The fall and rise of the key forward a testament to faster, freer AFL

The fall and rise of the key forward a testament to faster, freer AFL

“The key forward used to be the most coveted position in the game,” Nick Riewoldt said on Triple M days before the start of the 2021 premiership season. It was more a lament than a statement. The former St Kilda captain, one of the game’s great key forwards, was speaking of an apparently irredeemable shift in the game’s hard wiring that had quickened his kind to the brink of extinction.

“The new poster boys of the AFL are players that we’ve termed ‘the striker’,” Riewoldt added. “It’s the big-bodied midfielder that can win the ball, they’re your best contest players and then they go forward.” In years gone by, the likes of Wayne Carey, Jason Dunstall and Tony Lockett were kings of the castle, the towering target men around whom teams were built. Now, Riewoldt reasoned, in a game cruelled by congestion and zone defence, there was a new alpha male who ruled the plains.

Riewoldt was not alone in thinking this. The downward trend in scoring levels for nigh on two decades has seen the key forward’s output follow suit, the player’s role changed from goalsquare prowler to little more than link in a chain. “I have seen key forwards fall out of the game,” Alastair Clarkson said in 2018. Again, this was a lament, not a casual comment, from the Hawthorn coach.

If the first three rounds of the new season are anything to go by, reports of the key forward’s death have been greatly exaggerated. And it is a joy to behold. Though his comments were made barely three weeks ago, Riewoldt should not be blamed for getting it so wrong. There is no way he, nor anyone for that matter, could have known what was coming.

The new rules brought in this year have exceeded expectations in how they have shaped the way the game is played
The new rules brought in this year have exceeded expectations in how they have shaped the way the game is played. They have been so profoundly influential it is as if we are spectating an entirely different sport, one that is faster, freer and far more entertaining. And it is the key forward who is benefitting most from a game that hasn’t been this open since the turn of the century.

The big blokes had a round to remember over Easter, with Josh Bruce (10 goals) and Harry McKay (seven) leading the charge with career-best returns. Bruce has now kicked 14 majors this season – matching his entire output of 2020 – and he is likely still pinching himself after becoming the first Bulldogs player to kick a double-digit bag since Simon Beasley in 1987.

North Melbourne might not be up to much, but Bruce’s day out cannot solely be attributed to sub-standard opposition. Though he shone the brightest, the incidence of big scores and big returns is trending. In addition to McKay’s torment of Fremantle, Taylor Walker (six goals) continued his remarkable start to the season in Adelaide’s win over Gold Coast.

Walker leads the Coleman Medal race with 17 majors. At this rate, he will he dwarf his best season of 63 goals in 2012. Moreover, at this formative stage of 2021, the ex-Crows skipper is a leading protagonist in the exhumed conversation of another of the game’s supposed relics: the 100-goal season. From 1983 to 1998 inclusive, just three Coleman medalists failed to kick at least 100 goals. Since then, only Lance Franklin – with 102 goals in the 2008 season – has led the league’s goalkickers with a triple-digit dividend.

It might not be Walker in 2021, it might not be anyone, but fingers crossed we might at last returning to these environs after years in the wilderness. Discounting the abbreviation of 2020, six of the previous eight Coleman Medal winners kicked sixty-something goals. Those returns will likely look meagre in 2021.

Most of the teams to do well in round three managed to isolate their marking targets up forward with slick, direct ball movement. The sheer volume of inside-50s, and resultant marks inside-50, are telling the tale and will continue to do so until this bold style of play is stymied – if indeed it can be at all. Consider these imbalances for inside-50s and marks inside-50: Western Bulldogs (64-33; 24-9), Sydney (62-47; 15-10), Carlton (64-43; 20-10), West Coast (57-40; 15-9). The Bulldogs massacre aside, the discrepancy in contested possessions – the long-time benchmark for superiority – was not as pronounced elsewhere. The “man on the mark” rule is grabbing all the headlines, but the reduction in rotations and the increase from 10m to 15m of the location of the mark at kick-ins are proving highly impactful rule tweaks.

Though there were bigger margins, the contrast was never starker than at the MCG on Saturday when Sydney towelled up Richmond with an electrifying transition game. The Tigers’ fabled zone defence proved ineffectual against a young Swans team that is moving the ball faster and better than anyone at the present time. And to think they did it without Franklin, the very embodiment of the archetypal key forward. Just imagine if he were 10 years younger in this brave new world.