We’re not necessarily talking about the best player. We’re not necessarily talking about the most exciting player or the greatest recruit.
We’re talking about a player who is reliable and is one of the first names each week that the coach sticks on the magnetic board to perform and act out a role. He is one who is instantly recognised by a coach for his importance to the team’s structure, but not necessarily by the naked eye of the fan. They are generally brave, unobtrusive and play with a no-fuss style. Some are reinvented, some are young and some are experienced. But they are all fundamental to their team’s long-term success.
Who is yours? Well, I’ll tell you. And as some of them will be missing this weekend because of injury or suspension, it will be interesting to watch how their teams go without them.
Adelaide: Brent Reilly
He is one who has re-invented himself. He now works behind the ball and is quite prepared to stand in front of the big power forwards. He would have as many bruises in his back as any player going around today and that is raw courage, believe me. Some of these blokes are in excess of 100kg and when you’ve got to run back across their path on the lead to intercept, it is absolute bravery. On top of that, he uses the ball very well, he is an outlet valve when the side is under pressure with the ball in congestion and his repositioning to defence is tailor-made for his quality skills.
Brisbane: Jed Adcock
You only had to watch his leadership in the tense win over West Coast – the top side in the competition - last Sunday to see how far he’s come as a player. He’s one of those unobtrusive players who can go in-and-under, play behind the ball and he will run to protect. You just know when he’s on the field that he’s there to help the team. He’s a Maryborough boy from central Victoria and I think he’s just fantastic. He’s always had steel and always been a very hard nut.
Carlton: Heath Scotland
Heath is mooted in some circles as one of their better players anyway, but I just think he’s been outstanding. He turns 32 this year and now that he’s going to miss a few weeks with a calf injury, Carlton will really find out how much he means to them. There are other players out of their side, but he is one they could ill-afford to lose. He’s essentially what I would call a wing-back who is very brave and plays on the left and right side of his body. He uses the ball beautifully, can kick a goal and runs all day. He’s another one who’s found a niche behind the ball. It’s very hard to stop him because he works so hard and he’s hard as nails.
Collingwood: Heath Shaw
He’s one of the hardest-running players in the competition and one of his characteristics is that he carries the ball so far. There wouldn’t be too many players who bounce the ball more than he and his brother, Rhyce. We talk about bravery, he doesn’t know what it means not to jump in front of a pack or go back with the flight of the ball. He’s one of the bravest players in the league. He’s got ants in his pants and can’t stay still, but he’s the life of the change rooms and a real optimist who keeps his teammates’ minds on the job. He gets very animated because he wants every game to be a winning one, but he bleeds black and white and is just a beauty.
Essendon: Dustin Fletcher
If I went past this bloke, it would be negligent, a dereliction of duty. He has just turned 37 and is almost indestructible. You can’t imagine Essendon without him. Right now, he is quite remarkable. I had the great pleasure to coach him in the Australian side in Ireland in 2010 and we won the series. Dane Swan won the medal, but let me tell you – no Fletcher, no cup. He played as the keeper in that series and he plays like one back home in the AFL. He doesn’t play on the best player anymore, he plays on one that he can drop off so he can goal-keep. No one goal-keeps AFL football like Dustin Fletcher.
Fremantle: Garrick Ibbotson
I reckon they found out how much they missed this bloke when they dropped him for the western derby and got belted by West Coast. The effort he showed last Saturday against Adelaide’s Bernie Vince is exactly why I’ve got him on this list. One would suspect Ross Lyon now knows how valuable he is to the side. He came to Ireland as well and I came to know him pretty well. He just goes about his job, he’s humble, hard at it and holds his ground. I see plenty of strong leadership in Garrick.
Geelong: James Kelly
When the accolades are rightly going to players such as Joel Selwood and Jimmy Bartel and in the past, Cameron Ling and Gary Ablett, Kelly just went on with his job. He is a player who is just so hard to replace. He plays outside wing, inside centre and is a tough-as-nails, reliable ball attractor. When you think of Geelong, he may not be the first player you think of or even the 10th, but when he’s not in you think there’s a hole in the side. To have the consistency and impact he has had since breaking a leg against West Coast in 2005 is a real credit to him.
Gold Coast: Karmichael Hunt
We know he got cleaned up by Collingwood’s midfield last weekend, but for where he’s come from and the maturity he’s showing, he makes this list. It all looked like nothing more than a good publicity stunt, but Guy McKenna convinced me that it wasn’t and when I look at the way Hunt goes about his game now, it certainly isn’t. The way he has developed around the stoppages in the modern game, particularly against Fremantle in round six, has been very impressive.
GWS: Jeremy Cameron
This boy from the little town of Dartmoor in south-western Victoria is a revelation. I watched him last week one-on-one against Geelong’s Tom Lonergan, who has done very well against most of the AFL’s big forwards, and this kid beat him in the air and on the ground. Had it not been for the fact that they ran out of legs, he could have kicked six goals like Harry Taylor. He is just so impressive and the thing I love about this kid is that he presents and attacks the football. He plays in front, he’s got speed and he’s always there with a target for his young back line. The way he threw himself at West Coast’s Bradd Dalziell in round three shows he has no fear.
