Every team has its superstars that kick the miracle goals, launch themselves up for unbelievable marks and bask in the glory of awards and accolades. They may help sell out stadiums and recruit kids to the cause, but the team itself cannot simply rely on these champions to get them over the line.
Great football teams are built on the underrated players: the ones that put their bodies on the line each and every week to improve their sides overall performance. They may not get the media attention enjoyed by Gary Ablett or Lance Franklin, but without them, a number of clubs would struggle to win important games.
These are the quiet achievers at each club, the men that don’t get the plaudits but continually play at a consistent level and should be held in high regard by their supporters.
Adelaide: Matthew Jaensch
The rebounding small defender has had a brilliant 2014 and would be a frontrunner for the squad of 40 in the All-Australian team. His decision making and underrated speed and agility sets up the majority of the Crows’ attacking ventures, and he provides midfielders like Patrick Dangerfield and Rory Sloane with silver service. At 24 years old, Jaensch is finally having a breakout season after spending the previous few on the fringe, having never played more than 13 games in a single year. He has played every game in 2014 and is averaging 20 disposals and six marks a match. A significant highlight of his game is the ability to shut down some of the most dangerous small forwards in the league, whilst also hurting them in the opposite direction. Jaensch has the makings of a defensive general, and with fellow defenders Daniel Talia and Luke Brown, they have the makings of a resolute back six for years to come.
Brisbane: Joel Patfull
In a post-triple premiership team, Joel Patfull has been one of the most underrated defenders in the league. Coming into the side in 2006, Patfull has been a beacon of consistency at a club that has struggled for form since their three-peat all those years ago. He is one of those players that coaches adore, because he’s accountable every week and does his job to the best of his ability. At 190cm, he has always been slightly undersized for a key defender, but that hasn’t stopped him from taking on some intimidating power forwards like Brendan Fevola and Travis Cloke. An amazing stat that backs up Patfull’s resilience is the fact that he has only missed 10 games since his debut in round eight, 2006. In terms of output, 2013 was Patfull’s best year to date and at 29 years old he is still providing a solid hand down back in a very young team. If he had come along a few years earlier, he may have had a much bigger profile and been respected in the football world as a member of Brisbane’s premiership defence.
Carlton: Ed Curnow
A man with incredible endurance and the ability to shut down A-grade midfielders, Ed Curnow should be considered one of the best taggers in the game. His 2014 season was interrupted by a leg fracture against the Western Bulldogs, but prior to that injury he was on fire. Curnow’s list of scalps in 2014 read like a who’s-who, with Scott Pendlebury, Dustin Martin, Jack Steven and Brad Ebert all failing to overcome the young tagger’s determination and gut running. He is a player who constantly looks like he’s about to pass out from how much he runs, but there is no quit in his body. Averaging 21 disposals and six tackles as a shut down player is superb, and he compliments the stars in Carlton’s midfield by allowing Chris Judd, Bryce Gibbs and Marc Murphy a bit more space and time to send the ball forward.
Collingwood: Paul Seedsman
A vital aspect of any team’s success is the ability to transition from defence to attack as quickly as possible. For Collingwood, Paul Seedsman is the speed demon that gets the ball out of the back 50 and into the middle in a split second. Seedsman has only played 34 games, but he already looks like a very talented player who will be critical to the Magpies’ future. His attack on the ball can reverse the momentum into Collingwood’s favour, and he isn’t scared to take on opponents with his pace. He currently ranks second in the league for average bounces per game, and his line-breaking skills are so valuable to a team that can sometimes be one-paced and sluggish.
