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Spoiler alert: top full-backs kicking on

One of the best fullbacks in the business... Hawthorn recruit Brian Lake.

One of the best fullbacks in the business... Hawthorn recruit Brian Lake. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo

Plenty say that centre half-forward is the toughest position to play. Forget that. Full-back is.

It's also the loneliest spot on the ground. You are totally exposed. One mistake and the immediate consequence can be a goal to the opposition. There's nowhere to hide. After kicking a goal, the forward struts around high-fiving all within reach, and waits in keen anticipation for the next centre bounce. All his opponent can do is follow him about, head bowed, hoping there's not going to be a fast centre break coming their way.

No one wants to play full-back. Even those who are good at it don't enjoy it and crave to be played up field. In my playing days at Carlton and Fitzroy, I played with two of the very best, Geoff Southby and Harvey Merrigan. Both fancied themselves as forwards.

Lake, 31, could have several more years in the game.

Lake, 31, could have several more years in the game. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo

Thankfully, I only played a few games at full-back. It was late 1967 and I was 17, scared and skinny. Scared, because in successive weeks I faced Collingwood's Peter McKenna at Victoria Park and Hawthorn's Peter Hudson on the Glenferrie Oval glue pot. They each kicked four goals, which was less than their career averages (4.58 and 5.64, respectively). So it could have been a lot worse. Nevertheless it was a role I never wanted to experience again. From the start of each quarter you just wanted to hear the siren to end it, so that goals couldn't be scored against you.

As a coach, the first player selected at match committee was the full-back. If you had a good one, it gave confidence and a solid base to the team. If you didn't, the whole team looked fragile. I was fortunate. At Fitzroy, Laurie Serafini played with dash and authority, and a young Gary Pert quickly became an All-Australian full-back. At Carlton, Stephen Silvagni was to become "full-back of the century", so say no more. In the early days at the Brisbane Bears, Mark Zanotti filled the role until he hurt his neck. He said it got cricked as he watched ball after ball sail over his head. Richard Champion then did the job for a decade, even though he would have much preferred to have been elsewhere.

Most of the full-backs who played in the '90s are scarred by the experience. Week-in, week-out, they came up against the likes of Tony Lockett, Gary Ablett, Jason Dunstall, Tony Modra, Stephen Kernahan, Wayne Carey, Sav Rocca, Peter Sumich, Matthew Lloyd and Matthew Richardson.

There was no respite. It was a nightmare for the likes of Silvagni, Mick Martyn, Ben Graham, Ben Hart and Andrew Dunkley.

On Friday night, two of the best full-backs of the past decade will be at opposite ends of Etihad Stadium. Brian Lake will be playing just his seventh game for the Hawks, while Eagles skipper Darren Glass will run out for his club for the 253rd time.

It's unusual for a 31-year-old to be chased by a top club, but the Hawks knew that after last year's grand final loss, they had to add height and experience to the back line to help the undersized Josh Gibson and the young Ryan Schoenmakers. So Lake was lured from the Western Bulldogs after being in the kennel for 11 years.

Last week against Carlton Lake played his best game for his new club. He took the most contested marks for the match (five) and several times in a tight last quarter stood firm to mark and halt the Blues' attack.

Leading the play, knowing the angles of where to run to intercept marks, having the confidence and courage to fly for and hold pack marks are the assets that have made Lake one of the best full-backs in the business. Being at a new and successful club will get the best out of the two-time All-Australian defender. In his 11 years at Whitten Oval, injuries and attitude made some think he too often switched to "cruise control". Now the spotlight will be on him every week as he works to earn the respect of Luke Hodge, Sam Mitchell, Brad Sewell and co. He looks fitter than in past seasons. Despite having missed five games, he is second in the league for intercept marks and his average of six spoils a game is a career high.

The highly-respected Glass is now into his 14th season at the highest level, and his sixth as captain. Four times an All-Australian, three times the club's best-and-fairest winner, and a premiership medal in 2006 means that the 32-year-old has done it all.

