Season 2014 is shaping up – at least at the top of the AFL ladder – as one of the most closely contested we’ve seen in years.
So it shouldn’t come as any great surprise that a potential mid-year All-Australian team has a wider spread of talent from the top end of the playing pool than usual – and even a fair bit from sides lower in the pecking order.
My mid-year team has players drawn from no fewer than 14 of 18 clubs, and most of those who missed out – Brisbane, Carlton, Richmond and the Western Bulldogs – have at least one star who wouldn’t look out of place in this 22.
Only one club – Collingwood – has three representatives: sublime skipper Scott Pendlebury, classy on-baller Dayne Beams, and live-wire small forward Jamie Elliott. Another six clubs have a pair of players selected, and there’s another seven teams with one who made the cut.
There are plenty of usual suspects, such as Pendlebury and Gary Ablett, whose names might as well have been permanently inked in the past few years. But there are plenty of newer faces as well, including one whom those outside Adelaide might still struggle to recognise.
That’s the Crows’ Brodie Smith, and while his team might have been fairly average so far this season, he’s been anything but on a half-back flank.
Injury held the 22-year-old back last year, but he’s been a shining light, even in the Crows’ poorest performances this season. A penetrating and accurate kick, Smith has consistently taken the game out of defence with his run, averaging almost 24 disposals per game, and he ranks third for rebound 50s.
There are another couple of young guns in Elliott and Gold Coast’s Dion Prestia, both 21 – the latter one of two Gold Coast representatives; the other being you know who.
Prestia’s selection ahead of some more familiar faces might surprise a few, but his numbers speak for themselves: ranked third in the AFL for disposals (an average 28.6), equal third for uncontested possession, and fifth for inside 50s.
As for Elliott, there are plenty of decent small forwards around these days, but the kid with a sleeve full of tattoos has been right at their forefront – and not because of those increasingly regular spectacular marks he takes –booting more than two goals per game, putting him equal 10 th on the goalkicking table.
The premier small forward in the competition for me though, and fitting in nicely here on a half-forward flank, is Hawthorn’s Luke Breust. There’s nothing particularly fancy about him, but Breust has been getting the job done for a while now.
He could easily have made last year’s All-Australian team, but inexplicably didn't even get a spot in a preliminary squad of 40. Surely he can’t be overlooked in 2014 if he continues with his current form. He is equal fifth on the goalkicking ladder with 30, and huge when it comes to score assists.
In this side, he has Hawthorn teammate Jack Gunston for company. Gunston has merely continued his excellent form of last year’s finals series, and is the perfect ''third tall'', equally adept on the lead or at ground level. He has scored only one goal less than Breust, and is third among all forwards for average marks.
There’s some tales of redemption in this mid-year combination, too. Essendon key defender Cale Hooker was one of his club’s most pilloried players only a few seasons ago. In 2014, he’s been a gun, regularly taking on and negating the best opposition goalkickers, as well as providing plenty of drive.
Hooker’s average 21.4 disposals is high indeed for a key defender, he’s proved the best intercept mark in the competition in 2014, and he is second only to North Melbourne’s Scott Thompson, who is alongside him in a back-pocket, for intercept possessions.
Port Adelaide’s Robbie Gray’s recovery from a serious knee injury and some earlier erratic form has been the proverbial good news story. Spending more time midfield and averaging 23 disposals, he is also ranked highly for scoreboard impact and has averaged close to two goals per game, enough to win him a spot just ahead of teammate Chad Wingard, who is as exciting as ever but not quite as consistent as last year.
Then there’s Adelaide ruckman Sam Jacobs, who was awfully close to All-Australian selection in 2012, had a poor year by those lofty standards last season, but is back to his best again. With Will Minson and Todd Goldstein not at their best so far, and Shane Mumford having played only six games through injury, Jacobs has to be the ruck back-up to Fremantle’s perennial Aaron Sandilands.
In defence, I’ve gone for former Pie now Giant Heath Shaw in a back pocket. He’s been steady indeed, with healthy disposal numbers, high intercept possessions and the No. 1 ranking for rebound 50s. As has Essendon’s Michael Hibberd, averaging 25 disposals per game.
Up forward, Nick Riewoldt’s heroic efforts in a losing side deserve reward at centre half-forward, leaving Geelong’s Tom Hawkins to get the nod in the goal square, his 32 goals second only to Jack Riewoldt, whose numbers for the Tigers suggest a better season than many believe he’s had.
As for on-ballers, culling a huge band of them down to the eight or nine you might field in a 22 picked to play is always a big ask.
As mentioned, Ablett and Pendlebury pick themselves, and so far this season so does Sydney’s Josh Kennedy, second only to Ablett for disposals and contested ball. His teammate Kieren Jack has to get in as well, the Swans’ co-captain not only holding his own for ball-winning, but second only to Ablett for scoreboard impact of the midfield crew.
Rounding out the running contingent, I’ve got Beams, Prestia and two tireless workers in largely losing teams – Melbourne co-skipper, Nathan Jones, and West Coast’s Matt Priddis.
This is a very even line-up, and given that consistency of performance across the board, perhaps it is one that might not change too much come September.
Team of the year near-misses
In any team of the year (or mid-year) exercise there's always plenty of candidates unlucky to miss out, so apologies are hereby issued to the following players.
For some, it's rivals in specific spots with slight slightly more influence, for others an injury that kept them quiet in a game or two, but I'd be comfortable enough with any of these mentioned being a part of my mid-year 22.
Jay Schulz – The Port Adelaide spearhead has been terrific for the Power, but has been quieter over the last past month. Big Cat Hawkins has a touch more presence, and has fared marginally better for scoreboard impact.
Shaun Burgoyne – Veteran Hawk suffers only by virtue of playing both midfield and defensive roles, and still managing an average 24 disposals. Could easily have got in either midfield or back.
Grant Birchall – Hawk running defender has had a great season, just misses out to other running backs Shaw, Hibberd and Smith in this team.
Kade Simpson – Carlton veteran has more disposals than any defender, midfield work thus not so high for intercepts or rebounds sees him lose out to the specialists.
Tom Rockliff – Tough Brisbane mid averaging 28 disposals, not quite as conspicuous as other candidates for clearance work or inside 50 entries.
Chad Wingard – All-Australian last year, desperately close now, has spent less time midfield than 2013 but still prominent. Squeezed out in the end by teammate Gray.
Jarryd Roughead – Couple of quiet games and missing another are all that cost him a spot. Equal fifth in goalkicking and next picked if we don't have an obvious second ruck.
Jobe Watson – Numbers impressive enough but perhaps hasn't had quite the impact or leadership presence he exerted last season and in his Brownlow Medal year.
Rohan Connolly will be blogging live on theage.com.au from 1pm on Wednesday.
Rohan Connolly, a senior football writer for The Age and radio broadcaster with sports radio station 1116 SEN, has been covering the game since 1983. A multi-AFL Media Association award-winner known for his passion and love of the game, he analyses the AFL for the newspaper and contributes a blog and weekly video, "Footy Fix", for The Age's football website, Real Footy.
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