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AFL Round 20: Richmond vs. Hawthorn

AFL Round 20: Richmond vs. Hawthorn

Sunday Afternoon, 6th August at the MCG

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If you made enough mistakes on draft day, for enough years in a row, your club was going to suffer. Recruiting, therefore, was a lot about minimising risk. [1]

Having the first pick in the draft gives you first crack at selecting the best young footballer in Australia. But it is not as easy you may think, as there is little room for risk when you have the pressure of not wasting a top draft pick. Do you use a first round draft pick on a player that appears to have abundant raw talent but is less refined? Or do you pick the ready to go midfielder that you know will be a solid contributor for the next decade? Do you pick the best available player or do you draft to fill a need? How much emphasis do you apply on psychological testing, homesickness and injury history? For an insight into the AFL draft system, Emma Quayle’s book on the 2007 AFL National Draft is fascinating reading. Reading it in 2017 is particularly interesting, as you can reflect on the successes and failures 10 years on. The book centres on 5 players (Trent Cotchin, Cyril Rioli, Brad Ebert, Ben McEvoy and Patrick Veszpremi) as well providing a fly on the wall account of the Hawthorn recruiting strategy that season. And as it turned out, the 2007 draft was a particularly good one for Richmond and Hawthorn.

Richmond

Richmond had a disastrous 2007 season, recording only 3 wins and 1 draw. But Carlton, after two consecutive seasons of 4 wins or less, were awarded the Number 1 pick in the National Draft. Carlton selected Matthew Kreuzer, who was the Number 1 pick in waiting long before the draft. With the Number 2 selection, Richmond chose Trent Cotchin. Cotchin was a star for his entire junior career and had demonstrated the leadership required to be a future AFL captain. A safe pick therefore, an almost guaranteed reliable 200 game player for your club. And by consensus amongst recruiters he was the standout selection at Number 2 in the draft. Cotchin has lived up to this expectation, but 10 years on neither Cotchin nor Kreuzer is considered the best player from the 2007 draft. That honour goes to Patrick Dangerfield who was selected at Number 10. Although in fairness, it was not so obvious at the time that Dangerfield would become the better player. Emma Quayle recounts the following passage of play in a Vic Metro versus Vic Country Under-18 trial game in 2007 [1]:

Midway through the quarter he [Cotchin] got dumped in the forward-pocket, just as he was about to sling a quick shot at goal. The last player up off the ground, he threw the ball to the umpire and walked to the back of the pack, where Patrick Dangerfield placed his right arm across him. The hit-out came towards them and they both stuck an arm at the ball. Patrick was quick, but somehow Trent got a metre on him in three steps. On the run and on a tight angle, he snapped across his body and was promptly called off the ground. The selectors had seen plenty, and so had the recruiters.

In 2017, if there was a 50-50 ball to be won between Cotchin and Dangerfield, who would you put your money on to win that contest? However, there was one team that saw the potential in Dangerfield, the Adelaide Crows. Adelaide rated Dangerfield very highly and didn’t even baulk at his intent to stay at home in 2008 and finish Year 12 at his own school. Adelaide recruiting manager at the time, Matt Rendell had him at almost level pegging with Cotchin but agreed Cotchin was the safer pick at Number 2 despite the upside of Dangerfield [1]:

I did that [rank Cotchin at Number 2 ahead of Dangerfield] because Cotchin’s got less rough edges. Patty still has a few rough edges. There’s less wrong with Cotchin, but I was worried about how easily he got tagged out of that game in Perth. I think Dangerfield will be a more powerful runner, in time.

Adelaide were delighted that Dangerfield got to Number 10, although not so the Adelaide supporters. Brad Ebert, a son from a famous South Australian football family was the supporters’ choice when it came time for Adelaide to make their selection. But Rendell made the unsentimental decision of picking who he thought would become the better player. Ultimately there is an argument that he made the wrong decision, as the homesickness factor eventually brought Dangerfield back closer to home at Geelong. Meanwhile Ebert, initially selected by West Coast, eventually got his wish to come back to South Australia and play for Port Adelaide.

