Why the AFL’s best defenders are set for a battle royale for All Australian spots

The 2020 AFL home and away season has entered its home stretch, and though so much about the immediate future remains murky, that familiar pre-finals buzz is certainly growing.

Teams and fans will be forensically assessing the machinations of the races for top two, four and eight, plotting potential paths through the finals all the way to that One Day in Late October at the storied Insert Chosen Football Ground Here.

But along with that comes a rapid rise in retrospection, mostly for the sake of predicting and proclaiming worthy winners of the various end of season awards. Inevitably, the most spirited of those discussions will be centred around the makeup of the All Australian team.

This year will be no different, and the well-publicised weirdness of the season will make selecting its best team an especially weird task.

Difficult decisions loom across all lines — how many smalls can you cram into a forward line? Will selectors be excited by new midfield blood over the ever-present superstars? What to do in the ruck?

None of those are easy problems to solve, but none are anywhere near as difficult as the full-on battle royale that has broken out among the league’s defenders this season.

A Gold Coast Suns AFL player stretches out his left arm to punch the ball in front of an Essendon opponent.
In a low-scoring season, defenders have never been more important.(AAP: Dave Hunt)

Defence has been king in 2020, and, as a result, the defenders have become the most important, most valued and most impressive members of their respective teams. The list of All Australian back-line candidates is beyond extensive.

Let’s take a run through them then. All of these players have been named as either All Australian “locks”, “bolters”, “candidates”, “smokeys” or simply just “in the conversation” at some point over the last couple of months. Ready?

Harris Andrews, Jacob Weitering, Sam Docherty, Liam Jones, Darcy Moore, Brayden Maynard, Adam Saad, Jordan Ridley, Luke Ryan, Nick Haynes, Steven May, Robbie Tarrant, Tom Jonas, Darcy Byrne-Jones, Dylan Grimes, Jayden Short, Nick Vlastuin, Hunter Clark, Jake Lloyd, Callum Mills, Brad Sheppard and Caleb Daniel.

That list is probably missing a few, and doesn’t even include Jeremy Howe, James Sicily, Dane Rampe or Jeremy McGovern, all of whom have had All Australian buzz or have reached that standard of play but have missed too much footy through injury to be considered.

How in the wide world are you supposed to narrow that list down to six players and not spark a civil war?

Cases could be made for every single one of those players to, at the very least, be included in the All Australian squad of 40 players. All have had very good seasons. Most will miss out.

A Carlton AFL player handballs while a Gold Coast Suns opponent attempts to make a tackle.
Jacob Weitering is enjoying the best season of his career.(AAP: Dave Hunt)

Perhaps the best and most fair way to look at it is to treat the All Australian backline in the same way any AFL team would select its own side — by picking the best players for specific roles.

For the sake of the argument, those roles could be defined as key defenders, rebounding defenders and lockdown defenders. Granted all of those roles overlap in modern footy, but this is a hypothetical team being picked using hypothetical metrics so we’re going to ignore the hypothetical limits of this method and push ahead.

First, the key defenders — the big guys who will nominally line up on the opposition’s best key forward but are also required to be proficient intercept markers.

Of those, you can lock in Andrews. He leads his contemporaries in spoils and one-percenters, has engaged in more one-on-one battles than any defender in the league and wins them nearly 85 per cent of the time. He’s also seventh in the league for intercept marks — the big Lion can do it all.

The second spot is almost impossible to fill though, and will come down to what to selectors value most. If you are looking for another key defender in the Andrews mould, Carlton’s Jones and West Coast’s Tom Barrass (who is one of the few defenders in the league not to be suggested as an AA pick) are statistically the closest matches.

If you want a pure interceptor in that role, look no further than Haynes from the Giants, or maybe Collins from the Suns. If you want to really nullify the opposition’s star forward, you could make a good argument for Weitering. Looking for a big man who can also help carry you forward? Freo’s Ryan is a standout.

An AFL defender grasps the football above his head while an opponent tries to grab him from behind.
Nick Haynes has been the AFL’s preeminent intercept marker this year.(AAP: Julian Smith)

It’s a complicated decision. And that’s probably the easiest role to select from.

Picking two rebounders is even tougher. The easiest stat to look at for this one would be metres gained, but you may not immediately guess which defender is leading that field.

The answer is Gold Coast’s Jack Lukosius, who will spend the next 10 years in All Australian debates but hasn’t really entered this one yet. Behind him is Short from Richmond, who is also second for effective disposals, first for running bounces and sixth for inside 50s.

Sydney’s Lloyd is the most prolific and most effective user of the ball among the league’s defenders, but little Dog Daniel isn’t far behind. Saad is particularly strong at bringing the ball inside 50 and is in the top three for score launches, as is Byrne-Jones who has the advantage of being one of the league’s best at defensive half pressure acts too.

Docherty rates well across the board, particularly at rebound 50s as the Blues have looked to get the ball in his hands coming out of defence as much as possible. There are six players, seven if you include Lukosius, who all deserve consideration.

But the absolute hardest category to assess is those pure lockdown defenders, the types of players who can play taller or smaller depending on the opponent, the jacks of all trades who don’t always show up on the stat sheet but can often decide matches.

Traditionally, Maynard was one of those for Collingwood but his game has come on so well that he is now successfully doing it both ways. He’s both second for tackles and third for metres gained, and is probably in line for his first selection.

Among a sea of players, Maynard looks up and gets a quick handball away
Brayden Maynard has made massive improvements in 2020.(AAP: Darren England)

Then you’ve got the likes of Jonas, Grimes, Sheppard and even Tarrant, the masters of the intangibles who regularly go unnoticed but are rarely beaten. Picking any one of them would be more of a “vibe”, and in the cases of Jonas and Sheppard, might be reward for many seasons of good work rather than one standout 2020.

So there you go, clear as mud. A million candidates for six spots, each with valid reasons for selection and justifiable cause for disappointment if they miss out.

If you were hoping to get to the bottom of this and find the answer hidden in the statistics, you are going to be disappointed. What this mess does do though is paint a picture of a game that is rapidly evolving and a position that is now more multi-faceted than ever.

Every single player listed is different to the one before it, and each adds something invaluable to their teams. Comparing and contrasting them is essentially a pointless task (and yet, here we are), and trying to rank them in any sort of meaningful way is impossible.

The fact is what it means to be a defender has changed, and is still changing. That’s not going to stop the fume from fans when their chosen candidate is viciously snubbed by the inherently biased All Australian selectors, but it probably should garner those same selectors some sympathy.