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Riewoldt, Pavlich, Brown – take your pick

Illustration: Mick Connolly

Illustration: Mick Connolly

Nick Riewoldt is still playing exceptional football. Matthew Pavlich is still playing well. Jonathan Brown, whose combative style greatly diminished his powers, is still playing a role that no teammate can fill.

They are the contemporary game's most venerated forwards, relics of a less congested game that allowed key forwards to flourish. Brown and Pavlich are 32, Riewoldt 31. Dermott Brereton and Royce Hart were retired, and five years past their prime by that age, while even the greatest centre half-forward, Wayne Carey, struggled beyond his very late 20s.

But football's Three Tenors of the forward 50 metres remain on the stage, in part because their clubs find them so hard to replace. One consolation from the Saints' unexpected loss to Brisbane might be finishing low enough to draft a Riewoldt surrogate. Rhys Stanley hasn't improved that much.

Brown the schoolboy hulk in action for Vic Country in 1999 Click for more photos

Brown, Riewoldt and Pavlich: Champions alike

The brilliant careers of Jonathan Brown, Nick Riewoldt and Matthew Pavlich. 

The Tenors have had parallel careers. Riewoldt was a Tassie-born Queenslander whom the draft sent to Victoria, where he put down roots and captained his club. Jonathan Brown was a (very country) Victorian, who was sent to Queensland, as a father-son recruit, because his father Brian had played 51 games for Fitzroy.

Matthew Pavlich was a South Australian, who was drafted to Western Australia. He, too, embraced the club that fate had allocated him and, despite near-annual temptations, followed Paul Kelly's song and never returned to Adelaide. Brown spurned Collingwood bullion twice, in 2005 and 2008. Riewoldt passed on Eddie McGuire's overtures barely six months ago, and could have headed back to Gold Coast when the Suns were established. Brown and Pavlich were contemporaries in the draft of '99, Riewoldt the no.1 pick 12 months later.

Riewoldt might have played alongside Brown – a sliding door comparable to Nathan Buckley remaining in Brisbane with Michael Voss – if not for the abrupt introduction by the AFL of a rule that limited the Lions' recruiting zone to within 20 kilometres of Brisbane's city centre. In reality, this was the Riewoldt rule and Port Adelaide can be thankful that it played Nick in the preliminary final, not the grand final, of 2004.

Neither Riewoldt nor Pavlich has seen a premiership. Riewoldt is Powerball odds to hold the grail, Pavlich's dream remains, despite Freo's setbacks. That pair have captained disciplined teams coached by Ross Lyon that were capable, but collectively less skilful or quick than their grand final rivals.

Brown had a blessed beginning – three flags and a grand final in his first five seasons – but his team has been mostly woeful since and the club has taken as many hits as his burly body. If Brown had played for the Cats, they'd have surely shoved him by now. The Lions just don't have a Tom Hawkins in sight.

But the faded Brown can still influence contests and games, as he did in Wellington on Friday night, when he contributed a couple of goals and provided structure and presence. The ball still falls to ground, at the least, when it is kicked to him.

If you rank the Tenors on their 2014 output, Riewoldt is as far ahead of Brown and even Pavlich as he was of Michael Hurley on the lead last weekend. The St Kilda skipper has an unmatched ability to separate from a defender – only Greater Western Sydney's Jeremy Cameron would rival Riewoldt on the separation score, and he's a decade younger. Riewoldt, indeed, is the best performed of all key forwards this season.

But ranking the trio on their careers is a fraught exercise.

This column consulted with eight current officials at AFL clubs – most of them involved in recruiting/list management – plus one former senior coach – to try and get a read on how they were ranked within the industry. The question was framed ''which one would you take if they were starting out from the same draft?''

In this case, there was a clear, though not unanimous, choice. Brown was selected by six of those surveyed. Pavlich was chosen by one recruiter, on the grounds that his unique flexibility – All-Australian as key forward, key defender and midfielder – meant he could fill whatever hole appeared on the team sheet over his career.

One list manager opted for Riewoldt, ''by a fingernail'' ahead of Brown. Universally, the margin between the trio was viewed as slight. The case for Brown was largely about his physical style – that, as a crasher of packs and a big contested mark, he could influence games in ways the others could not. ''Brown had a massive influence,'' said one long-time official with coaching pedigree. ''He made teammates stand taller.''

Chris Connolly, who coached Pavlich at Fremantle ''and loves Nick Riewoldt'', said ''when the whips are cracking, how do you go past Jonathan Brown?''

The case for Brown also took account of his capacity to intimidate. Fremantle's David Mundy, when given the unpleasant job of standing in Brown's path as a young player, was warned repeatedly that he would ''be smashed''. Big Browny shared more than an interest in greyhounds with Tony Lockett. ''The safest place to play Jonathan Brown was to play on him,'' Connolly said. It is safer to be on a train than in front of one.