After making a strong first selection, Richmond also nailed their second choice in the draft – Alex Rance. However, Rance could very easily have found himself at Hawthorn.

Hawthorn

Hawthorn had a very different philosophy to the 2007 National Draft. Rather than draft the next best available, they drafted based on need. There were three spots that Hawthorn needed to fill on their playing list coming into the 2007 draft – a small crumbing forward, a key defender and an outside onballer with speed. For the small crumbing forward role, there was only one player they had their eyes on – Cyril Rioli.

His tackling is fantastic. He’s got pace; he brings the ball into the forward line and holds it, he’s a good kick both sides; he brings people into the game. I do believe he’s a little champion.

Garry Smart, Hawthorn recruiter in charge of the Northern Territory [1]

However, Rioli, despite his outstanding football ability was not at the top of a lot of recruiters’ lists. His performances at the draft camp were disastrous and put off most would-be suitors, much to the benefit of Hawthorn who waited patiently with pick 12 come draft time. At the draft camp, Rioli had a poor showing in the beep test, giving the impression he wasn’t even trying, although in truth he was just physically exhausted. But it was the psychological testing and interviews that were to be Rioli’s biggest downfall [1]:

One recruiter considered his [Rioli's] interview to be the worst he’d experienced in his 17 years in the caper, and it wasn’t even that Junior said anything wrong. “He was too tired to even speak,’ he said. ‘He actually even said: “Sorry, I can’t talk.”’

This never really worried Hawthorn, who were confident that Rioli had the resilience to adapt to the AFL, knowing that he handled big change previously when moving to a boarding school in Melbourne when in Year 9. He had come to Melbourne with a cousin, who quickly returned home. Rioli decided to stay despite his homesickness as he was determined to become an AFL footballer. And neither were Hawthorn worried about his fitness:

We felt that if he could play such good football now, imagine how well he could play once he did improve his fitness base.

Chris Pelchen, Hawthorn General Manager of Plater Personnel & Strategy [1]

Sometimes it is worth taking the risk. But if Rioli was not available at pick 12, the Hawks would have chased their next requirement – a key defender. And top of Hawthorn's list was Alex Rance:

He’ll be a dashing full-back, he’s got that great closing speed. You’d love to get him in and teach him to make better decisions, because he can give away free kicks at times. But you can see he’s still got some genuine improvement left in him.

Gary Buckenara, Hawthorn Recruiting Manager (West Coast) [1]

The AFL draft is full of sliding doors moments. The hawks would go on to select Brendan Whitecross with pick 29 to fill their midfield spot. And with their final selection, rather than fill the key defender spot, they took another risk in selecting the previously retired Stuart Dew. Although unfit at the time, Dew was identified by Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson as a player who could fill an experience void in the team due to the retirements of Ben Dixon, Joel Smith and Richard Vandenberg. And with his lethal kicking ability, Dew would fit well into Clarkson’s game plan. The 2008 Grand Final was evidence of that.

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So has the Number 1 pick in the National Draft historically been a safe choice? And where in the draft have the best players been selected? To help answer these questions we are going to use the Official AFL Player Ratings as published on the afl.com.au website. The AFL Player Ratings attempt to rank all the players in the AFL based on an algorithm that assesses every single action of every player. The Ratings take into consideration a player’s past 40 games over a rolling 2-year period, which means any player who has missed significant football in the past 2 years would be negatively affected, e.g. Nat Fyfe (2016), Nic Naitanui (2017) or the banned Essendon players. Despite this, the Ratings will allow us to take snapshot look at all the AFL players currently in the system prior to Round 20.

First of all, we will examine every player currently on an AFL list that were originally drafted by a club through the National Draft and collect them into groups based on their original draft selection. (Note: for this initial assessment we have excluded any player that came into the AFL system via the Rookie list, Pre-season draft or one of the many Gold Coast and GWS concessions). If for each group we sum the number of AFL Rating Points for each player, then we have the result presented in Figure-1. In this Figure we can see that the Number 1 pick in the draft is collectively the best group of players. This graph suggests that based on the current snapshot look at all the AFL players, the Number 1 draft pick has proven to be the safest draft choice. But is it producing the best players?

