The Weekend Preview is a blog that aims to provide a different angle on the narrative of an upcoming sporting event.

AFL Round 21: Hawthorn vs. Geelong

AFL Round 21: Hawthorn vs. Geelong

Saturday Afternoon, 11th August 2018 at the MCG 

----------

There was a sign at Eastern Ranges which read: ‘If you’re good enough, you’re quick enough. If you’re good enough, you’re big enough.’ I subscribed to that theory, even if the recruiting managers at the 16 AFL clubs at the time didn’t share my enthusiasm for it. I had done everything possible to warrant being drafted. I had won back-to-back best and fairest awards with Eastern; I had averaged more than 35 disposals in that 2000 season in the TAC Cup; and I had worked on some of the deficiencies of my game in the quest to get better.

Despite all this, the interest coming back the other way wasn’t lukewarm, it was downright freezing. I knew long before the 2000 national draft that I was in trouble. I had been overlooked for the draft camp, and was bemused when some of those invitations went out to players who couldn’t even get a regular game in the TAC Cup under-18s competition. How did that make any sense? The AFL clubs had pigeonholed me as the player they thought I was, rather than the player I could become. I was ‘too short and too slow’.

Sam Mitchell [1]

----------

From the stocky little midfielder that nobody wanted to a Rising Star, Premiership Captain & Brownlow Medalist, the story of Sam Mitchell’s perseverance to make it to the very top of the game is now a well-worn tale. But as we now shake our heads in disbelief as to how Mitchell could have ever been overlooked in his draft year, has the AFL industry actually learnt its lesson?

As Sam Mitchell found out the hard way, being a prolific ball winner as a junior was not enough, he was too short and too slow. Being short alone is not necessarily frowned upon as long as you have pace or a strong aerobic running ability. In fact, some of Mitchell’s year 2000 alumni that were drafted included Daniel Kerr, Andrew Krakouer and Graham Johncock, all of who were shorter than Mitchell but had the running ability to compensate. Aerobic capacity Mitchell could work on, but he was never going to have explosive speed.

In his recently released autobiography, Relentless, Mitchell provides further insight into his frustration in not getting drafted and even imparts blame on Carlton superstar Anthony Koutoufides. In a dominant 2000 season, Anthony Koutoufides was identified as the prototype footballer – tall, fast, athletic and with the football ability to match. The notion of turning an athlete into a footballer was a temptation that AFL clubs couldn't resist as they searched for the next Kouta. Of course ultimately Mitchell did force his way onto an AFL list, as he demonstrated that football nous, skill level (his ability to play equally well on both his left and right side is under appreciated) and a relentless will to succeed are qualities that cannot be overlooked.

But almost 2 decades on from that 2000 draft, surely the AFL has become smarter in their recruitment philosophy. Although we embrace the qualities of the miniature Caleb Daniel, he is very much the exception as players such as the strong-bodied 195 cm Patrick Cripps appear to be the inside midfielder of the future. And the quest to convert tall athletic code-hoppers such as Mason Cox into footballers appears as alluring as ever for AFL clubs. The opportunities for the averaged sized junior footballer making it at AFL level are looking increasingly slim. In fact, Sam Mitchell (179 cm) is above average for height based on the general population. According to an Australian Health Survey from 2011-12 [2], the average height of an adult Australian male aged between 18-24 years is approximately 178 cm.

Figure-1: Australian Adult Male Height 18-24 years

Figure-1: Australian Adult Male Height 18-24 years

But in the context of the AFL, Sam Mitchell is certainly on the short side. Figure-2 presents all the players on AFL lists (primary and rookie) for the 2018 season. The average height of an AFL player is 188.3 cm (median of 187 cm), which is over 10 cm higher than the general population. An interesting quirk of the presented figure is the spike in the number of players at exactly 200 cm. It would appear that a 2 m height represents a threshold which recruiters find difficult to ignore.

Figure-2: 2018 AFL Player Height Distribution

Figure-2: 2018 AFL Player Height Distribution

It is when we compare side-by-side (see Figure-3) the distribution of AFL Player height in comparison to the general population that we can truly recognise how the average AFL footballer differentiates himself for the average man on the street. And this trend is not new, if you look at the last 10 National Drafts the distribution in height of the selected players is almost identical year-on-year. Of course, all of this is in some way understandable, taller kids may be more drawn to sport and within a sport such as AFL there are definitive benefits of being tall and athletic. And when fielding an AFL side a balance is always required across the field between height, speed and ball-winning ability.

Hence it is unfortunate that although 50% of the adult male population (aged 18-24 years) are of height 178 cm or less, only 9% of AFL footballers in 2018 fall into this category. This is consistent year-on-year in the National draft as approximately only 10% of players are drafted that are of height 178 cm or less. Of this 10%, how many are selected for their pace? Unfortunately speed metrics for drafted players are not readily available in the public domain to conclusively answer this question. But it is highly likely that a large number of players with game intelligence and skill are lost to the AFL system because they are deemed too short and too slow. It makes you wonder how many Sam Mitchell’s we have missed? Sam Mitchell along with others before him such as Greg “Diesel” Williams may ultimately prove to be just the outliers. If this is the case, all it does is highlight the truly exceptional careers that they had and that perhaps collectively we haven’t fully appreciated their remarkable achievements.

Figure-3: AFL Player Height Comparison

Figure-3: AFL Player Height Comparison

Match Prediction:

Three of the last four matches between the Hawks and Cats have been decided by 3 points or less. And if we look back at the 22 contests since that fateful 2008 Grand Final, 13 have been decided by 2 goals or less. The recent form of both sides suggests that this week may be little different. Consider some typical metrics over the last 3 rounds:

  • Geelong average (vs. Richmond, Brisbane & Melbourne):
    • +14 contested possessions differential
    • 30% goals scored per forward 50 entry
    • 22% goals conceded per defensive 50 entry
  • Hawthorn average (vs. Essendon, Fremantle & Carlton):
    • +17 contested possessions differential
    • 29% goals scored per forward 50 entry
    • 23% goals conceded per defensive 50 entry

Based on these metrics, there appears to be little separating the form of both sides, although Geelong has probably had the tougher opposition. So although another tight contest is perhaps inevitable, the Cats probably just have the edge.

Geelong to win by 3 points

---------- 

References and Recommended Reading:

[1] Mitchell, S. & McFarlane, G. (2018).“Relentless: The Autobiography”. Pan Macmillan Australia Pty Ltd.

[2] The 2011-12 Australian Health Survey results (Height & Weight) can be found via the following link: http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4338.0main+features212011-13

----------

Post Round 20 All-Australian Team:

Figure-4 below presents The Weekend Preview's 2018 All-Australian Team after Round 20. The premise of determining the team is to assess each position based on an easily identifiable collection of variables. Each week the rankings for each position are updated and the All-Australian team is auto-populated. The metrics and rankings for each position are presented on a stand-alone page.

Figure-4: Round 20 All-Australian Team

Figure-4: Round 20 All-Australian Team

AFL Round 20: Sydney vs. Collingwood

AFL Round 20: Sydney vs. Collingwood