Rules and less like rugby.
Richmond’s search for an 11th flag ended after 37 years. But the AFL’s quest for a more open, attractive game goes on.
For the second year in a row a pressure-based team won the flag. For the second year in a row there was nary a genuine ruckman or power forward on the winning side.
The Tigers did have Toby Nankervis and Jack Riewoldt. But 190cm midfielder Shaun Grigg was the back-up ruckman, Dustin Martin was, alongside Riewoldt, the most dangerous target in their attack.
The Western Bulldogs in 2016 had Jordan Roughead and Tom Boyd pinch-hitting in the ruck, and Boyd pinch-hitting in attack.
Ruckmen may not be an endangered species, but they are being challenged by cheap impersonations. The best-credentialed junior ruckman at the 2017 national draft, Sam Hayes, wasn’t selected until pick No.46. The previous year Tim English slid to No.18.
There will always be tall forwards but the evolving question is just what constitutes being tall? It seemed the game was gravitating towards monsters like the 200cm Boyd, Gold Coast’s 199cm Tom Lynch, Greater Western Sydney’s 198cm Jon Patton and Essendon’s 200cm Joe Daniher, but Riewoldt at 195cm was Richmond’s sole tall target in attack.
The Tigers judged correctly that pace and pressure at ground level would prevail over aerial power.
In the pressure cooker of finals, it seems that even with reduced player interchanges, the amped-up team intent on denying the opponent space will tend to prevail over the more attacking team attempting to create it.
Of course there are always exceptions — it just takes exceptional players to provide them.
Richmond had one. It was the year of Martin in almost every sense. He won the Brownlow Medal, the Norm Smith Medal, a premiership, his club’s best and fairest and was named an All-Australian. And the No.1 pick at the national draft, Cameron Rayner, was a Martin clone.
When you shoe-horned Martin in on top of Alex Rance’s peerless defence, Trent Cotchin’s fearless midfield play, Riewoldt’s ability to give a contest in attack and an army of small forwards ready to swoop on the leftovers, the Tigers had all they needed and then some.
Richmond’s drought breaker was a bitter pill. Adelaide won the minor premiership but lost Brodie Smith and Mitch McGovern to injury in the finals and couldn’t get their tall forwards Taylor Walker and Josh Jenkins into the game on grand final day.
Walker didn’t play well. Jenkins had the kind of day that sometimes haunts players for life.
GWS bowed out in the preliminary final — down to 21 fit men before quarter-time for the second year in a row. Cotchin was very lucky to play on grand final day given his high hit that left Dylan Shiel concussed.
Geelong played three finals and turned up for one of them, dismissing a weary Sydney in between meek surrenders to Richmond and then Adelaide. The Swans had an excuse. They had been playing without wriggle room after a 0-6 start. The bad game was overdue and came at a bad time.
West Coast, with veterans Sam Mitchell, Matt Priddis, Drew Petrie, Sharrod Wellingham and Josh Hill on the way out, squeaked past Port Adelaide in an elimination final in extra time but got smacked by the Giants the following week.
The Eagles-Port clash was the one decent contest in a one-sided finals series — Luke Shuey’s ice-cool set shot after the siren sealing a stunning boilover.
West Coast could play well, but not for four quarters. Perhaps it was the prevalence of older players in the team, perhaps it was the absence of talisman Nic Naitanui, but it took a round 23 win over Adelaide to nudge them into the eight on percentage.
The Eagles will welcome Naitanui back next season but if he doesn’t return at full throttle after his knee injury it looms as another fruitless year.
Hawthorn crashed in 2017, losing their first four games and missing the eight after a 10-1-11 season.
They won 10 and drew one of their last 18, though, so the dynasty might be over but finals in 2018 can’t be ruled out.
Melbourne all but made the eight but, as is their habit, found a way not to. The Demons lost to Collingwood in round 23 when a win would have seen them in the finals for the first time since 2006.
They then watched in agony as West Coast climbed over Adelaide and over the Dees into the finals in the last home-and-away game at Domain Stadium.
Fremantle had an up-and-down year characterised by some very good efforts against good sides in among shockers.
It is probably best summed up by their two matches against Richmond — one a thrilling win at the MCG when David Mundy’s after-the-siren goal clinched it; the other a 104-point belting from the Tigers at Domain Stadium late in the season.
The Dockers were like the girl with the curl in their eight-win season — when they were good they were very good, but when they were bad they were awful.
Hapless Brisbane were wooden spooners and gained Rayner, Luke Hodge and Charlie Cameron, but have lost Josh Schache (Western Bulldogs) and Tom Rockliff (Port Adelaide).
Equally hapless Gold Coast lost Gary Ablett (Geelong), Adam Saad (Essendon) and the No.2 draft pick to get Lachie Weller from Fremantle. Football in Queensland is still fighting a losing battle.
The AFL and WA Government finally sealed a deal to send football to the new Perth Stadium in 2018, a blessed relief for all who had watched the slow-motion negotiation unfold over three painful years and two governments.