The round that highlights the great divide in Brownlow voting

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Round eight, 2023. It was the round where the gap between prevailing wisdom and Brownlow Medal votes widened to the point where the count became as much an entertainment product as a true mark of the year’s best player.

In round eight, four players who polled 10 votes in the AFL Coaches Association Awards did not receive a vote from the umpires for their performance, while two players who did not receive a vote from either coach managed to land three votes from the umpires.

Lachie Neale wins his second Brownlow.Credit: Getty

Melbourne’s Christian Petracca and St Kilda’s Jack Steele – perennial vote-winners – received three Brownlow votes but no coaches’ votes, while Port Adelaide’s Zak Butters, Geelong’s Esava Ratugolea, St Kilda’s Callum Wilkie and Fremantle’s Luke Jackson received no votes from the umpires despite each polling a perfect 10 with the coaches.

Coaches’ votes are a good, albeit imperfect reference point to compare with the umpires’ votes. Described by Hawthorn legend and four-time premiership coach Leigh Matthews as the most credible of the yearly player awards, they are awarded by each coach on a 5-4-3-2-1 basis for each game. That means if both coaches agree a player was the best on ground, the player would get 10 votes.

But Matthews has no issue with the Brownlow Medal and the way it is determined, despite the votes from the two groups often diverging dramatically.

It needs to be said that although the two sets of voters – coaches and umpires – diverged on individual games, they both arrived with the same six names filling the first six places of each award.

And of course, coaches’ votes aren’t infallible – Geelong coach Chris Scott admitted after last year’s qualifying final he just forgot to give Jeremy Cameron a vote.

“This is what the Brownlow is all about. It is the umpire’s award, it is the AFL’s official award. We could let Champion Data stats people pick the best player of the year if you want to, you can let the coaches do it if you want to, you can let the fans do it if they want to,” Matthews said.

“It’s the umpires’ judgment, and it is the fairest and best and that is what the AFL regard as their official award … so controversy is part of the Brownlow Medal … it’s not perfect but it is the best available option.”

So voting is an imperfect science, and a tough job – as anyone who has voted in the Norm Smith Medal or any other match day award can attest. And the Brownlow has morphed into a midfielder’s medal, so we know exactly where the bulk of the votes are going, with the same names appearing at the top of the leaderboard year after year.

Nick Daicos was edged out of a Brownlow Medal win in the final roundCredit: Getty

But this year in particular there has been controversy, despite the fact that Lachie Neale is a worthy winner.

Some games in particular stand out in 2023, such as round two at the Gabba, when Brisbane hosted Melbourne and the lights went out. Neale received two votes from the umpires but none from the coaches, while Dayne Zorko, who does occasionally offer advice to the umpires, received the opposite. Neale had eight clearances.

In round six, the Giants faced the Lions and Callan Ward was suspended for a dangerous tackle on Neale. It was perhaps the most contentious three-vote game of Neale’s year. Neale’s teammate Charlie Cameron, who got two votes, kicked seven goals and Josh Kelly had 41 touches and no votes. Both games were considered less meritorious than Neale’s 20-disposal game. Again, the coaches didn’t give Neale a vote.

In round eight against Essendon, Port’s Butters polled 10 coaches votes but no Brownlow votes. Perhaps he was a yapper on the ground. His teammate Jason Horne-Francis received a vote from the umpires but none from the coaches after a 20-touch game including three free kicks. Butters managed 28 touches with 13 contested possessions. Unlucky.

Also in round eight, when St Kilda beat North Melbourne, the only conclusion that could be drawn was that only Jacks had a chance of polling with umpires as Steele, Ziebell and Sinclair took the 3-2-1. The match was dominated by defence and reached no heights, and the coaches thought Wilkie and North’s Ben McKay were the most influential players on the ground. But the umpires put a line through the defenders despite Wilkie’s four intercept marks, 12 intercepts, four spoils and a career-high 28 disposals.

In round nine, Taylor Adams was the mystery inclusion in the votes when Collingwood played GWS. He had 20 touches and kicked a behind, while Nick Daicos had 41 touches and Jordan De Goey had 31. That pair put the ball in the hands of Adams, a fine player, on more than one occasion. Adams did not get a vote from the coaches. The three votes from the umpires went to Mason Cox, Adams got two and Tom Mitchell one.

In Darwin in round 11, there was no doubt Matt Rowell (three Brownlow votes) was best on ground in the Suns-Bulldogs game. But Marcus Bontempelli was unlucky not to get a vote as he helped will his team into contention. By no means a certainty, but it was a surprise that Bailey Dale’s game was deemed better than a few players, including Bontempelli. Dale got one vote and Jack Lukosius two.

In round 14 when Port Adelaide played Geelong, Horne-Francis polled three votes after just 13 touches. He received four free kicks that night but gave away four – maybe that made an impression. The coaches handed out votes to nine players, but not one to Horne-Francis.

Max Gawn had the football world talking after his dominant display against the Lions in round 18 after the Demons dropped Brodie Grundy. The umpires had the same top three players as the coaches but whereas Gawn received 10 votes from the coaches, he only for one from the umpires. Petracca took the three.

A form guide on tables at the Brownlow Medal discounted Neale’s chances of polling a vote in round 22 against Adelaide. He had 23 disposals as he emerged from a form slump. He didn’t get a vote from the coaches, but got one from the umpires to add to his Brownlow tally.

In round 24, Demons Petracca and Bayley Fritsch got three and two votes from the umpires. It took 42 touches and two goals for Gulden to manage a vote. Both the Demons were excellent, but being on the winning team had to help.

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