Changing the Game

I wrote this post a month ago, just prior to the death of Phil Walsh and the Adam Goodes story dominating the AFL news cycle.

Throughout this time, it’s seemed so…I dunno…relatively pathetic to talk about football purely as football. But now, with Goodes heading to Geelong to play tomorrow and the Crows playing the Tigers in Adelaide tonight, it feels like we might have reached a moment where we can just sit back and enjoy the pure entertainment of this great game once more. As such, I offer a delayed posting of my thoughts on a Hawthorn favourite. Bring on the Finals.



Asking whether Cyril Rioli is over or underrated, as was posed in The Guardian on Wednesday, only serves to create debate where one needn’t exist. Clearly, Rioli isn’t a superstar bound for the Hall of Fame – only once has he been selected in the All-Australian team as one of the best 6-7 forwards in the AFL, and he’s only tallied 29 Brownlow votes in his career. But arguing that Rioli is no more than an occasional excitement-machine who lifts Hawthorn fans from their seats once or twice a match fails to address his real legacy. For Rioli is one of the few players who has changed the way the game is played.

In 2008, Rioli’s rookie season, he was one of only three players to kick 20 goals and make 85 tackles during the season. The other two, Gary Ablett and Jimmy Bartel, opposed Rioli in that year’s Grand Final.

Prior to 2008, the 20-85 combination had only been achieved 25 times, with Aaron Hamill the first to accomplish the feat in 2000. But while a few small forwards such as Byron Pickett, David Rodan and Leon Davis had managed it prior to 2008, it was the rookie Rioli who led a revolution in the defensive pressure that small forwards would come to force upon opponents.

For Rioli’s play was less that of a traditional AFL small forward and more that of an ice hockey forecheck, where forwards rush, check and battle for the puck while it’s in their offensive zone. But unlike many of hockey’s best forecheckers, Rioli was also a consistent goal scorer and he would change the expectations upon elite small forwards around the league.

In the 6 seasons since Rioli’s rookie year in 2008, the 20-85 milestone has been reached on 80 occasions – an incredible rate of 13 per season considering it had previously happened only 25 times. Indeed, only 3 of the past 12 Grand Final participants have not had at least 2 players on their team with 20-and-85 for the season. Suddenly, as if to echo Rioli, small forwards like Schneider, Blair, Garlett, Gray, LeCras, Zorko, Giansiracusa and Jetta have been tackling in the forward 50 like never before. Rioli’s fellow Hawks Breust and Puopolo have also followed suit, and last season they joined the Swans (Parker and McGlynn) and Cats (Selwood and Murdoch) as the three teams with two 20-85 players – and all three sides finished in the top four.

Tackles are only one metric, of course, and this is a clear example of an arbitrary statistical cut-off being used to enhance an argument. But Rioli’s forward pressure, whether it results in a tackle or not, felt incredibly new in 2008 in a way that it doesn’t in 2015. A modern expectation upon elite small forwards is that they conduct their AFL version of forechecking throughout games by chasing, disrupting and tackling in ways that were unheard of prior to the turn of the century and extremely rare prior to Rioli’s emergence.

In the history of the AFL, only two players have had 5 seasons in which they have scored 20 goals and made 85 tackles. Midfielder and future Legend in the AFL Hall of Fame Gary Ablett is way out in front with 9 such years, leaving Rioli second with 5. Paul Chapman (4), Jason Akermanis, Luke Breust, Keiran Jack and Ben McGlynn (3) are the only others to have achieve the feat more than twice. Who’s to say if the small forwards amongst them would have ever done so had it not been for the example set by Rioli as to how disruptive and valuable a speedy pest in the forwardline can be.

Rioli will never reach the Hall of Fame and is not regarded by many as a genuine star of his generation, particularly as he only averages 15.5 possessions a game. However he is one of the best defensive forwards the game has ever seen, and his play has changed our expectations of what greatness in the forwardline should look like.

Each season, the NHL award the Frank J. Selke Trophy for the forward who demonstrates the most skill in the defensive component of the game. If the AFL ever decides to inaugurate an equivalent honour, it may just be best placed to be named after a trail-blazing Hawk.

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