Essendon: David Zaharakis
This may be a weird choice, but I truly believe that David Zaharakis is in the top 10 midfielders in the league.. He is the most important player in Essendon’s team, and he isn’t rated highly enough in the football world. When Zaharakis plays well, the Bombers win – it’s simple as that. He has the perfect combination of speed, ball-winning skills and disposal that makes a player elite, but he tends to be overshadowed by his captain Jobe Watson and other midfielders like Brendon Goddard and Dyson Heppell. It’s amazing to think he is performing at such a consistent level at just 24 years of age, because when will his improvement halt? Zaharakis enjoyed a tremendous purple patch mid-season, accumulating 30+ disposals in five out of eight games between rounds nine and 16, probably picking up three Brownlow votes in the majority of them. If he returns to this form after a somewhat quieter past month, I would even rate him a sneaky chance for the prize itself – and that would surely break him out of the Essendon collaborate as a truly elite midfielder worthy of recognition.
Fremantle: Lachie Neale
Fremantle’s game-plan is built upon ruthless defence and dour stoppage work, but Lachie Neale provides an injection of pace that breaks up the monotony imposed by Ross Lyon. He is having a brilliant year, but one that has been overshadowed by the brilliance of teammates like Nathan Fyfe. His recent form has seen him rack up 30 disposals three times this year and at only 21 years old his best is yet to come. After featuring predominantly as the sub in past seasons, Neale has broken away from the green vest and has emerged as a vital player in Ross Lyon’s side.
Geelong: Cameron Guthrie
Cam Guthrie is another young gun who suffers from playing alongside so many champion teammates. As Geelong comes to grips with the ending of one the greatest dynasties in AFL history, they have begun to integrate some incredibly talented prospects throughout the team. Guthrie is possibly the best of this new lot, with sublime skills complementing the ability to shut down the opposition’s best midfielders. His attack on the ball is excellent, and he ranks 12th in the league for tackles (and the most at the Cats) – a stat that epitomises the Geelong mould of tough inside midfielders.
Gold Coast: Dion Prestia
The best midfielder in the Gold Coast team not named Gary Ablett, Prestia has been having a breakout season and will most likely pip Ablett for the best and fairest. His stats sheet reads incredibly well in 2014, with the 6th most disposals, 14th most uncontested and 18th most contested possessions. He has a massive tank, allowing him to continually outrun his opponents for the whole game. He throws his weight around like a tall forward despite only being 175cm, and – much like Ablett – is very hard to tackle in the contest. He doesn’t have the flashiness of Harley Bennell, or the elite boot of Jaeger O’Meara, but Prestia is a brilliant young midfielder who has a bright future on the Gold Coast.
Greater Western Sydney: Will Hoskin-Elliott
It’s been a tough third year for the Giants, but a number of their prized youngsters have taken the next step in their development. One who looks like he will become a absolute gun is Will Hoskin-Elliott. 2014 hasn’t been a massive year in terms of goals, but just watching the way he attacks the ball with his gangly frame, his potential to dominate is obvious. Hoskin-Elliott’s one-touch disposal and marking ability is proof as to why the Giants took him with pick four in the 2011 draft. He is slick and unassuming, almost laconic, but can turn it on in a split second. He is tall enough to cause headaches for mid-sized defenders, and has enough speed to make a damaging midfield option in spurts. Look out for Hoskin-Elliot, because he’s going to be a major player in the Giants’ future.
Hawthorn: Jack Gunston
Despite kicking 44 goals so far as a third tall this season, I believe that Jack Gunston is a lot better than he is made out to be. An All-Australian spot is almost guaranteed at this point, which is an excellent effort for a player who had to break through the shadow of giants Jarryd Roughhead and Franklin. With Buddy gone from the club, Gunston has thrived as a lead up forward who gets under the skin of opposition coaches with his footy smarts. He’s one of three Hawthorn players in the top ten for goals league-wide, and also ranks sixth for goal assists which is a very important statistic when considering Hawthorn’s propensity to win by booting as high a score as possible. His ability to link up through the midfield and provide options for the defence in dire circumstances is vital to Hawthorn’s gameplan.
