B: Cale Hooker, Daniel Talia, Nick Smith
HB: Brodie Smith, Alex Rance, Nick Malceski
C: Nathan Fyfe, Tom Rockliff, Joel Selwood (c)
HF: Robbie Gray, Lance Franklin, Brent Harvey
F: Eddie Betts, Tom Hawkins, Luke Breust
Foll: Sam Jacobs, Josh Kennedy, Jordan Lewis
Int: Gary Ablett, Scott Pendlebury, Bryce Gibbs, Dyson Heppell
Nick Smith makes it as the genuine small defender, and rightly so. The Swan has been assiduous in defence this season, consistently negating the league’s best small forwards.
Fellow Swan Nick Malceski and Crow Brodie Smith fill the half back flanks. They are ranked #1 and #2 respectively in both metres gained and rebound 50s in the league this season, and their ability to generate play from the back half has stood out.
Of the key defenders, Talia was the best stopper in a traditional sense, winning Adelaide’s best and fairest. Talia lost few battles this season, rarely conceding a goal, and fits all the criteria of a classic All-Australian full back.
Joining him in the key posts is Alex Rance, who stormed home after a foot injury curtailed the early stages of his season. On return he entered a magnificent patch of form, not only negating the opposition’s best forward but also providing run and rebound, hurting both ways. His round 23 performance against Sydney to take the Tigers into finals was the peak of it all.
In third place filling the last spot in the back six was Cale Hooker, whose form at the start of the year was stellar. Though he faded late, he was the best intercept player in the competition and a prolific ball winner, even with a key forward to mind.
Moving into the middle. Despite missing four games, Nathan Fyfe earns selection with ease after being named the AFLPA MVP this season. Fyfe’s attack on the ball was ferocious, winning 59.3% of his possessions contested, ranking second of the top 200 ball winners. He also averaged 27 disposals, 6.7 clearances and over a goal a game in a complete season.
Joining him in the midfield was Tom Rockliff who posted absurd numbers over the course of a season. For a man to average both the most disposals and most tackles is a testament to his remarkable ability and work ethic, for which he earned Brisbane’s best and fairest.
Joel Selwood fills the other midfield spot. Despite a less consistent season than those previous, Selwood’s best was stunning, leaving him a deserved Brownlow Medal favourite. His hardness and ferocity lifted an already-impressive Geelong on multiple occasions.
Sam Jacobs’ selection is hard to question. He was a force in the ruck, ranking second for hitouts, but of ruckmen finished first for disposals and marks. His around the ground work was consistently great.
The on-ballers are Josh Kennedy and Jordan Lewis, odds on to go head-to-head in this season’s Grand Final. Kennedy was enormous in the centre, ranking second for contested ball and seventh for clearances. Lewis was Hawthorn’s most consistent midfielder this season, delivering week in week out. In the absence of Sam Mitchell, Hawthorn needed a main man to lead the way from the centre, and Lewis delivered in spades.
Port’s Robbie Gray cemented himself as the best midfielder/forward in the league this season, averaging 25 disposals a game and kicking 34 goals. Named the league’s best player by the coaches association, a spot on half-forward is obvious.
Lance Franklin is as much of a lock for his Coleman-winning season, reinventing himself as a deeper forward. Rediscovering his contested marking ability, Franklin became a handful for key defenders and a matchwinner on many occasions.
The ageless Brent Harvey fills the other spot on half-forward. Rated the best kick this season by Champion Data, Harvey’s sublime skill in the forward half has helped drive North to a preliminary final.
The forward pockets are filled by Luke Breust and Eddie Betts. Breust’s 54 goals, the most outside the key position players this season, earns him selection quite comfortably. He kicked a goal in every game this season – the only player of the top 25 goalkickers to do so – while also working his way up the field to average over 15 disposals a game. Betts earns the other pocket for a consistent season, kicking 51 goals and leading the league in goal assists. Constantly a delight with his skill and a force on the scoreboard, Betts became arguably the recruit of the season with his form.
This leaves full forward to Tom Hawkins. Hawkins reminded the league of his ability when fit, ranking equal second for goals (62) and first for both contested marks (50) and marks inside 50 (88). Importantly, he also kicked 28 goals against top eight sides – second only to Franklin’s 29, and well ahead of other key forwards in the mix.
Four spots on the bench typically leaves room for four more midfielders. Gary Ablett is the first – who else? – for a magnificent season which sees him second favourite for the Brownlow Medal despite playing only 15 games. The man is a marvel; little more can be added.
Scott Pendlebury is unlucky not to be on the field. His form at the start of the year should not be forgotten as he led the Magpies to eight wins from 11 games. His consistency never waned – he has now won 20 disposals or more in 55 consecutive games, the longest active streak in the league.
Bryce Gibbs earns a spot for a breakout season, stamping himself as Carlton’s best player. Gibbs enjoyed both a high consistency and high impact on the field, and ended the season as one of only three players to sit in the top 10 league-wide for both clearances and inside 50s.
The last spot goes to Dyson Heppell. The on-baller won a mountain of possession, thriving in a more prolific role. He earmarked himself as Essendon’s next captain with terrific leadership on the field in the absence of Jobe Watson.
The likes of Jarrad McVeigh, Eric Mackenzie, Dustin Martin and Hayden Ballantyne can count themselves unlucky – as can many others – and will no doubt find themselves in other sides, official or unofficial. It tells of the fine margins between many players in various positions this season, underlining a highly competitive and even year.
You can follow Ethan on Twitter at @ethan_meldrum.