Ranking the best players of a particular sport is a gruelling task and one that’s bound to cause plenty of debate. It’s a topic fans love to discuss and, more often than not, disagree on. How do you compare defenders and forwards in any sport, let alone one that accommodates an array of athletes as diverse as AFL?
Statistics provide useful insight into telling areas of the game such as who racks up the most disposals in a season or who averages the most handballs per game, but in isolation they can’t shed any definitive light on identifying the brightest stars in the competition. Some players do their job in such a way that numbers and figures don’t justify their worth to a team, for others, end-of-season data is everything.
AFL is a game in which some positional stereotypes are less applicable compared to other sports like soccer, basketball, or rugby. Of course, any ruckman worth his salt must stand taller than most players on the field, but a top-quality midfielder doesn’t need the strength of an ox to boss the middle of the park. Pure speed is also an invaluable asset to any side, but what’s the point of a player sprinting inside the forward 50 if he lacks the finesse to slot the goal or chip the ball to a teammate?
Versatile and well-rounded players are unquestionably among the most valuable in the competition, but those who are unrivaled in one or two facets of the game are also potential game changers. It’s this kind of variety and incalculable influence that makes selecting a definitive list of the best in the business such an arduous mission. Having limited spots to play with inevitably means plenty of outstanding players will miss out, but here are the 15 best players in the AFL.
* All stats taken from AFL.com
15 Harry Taylor
Harry Taylor is the kind of defender every forward hates to play against: courageous, intelligent and relentless. Brilliant marking overhead and an incredibly accurate reader of the game, the two-time Premiership winner rarely gives his opponent an inch in one-on-one contests. Taylor ranked 10th in the competition for overall marks last season, highlighting his unrivaled ability to take a grab under pressure as opposed to opting for the easy spoil. The 28-year-old was slightly unlucky to be left out of what would’ve been his third All-Australian team selection last season, but with age still on his side, he should remain one of the Cats’ most important men for a few years yet.
14 Josh Gibson
Although Josh Gibson is first and foremost a defender, he’s of one of few backmen in the competition with the skill, awareness and vision required to maintain defensive solidity whilst offering a reliable threat on the counter attack. The Hawthorn star has mastered the art of hanging back in defense and doing his primary job while looking for an opportunity to burst forward with his head up and look for a cutting pass into midfield. It takes a special defender to be named best and fairest in a Premiership-winning side, and that’s exactly what Gibson did with the Hawks in 2013.
13 Luke Hodge
If an all-star team of AFL captains was put together, Luke Hodge would arguably be the best man to orchestrate the side. The Hawthorn skipper is affectionately known as ‘The General’ – a title worthy of such a commanding and spirited footballer. But his impact is felt through more than just inspirational leadership. Last season, Hodge played all but one game en route to a third flag in five years, his second Norm Smith Medal and the award for best and fairest player. Not bad for a man whose best form might’ve been left behind after suffering a serious knee injury in 2012.
12 Ryan Crowley
When it comes to midfield tagging specialists, nobody does it better than Ryan Crowley. It’s not the most glamorous role in football, but he’s the man who keeps the likes of Gary Ablett, Patrick Dangerfield and Scott Pendlebury quiet to allow Fremantle to control the game. Although he’s far from the most popular player in the country due to his controversial tactics, Crowley is one of the Dockers’ most valuable personnel. He has played every single game in the past two seasons and his constant pestering of creative opponents has underpinned his side’s mounting charge for a maiden Premiership Cup.
11 Aaron Sandilands
Coming up against a player of any physical extremity is a frightening prospect for opposition teams. Standing taller than any other man in the AFL at the moment, according to AFL.com, Aaron Sandilands is one of the most dominant players in the competition with his colossal reach. Last season, the 6’11” ruckman topped the competition in both total and average hit-outs per game despite missing the opening 14 rounds, a feat which earned him a place in the 2014 All-Australian team. Sandilands may be edging near the tail-end of his career, but there’s no doubting the influence he could have on the Dockers’ push for a maiden Premiership in 2014 ,if he picks up where he left off last season.
10 Jordan Lewis
Jordan Lewis has come along leaps and bounds since being made vice-captain in 2012 and, in fact, last year he produced his best season to date. The midfielder recorded more overall disposals than any other player and landed a career-high 92 tackles in 2014. His consistently stellar performances played a significant part in the Hawks’ third Premiership triumph since 2008 and saw him earn his first All-Australian call-up and the club best and fairest award. Lewis was Hawthorn’s front runner at the 2014 Brownlow Medal count despite polling unexpectedly low with 15 votes, according to AFL.com.
