A recent fan survey conducted by the Herald Sun found that 30.16% of respondents voted Luke Hodge as the league’s best captain. As the leader of the reigning premiers and current premiership favourites, it makes sense. In such a Victorian-centric league, however, perhaps we aren’t paying attention to other contenders for “best captain” and there’s one in particular who fits the bill.
Leadership in AFL circles is a crucial part of team structure. The captain must not only lead from the front, but display attributes of strength, courage and determination. They must behave professionally at all times, inspire their teammates and create strong working relationships with all involved at the club.
There’s no doubt Luke Hodge, and other fan favourite Joel Selwood display all these characteristics. This isn’t designed to discount their captaincy credentials and they have shown over a long period of time why they’re rated so highly.
While they are seen as the ideal captains though, inconsistent performances and brain fades somewhat tarnish, however minimally, their image as the leading “skippers” in the competition.
Ladder position and geographical location shouldn’t be at the top of the best AFL captain checklist. No, it’s the aforementioned characteristics that must be taken into account and there’s one standout candidate that fits the bill better than anyone; Tom Rockliff.
The signs were there early for Rockliff, who was in the Lions’ leadership group at just 21 years of age. Taken in the 2008 pre-season draft initially, Brisbane’s current captain had to prove he belonged at the club, having missed the national draft.
In receiving his Rising Star nomination in 2010, Rockliff said: “I had a lot of work to do on my fitness, but I didn’t feel that I was coming from any further back than anyone else or any other first-year players. It’s always going to be hard work, and it’s always going to be hard work to consistently play good senior footy. It’s never really easier.”
Self-confidence and hard work is what has resulted in Rockliff becoming Brisbane captain and one of the best players in the competition. This mindset is what makes him the best captain.
Before his 100th game in 2014, Rockliff spoke of being told he’d “never make it at the top level” and how it provided extra motivation. He also discussed repaying the faith shown in him by the Lions.
In 2015, his first season as captain, Rockliff started the season by breaking his ribs in Brisbane’s round one encounter against Collingwood. He returned quicker than expected, in an effort to lift his side, before being knocked out in round five in the opening minutes of the Q-clash. In round nine, he re-broke his ribs and courageously played through the pain.
While 2014 saw Rockliff top the 40 possession mark on five occasions, as captain he has shown his impact and leadership extends far beyond the disposal count. He averaged 9.1 tackles in 2014 and has averaged 14 in the past fortnight since returning to full fitness.
The Lions have been inconsistent and their loss to Melbourne on the weekend is arguably their most disappointing and patchy performance of 2015. Yet over the past fortnight, they have still had chances to win both matches, largely due to the leadership and determination of their captain.
Rockliff has been known to challenge teammates both on and off-field, and his tackling is indicative of his desire to create opportunities and lift the entire team.
In 2011, he was seen having a heated conversation with teammate Brent Staker at half-time of a match against Adelaide, taking Staker to task over a contest that occurred during the second quarter. Fast forward to 2013 and Rockliff sent out a tweet questioning a number of young Brisbane players being able to select where they wanted to be traded to.
Rockliff wears his heart on his sleeve and is not afraid to speak his mind or confront others, whether they be teammates or opposition players – remember the incident with Brent Harvey in 2014?
All things considered, it’s seems as though Rockliff was Brisbane’s captain long before an official tag or press conference announced him as such.
His incredible willpower to succeed and deliver over his career, including his playing with and coming back early from injuries for the betterment of the Lions this season, is what can be expected of a top class leader. We see it with the likes of Selwood and Hodge, but Rockliff delivers on a weekly basis.
Brisbane’s misfortunes of 2015 have predominately been due to list structure, but there’s no doubt their leader’s absence hurt them enormously and his inclusion in the team has led to closer results and, for the most part, an improved performance overall.
It’s only natural to think of the teams who have been successful in recent times to determine how good a captain really is. That’s why we see the same names at the top of the list every year.
For now, this idea may not stick with everyone. It may take Brisbane making finals for the point to be considered and acknowledged. The thing is, Rockliff’s leadership won’t change much between now and then.
Brisbane may be the wooden spoon favourites as we speak, but they have the best captain in the league.