With a continued emphasis on defence, there’s a popular perception that AFL football has become a significantly lower-scoring scrap than it used to be.
Which is true only if you go back a fair way. Indeed, for more than a decade now, team totals across the competition have hovered somewhere about an average 90-odd points, with the last time that figure exceeded 100 being back in 2000.
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Rohan Connolly previews round five of the AFL season, including Collingwood's clash with North Melbourne at the MCG on Saturday.
But if it’s the form of the high-marking goalkicker that epitomises the business of putting scores on the board, it’s not hard to see why football fans sense a drought. Because 2014 is providing yet more evidence that if the AFL spearhead isn’t already dead, he’s at best terminally ill.
Last year’s Coleman Medal was won by Hawthorn’s Jarryd Roughead with 68 goals. The season before, it was Richmond’s Jack Riewoldt who took out the gong with 65, the lowest winning tally since Geelong champion Doug Wade’s 62 goals in 1962.
The numbers have been on the decline for some time, with Lance Franklin the only century-topping Coleman medallist of the past 15 seasons after there had been a dozen of them in 14 seasons from 1983 to 1996.
But seldom have we seen key forwards struggling for goals like in the first few rounds of the new season.
After four games, four of the top six in last year’s Coleman Medal - Travis Cloke, West Coast’s Josh Kennedy, Franklin and Jack Riewoldt - are all below their goals-per-game average of last year
Four games into 2013, that quartet already had 58 goals between them, including five hauls of five goals and two bags of seven kicked by Riewoldt and Cloke. At the moment, they have a collective 26, the most by any in one game being just four.
Cloke’s decline has been the most dramatic - just two goals for 2014 so far after 16 to this stage last year. But the goal output of Franklin and Riewoldt has also been halved.
Where have their missing goals gone? Across a range of teammates, with the search for a spread of goalkicking options definitely flavour of the month after Hawthorn spent much of 2013 preparing brilliantly for life without Buddy.
The Hawks, the AFL’s top-scoring team to date, have boasted 10 or more individual goalkickers in every one of their four wins. West Coast has been able to muster nine or more different goalkickers in each of its victories before last week’s mauling at Geelong. Finding that spread has been tougher work for Richmond and Collingwood.
But not as tough as life has been for the likes of Cloke and Riewoldt in forward lines that are continually crowded, where opponents will regularly zone off to outnumber the big-marking forwards, and in which teammates have been instructed to find other targets so as not to become too one-dimensional.
Last week against Richmond, Collingwood recruit Jesse White was the Pies’ “go-to” man far more than his more-feted teammate Cloke, who conceded before his 200th game that his confidence had taken a hammering.
“Half the time the battle is within my head. It is a matter of winning that,” he said. “If you drop a mark early on then obviously your confidence goes down. You want to take marks. You want to kick goals. You want to do perfect things. You’re not human if you don’t get upset with those type of things.”
Riewoldt, meanwhile, has already been the subject of much debate about where he should best be used, with an army of critics calling for him to play closer to goal and Richmond coach Damien Hardwick insisting that kind of thinking is an anachronism, and firing back with fact that Riewoldt, before last weekend, was leading the competition for marks inside 50.
“Unfortunately, these days the way the game’s played there’s six forwards,” Hardwick said. “Where those guys fall is generally where they are. We don’t chain them to the goal square anymore.”
Not that it would help much if they did, based on current trends. At this stage of every season from 2008 to 2010, eight of the top 10 goalkickers in the AFL were genuine key forwards. In 2014, it’s just five.
Footy fans should cherish what few big goal hauls from the big forwards they do witness this season. Because numbers like that suggest it’s going to be happening even less in years to come.