His coach for most of his career, John Worsfold, knows the value of having a cool head on the last line of defence and that is where Glass is played. Rarely does he come up field and, with his speed and height, is able to play on opponents of all sizes.

Like Lake, he has the confidence to back himself in marking contests, has quick closing speed when he has to spoil an opponent on the lead and is a sure kick when a switch of play is on.

Because quality full-backs are hard to come by, their coaches do all they can to extend their careers. Because they play at the pointy end of the field, they do less running than others. That helps. Keeping the mind fresh for the pressures of match day means the best full-backs are not pushed too hard at training. They say Essendon's Dustin Fletcher hasn't raised a sweat at training in the past decade; at 38, he is still going. Glass is 32. Lake and Luke McPharlin are 31. Ted Richards and Ben Rutten are 30. Matthew Scarlett was 33 when he retired last year, Silvagni was 34. As the saying goes, when you are on a good thing, stick to it.

40 comments so far

  • Who says "Plenty say that centre half-forward is the toughest position to play"?

    Starting an article with an unsourced, unlikely premise is not a good look.

    Commenter
    HiLo
    Date and time
    June 20, 2013, 6:48PM
    • To be fair to him, he did have a lot of experience in that position.

      Commenter
      mal duxworthy
      Date and time
      June 20, 2013, 8:06PM
    • At least he finished this article. Onya Rob!

      Commenter
      JD
      Date and time
      June 20, 2013, 8:24PM
    • Plenty of people say center half forward is the hardest position. All the time. It's one of the most common football statements regarding hard positions to play.

      This was a good and interesting article, I don't know why some people feel the need to be so negative...

      It just makes you come across like just another Internet troll.

      Commenter
      Kam i Am
      Date and time
      June 20, 2013, 8:44PM
    • Well Australia Post does for a start. http://auspost.com.au/education/afl/media/pdfs/player-positions-glossary.pdf

      Commenter
      AB
      Date and time
      June 20, 2013, 8:46PM
    • Where have u been hiding HiLo? More than plenty of people have long said that centre half forward is the toughest possy to play. I totally agree with Wallsy though; particularly with the free ride that forwards get with free kicks nowadays.

      Commenter
      bigmac73
      Date and time
      June 20, 2013, 9:42PM
    • If you have been involved in football in some way, shape, or form you would have heard this saying.

      Commenter
      kaboos
      Date and time
      June 20, 2013, 9:56PM
    • I've heard the view that centre half-forward is the toughest position to play many times. It is said so often it is now something of a cliche. So I have no problem with that phrase, unsourced or not.
      But as a full back in the magoos at a country football club, I read the first part of the story nodding my head in furious agreement. And that was despite never thinking about it in those terms.
      I enjoyed reading the article, and as a Richmond supporter with a serious prejudice against anything navy blue, that might say something.

      Commenter
      GavMac
      Location
      Wendouree
      Date and time
      June 20, 2013, 9:56PM
    • I guess you'd know as opposed to Robert Walls (259 VFL gamesplayed, coaching experience etc)

      I honestly believe that people commenting in any capacity on the internet, should have an I.Q above 115. Anyone sub 115 should be disallowed internet access.

      Commenter
      Ra's al Ghul
      Location
      OP
      Date and time
      June 20, 2013, 10:51PM
    • Good grief HiLo, pick just about any commentator and you can bet at one time or another they have trotted out the line that CHF is the hardest position to play on the ground, especially those that either didn't play footy or played all of their footy in the forward line. I know I heard someone say that Sam Reid plays in the hardest position on the ground in the past couple of months when commenting on his age and a drop off in form. Anyone that has paid any attention over the years will know that saying "plenty say that centre half-forward is the toughest position to play" is completely valid. Have an issue with Wallsy much? Having said that, I couldn't agree more with you Robert. It has irked me for years when people have said that. How often have we seen players at CHF make a mistake and then watch the world go by. There is no joy at full back and the fact that any mistake you make can cost your team a goal easily makes it the toughest place to be. Good article - about time someone said it.

      Commenter
      Stewart
      Date and time
      June 20, 2013, 10:51PM

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