There’s a new trend emerging in modern footy.
Coinciding with the transformation of the style of today’s game, is the evolution and importance of intercept defenders and half-back flankers.
Just take a look at the 2020 best and fairest results.
Winners include Jayden Short, Jake Lloyd, Caleb Daniel, Sam Collins, Jordan Ridley, Darcy Byrne-Jones, Luke Ryan, Nick Haynes and to a lesser degree Lachie Whitfield and Luke McDonald, who both spent time in the midfield.
Additionally, Jacob Weitering is a strong chance to take out Carlton’s best and fairest which is yet to be held.
Other players who finished high on their club’s individual honour roll include Nick Vlastuin, Steven May, Tom Jonas, Jack Crisp, Brad Sheppard and Rory Laird.
If it wasn’t for injury, Harris Andrews probably would have finished top three at Brisbane while the likes of Darcy Moore, Mark Blicavs (who can play various roles), ruckman-turned-backman Ben McEvoy and first-year Saint Dougal Howard all figured in their respective club’s top five.
Furthermore, Adam Saad finished third at Essendon before joining Carlton after somewhat drawn out trade negotiations.
The increasing importance of such players could go some way to vindicating why the Blues eventually agreed to give up pick 8 (among others) in exchange for the dashing defender.
Lions coach Chris Fagan earlier this week rated the intercept defender as the most important position on the ground.
The above information heads towards proving that.
You can also look at examples like Jeremy Howe. When he went down, Collingwood’s premiership hopes plummeted.
Then you can cast your eyes to the 2020 ladder. Of the top four teams and preliminary finalists - Richmond, Geelong, Port Adelaide and Brisbane - there are many players who sit at the pointy end of the intercept possessions, intercept marks and rebound 50s stats categories.
Premiers Richmond had three of the competition’s 20 most prolific intercept possession players in 2020 - Vlastuin, Liam Baker and Dylan Grimes - while Vlastuin reappeared in the intercept marks category (second behind Haynes) with the impressive Noah Balta in the top 15.
Runner-up Geelong has Tom Stewart operating with a mix of rebound 50 and intercept nous, but will now need to find a replacement for Harry Taylor who was proficient in most defensive areas.
The Power have captain Jonas, first-time All-Australian Byrne-Jones and Tom Clurey plus Trent McKenzie and the Lions can boast Andrews, Darcy Gardiner and Daniel Rich with Ryan Lester chipping in.
Throw in the likes of Jeremy McGovern, Shannon Hurn and Tom Barrass at West Coast and the top handful of clubs have plenty of quality intercept and rebound options.
Further highlighting the progress of the position is the fact that the Bulldogs, Eagles and Dockers respectively had Daniel, Sheppard and Ryan all make the All-Australian 22 for the first time.
Referring to Fagan’s comments, two-time North Melbourne premiership player David King acknowledges that the change in the importance of these types of players is evident.
“To hear a senior coach at AFL level say there is a shift and it’s gone to the intercept marker,” he said on SEN Breakfast.
“We’ve forever paid the goal kickers the big dollars. They’ve been the drawcard for the fans and the reason that you win. If you can’t score, you can’t win.
“There was a shift in terms of all the awards and all of the spoils going to the ball winner. The Dangerfields, the Bontempellis, the Fyfes, the Judds, the Greg Williams’, it was these types of guys.
“Now it seems it’s tracked even further back.
“I wonder if the fans agree with that, that they’re the most important person on the field.
“Even if he (Fagan) is not absolute in them being the number one man, the fact that they’re now in the conversation for that title is fascinating.”
However, if you look at the Brownlow Medal and the AFL Coaches Association votes, very few defenders feature.
This suggests that although the trend is emerging, it hasn’t quite hit broadway with the umpires and strangely enough with the coaches.
But if you are judging by team importance, as evidenced by a lot of the best and fairest results, the intercept defender or the rebounding half-back flanker is fast becoming imperative.
King says the way the game is now played has made that more apparent.
“Just over 60 percent of your scoring comes from turnover, from forcing the opposition to turn the ball over,” he said further.
“You can call that intercept if you want. Both at ground level and in the air.
“We see the best interceptors in the competition doing it 70 metres from their own goal.
“That forward half press and the ability to force turnovers close to goal is the reason why the game has changed.”
While they may not receive the media attention and plaudits of a lot of other players in more fashionable roles, the humble backman in general is certainly making himself heard.
More specifically, the defender with intercept expertise and rebound ability is becoming increasingly influential and essential.
They may not be the ‘best’ players in the game but they are certainly having a major and significant impact right now.