Melbourne: Tom McDonald
An underrated statistic that exemplifies the passion and hunger for the footy is ‘one-percenters’. They measure a player’s never say die attitude and attack on the contest. Tom McDonald has the 2nd most one-percenters in the league, despite playing in a bottom four side at the age of 21. The defender probably faces some of the toughest tasks in the game by virtue of being part of a weak defence, but he stands up with the courage of a 200-gamer. He doesn’t amass a lot of possessions, nor is he kicking miraculous goals, but he puts his body on the line for his team in a way that not many others do.
North Melbourne: Levi Greenwood
At the end of 2013, Levi Greenwood’s AFL career was as good as done.. Having only played 11 games in the previous two seasons and struggling to find the form to break back into the side, it seemed as if his chance had passed him by. In 2014, he has turned that around completely, with a career-best season playing in a tagging role. The thing that separates Greenwood from many other taggers is his ability to hurt his opposition the other way. He is averaging 25 disposals and has kicked 13 goals from the midfield, which shows that he can and does run both ways. His tackling and defensive running is supreme, and he continually bobs up in the forward line when North Melbourne needs it most.
Port Adelaide: Robbie Gray
Another lock for the All-Australian team that doesn’t get the media hype he deserves, possibly due to playing for an interstate side, Robbie Gray is having an unbelievable season. His break-out 2014 will see him be a big player on Brownlow night, and all of this comes after returning from a hideous leg injury suffered in 2012. He leads the competition for goal assists, averages 24 disposals, and has kicked 27 goals. He is the perfect half forward, given he is a goal-sneak who can be thrown into the midfield to turn the tide and a player who consistently goes under the radar in opposition coaching plans. Gray has that low centre of gravity that makes him very hard to tackle, and his pace is unbelievable for a man who has only just returned from an ACL injury. If he keeps up his form in September, Port Adelaide could go a long way.
Richmond: Matt Thomas
After being delisted by Port Adelaide last season, Matt Thomas has proven to be a great pick up for Richmond and an example of how second chances can revitalise careers. Thomas is a tackling machine and provides much needed grunt in the middle for a club that often finds itself lacking on the inside. Recycled players can be hit or miss, but Thomas has given Richmond another excellent rotation and is a player that doesn’t set the world on fire but does his job excellently.
St Kilda: Farren Ray
Farren Ray has a very important role in St Kilda’s midfield. He provides that get out option for some of the younger players when panic starts to set in, and you’ll see Ray sprinting down the wing providing help to the young guns numerous times a game as they attempt to get the ball past the forward 50 arc. He is relatively consistent, but it is his onfield leadership that is most valuable to the team. With Lenny Hayes on his farewell tour, and Leigh Montagna surely almost ready to call it a day, Ray will be vital to the club’s development in the coming years.
Sydney: Dane Rampe
One of the best rebounding young defenders in the league right now, Dane Rampe is a product of the Sydney machine that continues to churn out brilliant players at a rapid rate. He is easy to miss in what is the best team in the competition, but his pace and line-breaking ability is the blueprint to so many attacking ventures for the Swans. He is in the top 10 for rebounds, and his disposal by hand and foot is superb. Playing with veterans Nick Malceski and Rhyce Shaw has and will propel his improvement, and he will be Sydney’s defensive general in no time.
West Coast: Shannon Hurn
Hurn is one of the most damaging defenders in recent history, but a player that isn’t given the same plaudits as his Victorian counterparts. His massive right foot sends shivers down the spines of the opposition, and his ability to completely tear down zones and break the lines with a single kick makes him an incredibly important player to West Coast. His 2014 season has been very consistent, averaging 19 disposals and six marks from defence. Unlike many rebounding defenders, he also holds up in one-on-one contests thanks to his brute strength, and can play tall or small depending on the team’s requirements.
Western Bulldogs: Luke Dahlhaus
His profile had always been quite prominent, however that was due to his famous dreadlocks. In 2014, however, he should be getting attention for his speed and footy smarts, playing both forward and in the middle. Averaging 22 disposals, four tackles and almost a goal a game, he is having a career best season in a new role. With Wallis, Liberatore and Bontempelli providing the tough inside game, Dahlhaus is very important in delivering outside ball and quick clearances.