There's little doubt the strongest suit of defending premier Sydney is the evenness of talent spread across its best 22. So there's some irony in the fact that a mid-year All-Australian team would contain more individuals from the Swans than any other club.
I've gone for four Sydney stars in my AFL team of the half-season (based on the first 10 rounds before the byes began), though I don’t think any of them are contentious calls.
Dan Hannebery, as good as he already was, has clearly gone to another level again 2013, behind only the peerless Gary Ablett in most media awards, and importantly, the coaches’ own MVP. He’s accompanied in my best 22 by outstanding running half-back Nick Malceski and co-captains Jarrad McVeigh and Kieren Jack (pictured above), the latter pair on the interchange bench.
There’s three Essendon players in this team, Brownlow medallist Jobe Watson, and another pair who have become the foundations of a vastly-improved Bomber defence, key defender Jake Carlisle and running defender Michael Hibberd.
There’s a pair of players from Geelong, Collingwood, Carlton and, perhaps surprisingly to some, North Melbourne, and one each from another seven clubs, with five failing to get a guernsey, among them a genuine finals aspirant in Richmond, for whom skipper Trent Cotchin and Brett Deledio have been good, but not quite to the same levels they reached last year.
There’s plenty of names in this line-up you wouldn’t have counted upon winning a spot as recently as March.
Take, for example, Western Bulldogs’ ruckman Will Minson, who’d had a fair 2012 but still couldn’t crack a spot in his club’s best and fairest top 10. Big Will has had some sort of 2013, beating all peers for hit-outs, taps to advantage, clearances and tackles.
Or Lindsay Thomas, who only two seasons ago had the goalkicking yips so badly he was dropped, but even after a steadier year last year, has in half of 2013 already nearly surpassed his goal tally of 2012 and is leading the Coleman Medal.
And even Malceski, who will forever be remembered for kicking the premiership-clinching goal in last year’s grand final, but had been dropped from the Swans’ senior line-up earlier in the season. No chance of that in 2013, Malceski winning an average 23.6 disposals, the third-highest tally of any defender, but leagues ahead of any of them in terms of rebound 50s, his primary role.
Carlisle’s selection might surprise some, though the Essendon key defender emerged last year, winning a Rising Star nomination. But to say that promise has spilled over into much bigger things in 2013 would be an understatement, his problems against Carlton’s Jarrad Waite in the first half last Friday night perhaps his first lowering of colours in a duel all season. Even then, he was able to help change the course of the game after being swung forward, then return to defence at the death knell to take the game-saving mark
Carlisle takes up the full-back post alongside two more interesting selections in Carlton’s Andrew Walker, who after a superb 2011 as a forward, spent more time in midfield last year, and is now playing tremendous football as a small defender, and the consistently underrated Kangaroo Scott Thompson.
Thompson was in my All-Australian side last year, too. I’m still staggered he wasn’t even considered in the initial squad of 40 for the official version.
This season, he’s just doing more of the same, the competition’s leading spoiler, and ranked second for intercept marks and intercept possessions. Maybe the selectors will catch on a year later, as often seems the case these days.
Arguably the biggest "bolter" in this team, though, is Carlisle’s Bomber teammate Michael Hibberd.
The former Frankston mature-age recruit had been held back only by injury in his first two seasons with the Dons. But after a full pre-season, he has blossomed, turning into one of the competition’s most damaging rebound defenders with his judgement and damaging and precise kicking.
He’s been so good he’s managed to squeeze out another All-Australian from last year in a similar role in Hawthorn’s Grant Birchall. As good as the Hawk defender has undoubtedly been, Hibberd has had the superior defensive side to his game, with more intercept possessions, intercept marks and spoils than his opposite number.
Birchall isn’t the only Hawk a touch stiff to miss out, either. Veteran Sam Mitchell has had another wonderful season, averaging 30.2 disposals sweeping across the back of the square as a defensive midfielder. It’s a job McVeigh has performed similarly for Sydney, practically the only difference the Swan’s capacity to creep forward and kick a goal, of which he had a dozen after 10 games compared to Mitchell’s three.
Hawthorn does get an obvious guernsey, though, in Jarryd Roughead, superb all season as a key forward and relief ruckman, and even occasional on-baller. In an All-Australian 22 picked to play a game, he shapes as an obvious second ruckman to Minson, and can also do plenty of damage near the goal face.
Another who nearly scraped into this team is exciting Greater Western Sydney forward Jeremy Cameron, currently equal third on the goalkicking table. In the end, though, I couldn’t select him at the expense of Collingwood’s Travis Cloke, who’s kicked almost as many goals, and has racked up far more marks and disposals.
With the modern glut of on-ballers, we’ve come to expect flanks and even pockets to be filled by men often more readily identified with their work in the centre square. My two forward flankers, however, have already proved their worth as dangerous smaller forwards.
One is Geelong veteran Steve Johnson, who stands fifth in the average possession count with nearly 29 per game and has a long and proud history of kicking goals and giving as many off. Ditto Fremantle’s Nat Fyfe, who’s already been an All-Australian squad nominee and would fit in snugly indeed on a flank.
My small forward is Carlton’s Jeff Garlett, who just squeezed out yet another Hawk in Luke Breust, the pair the leading forward line tacklers in the competition, but Garlett just gaining an edge in scoreboard impact (scores kicked and assisted) of which he’s averaging more than four goals worth per game.
Veteran Saint Nick Riewoldt was a shoo-in at centre half-forward, where he at times this season he has appeared to carry a whole team on his shoulders. And my full-forward is the man with the Fred Flinstone run-up, West Coast’s Josh Kennedy.
As comical as his approach to goal looks, the big Eagle key forward is highly effective, averaging 3.4 goals per game, is a prolific tackler for a big man, and his scoreboard impact is the best in the competition.
This half-season All-Australian side is flexible, full of run, defensively strong and with goalkicking power to spare. Even at this stage, you’d think it would still be faring pretty well come September, too.
VOTE: Your pick for the starting ruck position