It’s a small world after all. In the year 2017, in as topsy-turvy a season as the AFL has experienced, the small forward has emerged from the madness as one of the most important members of a football team, and the fans love it. Daring runs, miraculous finishes and fierce pressure on the ball carrier from the league’s excitement machines have been one of the many standout features in the weekly unscripted drama that is AFL footy. Thanks to the way in which teams are orchestrating their offensive ball movement and defensive setups, small forwards around the country have had a monumental impact on results on a week to week basis.
The easiest and most efficient way an AFL side scores in the modern game is through forcing opposition turnovers, and what type of players are instrumental in doing so? Small forwards of course. Their pace and tenacity at the opposition puts opposing players under both real and perceived pressure, resulting in lower-quality disposals, thus leading to a turnover. Once the ball is turned over, the team in possession will then move the ball as quickly as possible to an ‘open’ forward line, and who is often responsible for the link between gaining back possession and hitting the scoreboard? You guessed it, the small forwards. I guess what I’m trying to communicate here is that what they lack in physical size, they certainly make up for in influence.
The goal-kicking and match-winning ability of the small to medium-sized forwards has seemingly risen to another level this season, with many teams, for example the Power with Robbie Gray and the Magpies with Jamie Elliot, relying on these types of players to be the focal point of their forward lines. Long gone are the days where a club’s leading goalkicker had to be a big, bustling full-forward, with highly-skilled and more versatile footballers beginning to emerge as a nightmare for defenders. In fact, the leading goal-kicker of 5 AFL clubs this season are small forwards (Crows – Eddie Betts, Magpies – Alex Fasolo/Jamie Elliott, Dockers – Michael Walters, Demons – Jeff Garlett, Power – Robbie Gray). This illustrates their ability to not only be a crucial cog to a coach’s arsenal in the previously mentioned turnover stakes, but also to punish the opposition on the scoreboard, with the likes of Orazio Fantasia, Toby Greene, and Daniel Menzel others that are producing similarly vital roles for their respective clubs.
Prime examples of the sheer impact of quality small forwards can be identified around the league, but perhaps most noticeably down at Punt Road. After a miserable 2016 campaign in which they finished 13th, the Tigers’ have surged up the ladder to currently sit in 4th place, largely thanks to the implementation of their mosquito-fleet of small forwards. Replacing the lumbering types of Ty Vickery and Ben Griffiths have been the likes of Daniel Rioli, Dan Butler, and Jason Castagna, allowing the Tigers to play an exciting, fast-paced brand of footy, and reap the rewards from it. Without yet being outstanding individual players, their ability to force turnovers and move the ball with purpose has freed up their performances, and has been a major catalyst in their surprisingly strong campaign to date.
On a more dour note, the impact, or more importantly the absence of Jamie Elliott has been a telling tale for the Pies fortunes. With Elliott, the Pies best forward, their forward structure is significantly more dangerous, and the team’s ball movement is more positive as a result of the confidence in their forwards to reward them for their efforts. Unfortunately, however, Elliott’s absence due to injury in numerous games has seen the Pies without any spark or imminent threat to the opposition’s defence, lacking the focal point in which he provides to allow the likes of Moore and Fasolo to roam more freely. Of the 5 games the Pies have played without Elliott in the line-up in 2017, they’ve only managed to produce one victory (Round 3 vs Sydney).
But enough with the analysis, the real value that small forwards bring to the game is the excitement they deliver. The roar of the crowd when Eddie Betts gathers the ball in his trademark pocket, the delirium of the faithful when a Rioli snaps from the boundary, or the satisfaction Brian Taylor gets from yelling “Oraaaazzzio Fantasia!” whenever he gets within 50 metres of the Sherrin.
Call them cult-figures, call them X-factors, but 2017 is the year of the small forward – and is the type of player who will have a telling say in which team holds aloft the cup.