Recently on Footy Classified, Craig Hutchinson posed the question of whether an intercept defender was worth over a million dollars a year, with many teams lining up to recruit Jeremy McGovern as a free agent at season’s end. The response was an overwhelming yes from past player Matthew Lloyd and recent retiree Chris Judd, both emphasising the crucial nature of this type of player.
This endorsement highlights a shift in the modern game’s power base, with defence being the new basis for attack. This was exemplified during Hawthorn’s dynasty of premiership success during 2013-15. All other teams have strived to emulate the pivotal role Josh Gibson played during these years, as an extra defender and zone off man. He was expert at reading the play, usurping attacks through his marking or spoiling and being the team’s crucial first link in the chain, commanding the rebound and transition into attack.
It is crucial to facilitate turnovers in defence in the modern game as well as punish oppositions on the rebound, which is made more important with most teams sitting deep when attacking. These tactics are supported by forward presses which can be ruthlessly effective but are equally exploitable by a quality defensive rebound.
This creates an enthralling conundrum for Hawthorn in their clash against Richmond on Sunday. The Hawks will be without their potentially devastating zone off defender James Sicily, which poses the question: who will assume his pivotal role?
An interesting aspect to this is the success of both Sicily and Jack Gunston as free men in defence during the second half of last year. After genius coach Alastair Clarkson assigned these previous forwards roles as the 7th and 8th men in defence, they were free to try to emulate the success Josh Gibson had in the zone off role. The impact of the duo was immediate and immense.
In 2017, Gunston had 74 intercept possessions at an average of 3.36 per game. Sicily had 90 intercept possessions at an average of 4.74 per game. Over the season their graphs look like this:
There is clearly a massive increase in both players’ performances after the bye (from round 14 onwards). During this time, Gunston had 50 intercept possessions at an average of 5 per game and Sicily had 79, at an average of 7.9 per game.
Alex Rance is the number 1 ranked player in the league for intercept possessions. During 2017, he had 206 intercept possessions and an average of 9.36 per game.
Including Alex Rance in the graph, the entire season looks like this:
However if you only look at the season from round 14 onwards, you get this graph:
In the second half of the season, both players (especially Sicily) held their own against the best in the competition.
This dynamic duo was separated in the early throes of 2018 with Gunston restored to the forward line and Sicily entrusted as the sole zone off defender. In Sicily’s absence, the logical move would be to redeploy Gunston in this pivotal role. The rub is Gunston’s importance to the forward line in the absence of Shaun Burgoyne from the team’s re-jigged attack.
Throughout 2017, Gunston had 110 score involvements, an average of 5 per game. Burgoyne had 134 score involvements at an average of 6.09 per game. Head to head, Gunston and Burgoyne had a similar first half of the season, however the evergreen Burgoyne pulled away in the second half. This coincided with Gunston receiving greater numbers of intercept possessions, indicating spending more time in the back half, where score involvements, although possible, are more difficult.
Hawthorn’s number 1 ranked player for score involvements was Tom Mitchell, whose sheer weight of disposal numbers would mean that many of our scores would have had a Tom Mitchell hand (or foot) in them somewhere. While Gunston averaged 5 score involvements per game and Burgoyne averaged 6.09, Mitchell’s average for his 152 score involvements was 6.9 per game. Incidentally, Jarryd Roughead, through his long stints in the forward line was second, 1 behind Mitchell with 151 Score involvements at 6.86 per game.
Comparing the 2017 seasons of Gunston, Burgoyne, Mitchell and the competition’s number 1 ranked player for the league last year in terms of score involvements, yields the following graph:
While having stars like Martin, who stand out from the pack in terms of stats, Hawthorn may well be content in having several players contributing evenly across the board in this particular facet of the game.
The conundrum of whether to play Gunston as the loose man, commanding the transition from defence or as the quarterback in attack is key for the Hawks. For me, the choice of playing him in attack wins out, as there is no replacement for what he does, which is made more pertinent given Burgoyne’s absence from the forward line.
There are two likely options for the defence; Ryan Burton or David Mirra. Burton would operate in a silken manner, facilitated by his good reading of the play, stepping in traffic and clever use of the ball. Mirra, however, would be the braver option and was employed in this role in a recent practice match for Box Hill on St Patricks Day. He undertook this role in a similar manner to Josh Gibson, brave and very effective in his intercept marking and spoiling whilst tidy when in possession when aiding in the defensive rebound. Ben Stratton could be another option but he will likely be assigned to mark Dustin Martin and Trent Cotchin when they rest forward.
Regardless of which option the coaching staff chooses, success against the Tigers will rely on Gunston being maintained in attack.