Hawthorn: Jordan Lewis
We all know he’s a good player, but he’s one who just impresses me so much. He verges on superstardom, but always falls in behind Luke Hodge, Sam Mitchell and Brad Sewell. He wears his heart on his sleeve and I love the way he goes about his work, even though he got suspended last weekend. He was overlooked a little bit in the draft because of a lack of pace, but he’s a beautiful left-foot kick. He’s copped some big shots to the head and you sometimes wonder whether that hasn’t slowed him down a bit more. But it’s the courage he shows in taking the hits to still throw himself about like there’s no tomorrow. You can only be impressed with a bloke like him. He goes from an offensive role to a defensive role in a blink of an eye. He also seems to be the one who gets the most aggravated when they don’t win because he wants things to happen.
Melbourne: James Frawley
While James has been carrying a foot injury this season and missed the shock win over Essendon, this is a bloke who I really love. He was terrific when he came to Ireland to play for Australia. He took on the Irish captain, who was a remarkable player, and knocked him over comprehensively. I look at him now and he gives no latitude whatsoever to an opponent. He’s only ever going to get beaten when a bloke is bigger and better than him. He will never be beaten because of concentration, speed or heart. A couple more years and he will develop into probably one of the best back-line players going around.
North Melbourne: Scott Thompson
I know he was dreadful last weekend and drives a lot of people mad, but I like him. He is undersized for his position, but never gives in. He does some erratic things, doesn’t always play by the book, and he makes mistakes from time to time. But if you want an effort, I’d be very surprised if he doesn’t feature in the top effort indicators in their side. He once took on Barry Hall and ended up in a nasty headlock. Is that madness, or is it trying to do the best for his team? I think it’s a mixture of both.
Port Adelaide: Dom Cassisi
I love this bloke and reckon he just goes about his business so well. And he’s been doing it for a long time. Dom turns 30 this year and he just sacrifices so much for his team. He was a natural ball-getter who became a good tagger and he’s always been the first to put his hand up for the big jobs. He sets a wonderful physical example for his teammates out on the ground and it is no accident that Port’s form has been elevated along with his form. His clean work by hand from inside stoppages is also largely under-rated. He would be one of the better No.50 draft picks going around.
Richmond: Jake King
It will drive a lot of people nuts to see me pick Jake because he’s a pest like no other, but he backs up and kicks goals. I don’t think there is any coincidence that Richmond’s forward line struggled without him earlier in the season and because of his suspension it will be interesting to see how the Tigers attack functions without him against Fremantle today. They’ve got plenty of class, but Jake adds the grunt. The moment he comes back into the team, their game develops around their forward line because he makes things happen and attracts attention. He has the eyes of a man possessed and he tackles like one too. He’s going to be unpredictable and will wear a few weeks of suspension because of his over-exuberance, but he is just absolutely needed. He’s the type of tigerish Tiger that Tommy Hafey used to talk about.
St Kilda: Sean Dempster
Sean comes from the Snowy Mountain Rovers and that says a lot. He is just always there for the Saints and the remarkable thing about him in the last couple of years is that he plays on smalls, mediums and talls and always shows great flexibility. Last year, he racked up so many scalps that Saints fans started saying his opponents had “just been Dempstered”. He will be Mr Reliable for Scott Watters and he’ll take the most dangerous medium forward or the second-best tall. In the trend of this column, he’s the sort of player you hardly ever hear boo about. But if he’s not in the side, you find out quick smart he’s one of the ones you needed most.
Sydney: Jude Bolton
This bloke is just a true gladiator and I can’t go past him. He’s 32 years of age and his career will soon come to an end, but I just love the sort of player he is. He and Lenny Hayes remind me a lot of each other – the last of the gladiators. He kicked two goals and had a career-best 41 possessions against the Western Bulldogs last Sunday. It’s just remarkable that he can still do that. He’s had the good looks of a Robert Redford and while I don’t know how many stitches he’s had in his head, he’s always the first in after the ball and the last to get up with it. He doesn’t know how to take a backward step.
West Coast: Darren Glass
I know he’s captain, but when you get into the big games and come across the best sides in the competition, he always stands up. You look at what Dean Cox and Nic Naitanui can do, or how good Luke Shuey and Matt Priddis are, but at the end of the day the new-age key forwards need to be mauled and Glass does it better than any other in the competition. There’s no question he gets away with murder because he knows all the tricks, but he’s got a fair bit of Stephen Silvagni written all over him. He is there all the time against the big boys and even when he gets a goal kicked on him, he goes back to his mark looking for the next contest. He is always very focused and gathers his troops beautifully. I think he’s essential to the success of West Coast and is highly respected among all clubs.
Western Bulldogs: Daniel Cross
It would be easy to go for Matthew Boyd here, but I’m going for Cross. Another player who went to Ireland. For all intents and purposes, he was seen to be too slow to play in the team. But he makes up ground with effort and never really gets done over with pace. He gets to the right spots and is also tough as nails. He’s a little bit like Brent Reilly when he plays behind the ball because he won’t flinch when it’s his turn to jump in front of the big boys. He’d have just as many bruises, too. He’s a beautiful handballer who brings a lot of other players into the game and also wears his heart on his sleeve. He’s as much a Bulldog as Jake King is a Tiger.