 Figure-1: Total AFL Player Rating Points per Draft Pick (based on Ratings after Round 19 2017)

Figure-1: Total AFL Player Rating Points per Draft Pick (based on Ratings after Round 19 2017)

If we refine the assessment such that we take only the 3 best players from every draft selection then we have the result presented in Figure-2. Now the spread of talent is much wider and the Number 1 draft pick does not appear to be the panacea it is made out to be. In fact, it is the Number 5 draft pick that has proven to be the best pick, with the 3 players represented at this selection being Scott Pendlebury, Lance Franklin and Ben Cunnington. Table-1 presents the Top 10 draft selections and the 3 players that comprise to make the points total. For this table, other forms of entering the AFL were also considered, including rookie elevations and GWS’s concession to list twelve 17 year-olds prior to the 2010 AFL Draft, both of which made the Top 10. Second place on the list is draft pick 40, however this is probably an outlier as it includes two father-son choices in Josh P. Kennedy and Gary Ablett. Regardless, the list demonstrates that the best players are not necessarily found at the top of the draft. The ability of your club's recruiting team to identify the right players and the ability of your club to then develop that talent is more important than the draft picks handed to you.

 Figure-2: AFL Player Rating Points for Top 3 Players per Draft Pick (based on Ratings after Round 19 2017)

Figure-2: AFL Player Rating Points for Top 3 Players per Draft Pick (based on Ratings after Round 19 2017)

 Table-1: Draft Pick Rankings based on top 3 players per Draft Pick

Table-1: Draft Pick Rankings based on top 3 players per Draft Pick

Prediction:

Richmond’s forward line structure without Jack Riewoldt will surely face a test against Hawthorn, for which you can be assured that Alastair Clarkson will be well prepared for. But Hawthorn is still suffering from a long list of outs, including Cyril Rioli one of the main subjects of this article. Regardless, this game feels destined to finish close, with the team that can’t win close ones coming up against the team the can’t lose them. Is this the moment for the Tigers to put those demons to bed or are the Hawks going to continue their charge towards finals?

Hawthorn to win by 4 points

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Post Match Comments:

Final Score: Richmond 13.15.93, Hawthorn 9.10.64

No Riewoldt, no worries. The Tigers were brilliant, particularly in the first quarter. Their pressure and ball movement was too much for Hawthorn to handle. There is much to be optimistic about at Tigerland as September approaches.

As for Hawthorn, finals action is most likely out of their reach now for 2017, but there are some positives to be taken from the game. After Richmond's dominance in the first quarter, the Hawks did well to keep the match competitive and not allow a blowout. And from a player perspective, James Sicily's move to defence and Daniel Howe's move to the midfield have been resounding successes. With their extensive injury list, many of the young players the Hawks have exposed have stepped up to the mark, and their appears a sense of optimism about Hawthorn looking ahead to 2018.

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Addendum:

I highly encourage any AFL enthusiast to read Emma Quayle's book on the 2007 draft. In particular some of the most innocuous discussions regarding the potential AFL draftees are fascinating reading with the wisdom of hindsight. I thought I would provide you one last anecdote from a discussion between the Hawthorn recruiters [1]:

Chris had another question. "If you could name two players you'd put your house on to kick at goal after the siren, who would they be?" he asked the group.

"Easy," said Bocca. "[Addam] Maric would kick it," he began. "Rioli would kick it, Cotchin probably would. If I picked two? Maric and Rioli."

"Strangely enough, I actually agree with Bocca," said Steve.

"I'd choose [Ben] McEvoy," said Anthony. "And I'd trust James Polkinghorne."

"Rioli and Cotchin for me," said Mark.

"Maric and Cotchin," said Graham. "With Rioli not far behind."

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[1] Quayle, E. (2008). “The Draft: Inside the AFL’s search for talent”. Allen & Unwin, NSW, Australia.

AFL Round 21: Melbourne vs. St Kilda

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