But Brown has paid a fair price for his crashing. He has played 251 games for 586 goals, compared with Pavlich's 297 games and 597 goals and Riewoldt's 265 matches and 588 majors. Pavlich advocates note that the Docker spent a fair portion of his career in the midfield and defence, while Brown played ''high'' upfield for the Lethal Lions of 2001-2004 when Alastair Lynch was the deep goalsquare target. Riewoldt, too, had a century goalkicker and gorilla, Fraser Gehrig, stationed deep behind him in those early years.

Statistics probably favour Pav, intangibles and leadership Brown and the contemporary performances Riewoldt. To a degree, shifting game trends also shape the value of each. The versatile game pushes Pavlich's claims, while it appeared a few years ago that the congested game had reduced Riewoldt's leading space and effectiveness. Commendably, Nick found a way back.

They started before the Age of Congestion, and they're still upright. If placing them on the podium is irresistible, the more pertinent question is how their one and only clubs will fill their boots. 

9 comments

  • I'd probably ignore all 3 and take dual Brownlow-Medallist Adam Goodes. :)

    Brown was the luckiest triple premiership player being at the right place at the right time. Not even a shadow of Alastair Lynch.

    Reiwoldt too inconsistent.

    So Pav, but only because he can run through the midfield.

    Commenter
    Pete
    Date and time
    April 27, 2014, 12:23PM
    • You're wrong there Pete. The reason Brisbane came good was Brown turned up. They came good at the right time upon his arrival. In the grand final, the Magpies tried to flatten him, and no other Brisbane player got Colligwood's attention like Brown did. They knew if they could get Brown out the way, it would have dented Brisbane's push to the flag. He's not just a great player, but akin to the great John Nicholls of Carlton whose size, aggression, and determination influenced the opposition. I'm not saying he's another Big Nick, but he is quite influential and destructive when he gets going. My vote goes to him. Roo second, and Pav third, all mighty great players at their best. They are really close together, but the 'aggro' factor is something you'd like to have in a grand final. BB.

      Commenter
      Blue boy
      Location
      Ballarat
      Date and time
      April 27, 2014, 2:37PM
    • Here, here Pete! Goodes coming on and showing how agile he was as the sub against the dees after being out for so long at his age was a testament to his freakish talent.

      Commenter
      phil
      Date and time
      May 04, 2014, 8:46PM
  • Brown at his peak, no doubt.

    Commenter
    JW
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    April 27, 2014, 2:41PM
    • Pavlich is a very good player, Brown an outstanding one, Riewoldt is a champion.

      He is the only one of the three who will be considered in his club's top three of all-time 50 years from now.

      Commenter
      Peter Cain
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      April 27, 2014, 3:04PM
      • Pav has kicked more goals than any other current player (Buddy and Riewoldt the only people that could possibly overtake him this year). He spent years as a defender/midfielder, his goal tally would have amassed several seasons worth of extra goals as a dedicated forward, Those extra seasons if he were a forward would probably have earned him more than 150 goals - in which case he'd have passed Wayne Carey and Barry Hall, 200 more would position him to be in the top 10 goal kickers in afl history (reiterating, a few seasons as a forward instead of defence/midfield may have done it).

        You'd have to acknowledge Freo's general rubbishness over the bulk of Pav's career, without a doubt, rubbish for longer than Brisbane or St Kilda. It's hard for forwards to kick goals if your team doesn't get the ball to you - and yet he has still amassed the goals.

        As for leadership etc. Could you imagine how much Freo would have struggled without him in it? He has stood up and changed his clubs fortunes with captains goals many times, played with niggling injuries instead of resting and probably of the 3 players, had more enticement to move to his home state when they were asking, being in what was a rubbish team for so long, when Adelaide was a competition power house.

        So for a career perspective, Pav would be the man of the 3 to pick. But for right here & now, you couldn't go past Riewoldt who is playing like geriatrix (from asterix) when given the magic potion.

        Commenter
        Slightly Incredulous
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        April 27, 2014, 4:48PM
        • You have a problem...and that is...you are a Pavlova!

          Commenter
          Blue boy
          Location
          Ballarat
          Date and time
          April 27, 2014, 8:46PM
      • IF it was a Grand Final you'd take Brown - so Brown...

        Commenter
        Paulo
        Location
        Newman
        Date and time
        April 29, 2014, 9:16AM
        • Hard to choose. All three are integral to their respective teams, and each one is an elite player that can be a joy to watch no matter who you support. How can they really be compared

          Commenter
          blu
          Location
          Geelong
          Date and time
          May 02, 2014, 8:53AM
          Comments are now closed

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