9 Scott Pendlebury
It’s said the pressure of the captain’s armband can crush a player. However true leaders, such as Scott Pendlebury, often flourish given the increased influence and responsibility. In his first season as Collingwood skipper, the 27-year-old collected his third club best and fairest award, fifth All-Australian team selection and was the joint-best polling Magpie in the Brownlow Medal count. He also ranked top ten for average handballs and nabbed close to 30 disposals per game. The midfielder is an exquisitely balanced player: freakishly calm with the ball in hand and accurate with his distribution, yet always determined to support his teammates in both attack and defense.
8 Josh Kennedy
Standing out among the superb quality of the Sydney Swans’ midfield is an onerous task, but Josh Kennedy managed to pull it off and then some last season. He clocked up two hugely impressive statistics during 2014: first in the competition for average handballs per match and top three for average disposals. But any player would rather official recognition over ordinary statistics.The 26-year-old also earned his second All-Australian selection and even looked capable of taking home the Brownlow Medal at various points during the count. He ended the night equal third, but might’ve finished higher if he hadn’t missing a handful of games near the end of the season.
7 Jobe Watson
Every club captain is under pressure, but no skipper has carried more on their shoulders than Jobe Watson during the past 12 months. He demonstrated exemplary leadership while under immense pressure on and off the field amid the Bombers’ ongoing supplement scandal. A broken collarbone reduced Watson to playing just 19 games for the red and black in 2013, and yet he still managed to earn his second All-Australian selection and a runner-up finish in the club’s best and fairest award. A natural leader, he keeps running when everyone else is tired and lifts his teammates’ spirits when all hope seems lost.
6 Jarryd Roughead
Two years on from being relieved of the ruck duties he shared with David Hale, Jarryd Roughead has become one of the most dangerous key forwards in the competition. Last season, the three-time Premiership winner was runner-up best and fairest for the Hawks and second in goal kicking, after Lance Franklin. Roughead also added a second consecutive All-Australian selection to his Coleman Medal. The 28-year-old is developing an impressive list of honours, but he’ll want a third-straight flag more than anything else in 2015.
5 Patrick Dangerfield
Few players mean more to a club than Patrick Dangerfield does to the Adelaide Crows. Following yet another impressive campaign with the South Australian club, he finished fourth in the 2014 Brownlow Medal count on 21 votes, five short of the eventual winner Matt Priddis of the West Coast Eagles. He was unlucky to miss out on a third-straight All-Australian selection. With or without awards in his personal trophy cabinet, Dangerfield is one of the most exciting players in the AFL. Lightning quick for a reasonably tall man, the midfielder won three Grand Final Sprints on the trot between 2011 and 2013 before ruling himself out of the 2014 edition to give others a chance at glory.
4 Lance Franklin
With five All-Australian selections and three Coleman Medals to his name, Lance ‘Buddy’ Franklin is simply one of a kind in today’s game. A freak athlete, the Sydney Swans golden boy terrorizes defenders with his physical prowess. He simply has it all: phenomenal strength, blistering pace and silky skills to boot. Tied down to a multi-million, nine-year contract with the New South Wales club, the 28-year-old still has plenty of time to add to his two Premierships with Hawthorn and remind the doubters of his once-in-a-generation talent.
3 Nathan Fyfe
It takes some player to receive the Leigh Matthews Trophy at the age of 23-years-old. No player deserved the award more than Nathan Fyfe in 2014 following a stellar campaign that earned him his debut All-Australian call-up and a consecutive best and fairest award. The midfielder might not the cleanest in the league with his ball distribution, but he’s certainly one of the toughest competitors. Fyfe finished top six in the competition for contested ball wins last year, underlining his steadfast commitment and bravery. All signs suggest he will play a key role in the Dockers’ quest for their first flag.
2 Joel Selwood
The only flaw that could possibly be picked out of Joel Selwood’s game is actually one of his greatest assets: his unwavering courage. No other player in the competition flies into contests like the Geelong star; many of the hits he takes would force others onto the interchange bench. Rarely finishes a game without one of his eyebrows cut open. It’s no coincidence Selwood has won three of the Cats’ best and fairest awards in the last five years. Whether it’s in the forward or defensive 50, the brave midfielder has an uncanny knack of being able to lift his side when the going gets tough. The recipient of back-to-back All-Australian captaincy in 2013 and 2014, Selwood has polled more votes than any other Geelong player in the Brownlow Medal count since 2009.
1 Gary Ablett
Gary Ablett is in a class of his own, simple as that. The man widely regarded as the finest in the competition is just about unplayable at his best – and he rarely has an off day. The Gold Coast Suns midfielder is exceptionally quick off the mark, almost impossible to tackle and boasts peerless vision and finesse. Last season, a gruesome shoulder injury derailed his bid to become just the fifth three-time Brownlow Medalist, but it didn’t keep from earning his eighth consecutive inclusion in the All-Australian side. However these accolades hardly justify his quality, you need only watch him play to understand his legendary status in the game.