- Western Bulldogs are considering playing four key forwards in round one.
- The AFL’s new tactical substitute rule looks poised to give more big men an opportunity.
- Most clubs seem set to routinely select at least three tall forwards this season.
Big is back.
More than two years have passed since Richmond won a third premiership in four seasons during a golden period that started with Jack Riewoldt operating as the sole key forward alongside a mosquito fleet.
Tom Lynch joined him for the second and third flags, but the relentless, frenetic Tigers flipped the script on how teams tried to win games of football.
Jack Riewoldt was the centrepiece of Richmond’s premiership era.Credit:Getty Images
Champion Data statistics show that the number of key forwards per game (between two teams) dipped significantly in the year after Richmond’s 2017 breakthrough – to an average of barely four – but the figure rose last year (4.67) to its highest since 2014.
Forward-half pressure remains a priority and is still necessary to be a contender in 2023, but teams appear to be going full steam ahead on the theory big might actually be better, especially with the AFL’s new tactical substitute rule in effect.
The Western Bulldogs operated in Saturday’s practice match win over North Melbourne with an attack including Aaron Naughton (194 centimetres), Jamarra Ugle-Hagan (194), Sam Darcy (209) and recruit Rory Lobb (206).
That giant quartet combined for 10 goals from 13 scoring shots as the Dogs snared 17 marks inside 50 to the Roos’ six.
Whether they follow the same formula against premiership fancy Melbourne in round one remains to be seen, but Bulldogs assistant coach Rohan Smith liked what he saw at the weekend.
“The four talls really played well. You kick 22 goals in a game [and], at times, we looked really dominant in the air, which is a great sign for us,” Smith said.
“There were a couple of times when they flew against each other, but that’s terrific. It shows their competitiveness, and their willingness to fly in the air. But the synergy and cohesiveness they had in our forward line was outstanding.”
Speaking of the Demons, their much-vaunted All-Australian ruck duo of Max Gawn and Brodie Grundy – the veteran replacement for Luke Jackson – kicked six goals between them in a 50-point demolition of Richmond the same day. Tom McDonald added three majors of his own, and Ben Brown had three shots as well.
Medium forward Bayley Fritsch is also expected to recover from foot soreness in time for the Dogs clash, and kicked 114 goals across the past two seasons.
Melbourne need Gawn and Grundy to spend considerable time in attack, as assistant Adem Yze admitted, but McDonald and one of Brown or untried young gun Jacob van Rooyen are also likely to be inside 50, too.
The Demons are enjoying early success with the Brodie Grundy-Max Gawn combination.Credit:AFL Photos
“You want them all playing well, and we’ve got Jacob van Rooyen in the wings as well who’s in really good form, so there’s some pressure for spots, which is what we want,” Yze said.
“We’ve got some talls in our side, but we’ve obviously got a spot on the bench that they can rotate as well, so we’ll play it week by week and see how that mix works. But right now, the talls are working really well together.”
Yze’s bench reference is pertinent, given the AFL tweaked the substitute rule in the off-season, making it effectively a tactical one rather than purely medical.
It has already been speculated that this could mean even more clubs fit two ruckmen into their game-day squad, knowing they have the option to replace them with a smaller teammate if they want to.
More key forwards might also be an unintended consequence – and it is far from only the Western Bulldogs and Melbourne, the 2021 grand finalists, considering a ‘Land of the Giants’ approach.
Port Adelaide selected Charlie Dixon, Todd Marshall and Mitch Georgiades together last year, and might even play Scott Lycett and Jeremy Finlayson as well.
The Crows will send out Taylor Walker, Darcy Fogarty and one of Elliott Himmelberg or Riley Thilthorpe, while Gold Coast are poised to pick at least four of Ben King, Levi Casboult, Mabior Chol, Jack Lukosius and Joel Jeffrey – and maybe all five.
Essendon could squeeze Peter Wright, Sam Weideman, Harry Jones and Jake Stringer into the 22 (or 23), and Fremantle may fit in Matt Taberner, Nat Fyfe, ruckmen Sean Darcy and Luke Jackson, and Jye Amiss or Josh Treacy.
Carlton hope one of, or both, of Tom De Koning and Jack Silvagni can complement Coleman medallists Charlie Curnow and Harry McKay, and Geelong added Ollie Henry to the lethal Tom Hawkins-Jeremy Cameron duo.
The Brisbane Lions replaced Dan McStay with Jack Gunston, who will partner Joe Daniher and Eric Hipwood.
Collingwood, the Giants, Hawthorn (once Mitch Lewis is fit again), North Melbourne, Richmond, St Kilda (when Max King returns), Sydney Swans and West Coast could all have a three-pronged tall attack, too.
Pre-season mirage, or true trend? We don’t have long to wait.
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