If the AFL’s retiring class of 2023 was a high school cohort, Lance “Buddy” Franklin would be the valedictorian. Measured over their careers, Franklin is as far ahead of the next player as Sam Kerr in the Matildas in terms of on-field value.
But reticent Franklin would not be delivering the valedictorian’s speech for the class that’s graduating from playing into the real world. The speech would be delivered by the next ranked player, another noted goalkicker and champion – the more effusive Jack Riewoldt.
The gap between Franklin and Riewoldt as performers is as significant as their goal aggregates – Buddy booted 1066 goals, to Jack’s 786 (with one game left). But the margin between Riewoldt and numbers three and four is much slighter, and the difference between the playing careers of Nic Naitanui and Trent Cotchin is a matter of debate and one’s vantage.
Riewoldt’s ranking ahead of Naitanui and his triple-premiership teammate Cotchin is founded on the spearhead’s incredible value and consistency in a more difficult position.
In ranking the departing class of 2023, it is striking that the West Coast Eagles did not extract as much from their club greats, in large part because of durability, compared with Richmond; West Coast arguably left a premiership on the table, which the Tigers grabbed in the 2017-2020 period.
Here’s the pecking order of the retirement class of 2023:
1. Lance Franklin.
An easy call. Buddy is the player of his generation, a unique figure in the game’s history and player who transformed the fortunes of clubs and the code. A 199-centimetre and 106-kilogram athlete with sublime skills, Buddy is the most electrifying footballer of the past two decades.
2. Jack Riewoldt
Jack wasn’t as powerful as Tom Hawkins or Franklin, nor as athletic as his cousin Nick Riewoldt, but he read the flight of the footy like few others, played both taller and smaller than his height and possessed an uncanny touch redolent of fellow Tasmanian Peter Hudson. As with Cotchin, he became a more selfless footballer from 2017, in what was a critical cultural shift at Punt Rd.
3. Nic Naitanui
Natainui was unfortunate to miss the 2018 flag and had many injuries over the past six years. Some observers will say Cotchin achieved more, as a triple-premiership skipper in a team sport. My rejoinder is that Naitanui was the best ruckman of his time and revolutionised ruck work – teams planned against him every week – whereas Cotchin was among many high level midfielders in the competition.
4. Trent Cotchin
Cotchin was a rare player whose impact on team performance rose in 2017 when his possession rate decreased. Always courageous and skilled, he displayed a harder, physical edge, adding Joel Selwood-like traits to a classy tool kit. It is a measure of Cotchin’s career that his 2012 Brownlow Medal – shared with Sam Mitchell after Jobe Watson was stripped of it – is really a secondary feat.
5. Luke Shuey
Like Naitanui, Shuey’s latter years were marred by injury. His influence on games, however, was enormous, as a midfielder with an explosive burst who could win the ball inside and outside. Twice a best and fairest at a powerful club, his Norm Smith Medal in the 2018 grand final against Collingwood franked a superb career, with the absence of an All-Australian jumper the only blemish.
6. Shannon Hurn
Hurn’s ball use and play-reading abilities were elite, as was his on-field leadership – crowned in the 2018 premiership that he skippered. He was one of those defenders whom the opposition was often forced to negate, and he rarely failed in the games that counted most.
7. Ben Cunnington
Cunnington was slow, ungainly in his movement and looked like a country footballer (Cobden). But he just kept winning the ball and his skills were fundamentally sound – one touch, safe overhead and with surprising touch by foot and hand. And tougher than Clint Eastwood.
8. Isaac Smith
He’s in the rarified company with four premiership medals, despite a late start to his career at Hawthorn. Fast, (left) foot-skilled and smart, Smith was important to Hawthorn’s three-peat. Intelligent on and off-field, he made the smartest decision to leave the Hawks for their rivals, a move that led to his Norm Smith Medal last year.
9. Robbie Tarrant
At his best, Tarrant was a cornerstone of North Melbourne’s better teams under Brad Scott and a difficult opponent for the premier key forwards. One of few full-backs to win a best and fairest (2016 and second in 2019, third 2018), his career, too, was plagued by injury, as evident in his twilight at Tigerland.
10. Jack Ziebell
Ziebell’s hallmarks were his bull-at-gate attacks on the ball, his strength in contests and versatility – he could play from the goal square, defence and spent plenty of his time in the middle. His output diminished in the past few years as North foundered.
11. Jason Castagna
Unfashionable, unreliable by foot and no one’s notion of talented, “George” Castagna was often the subject of Richmond fans’ ire. But as Joni Mitchell said, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Castagna’s pressure, speed and sacrifice made him an important figure in Damien Hardwick’s premierships. He played only 134 games, but made all three flags for good reason.
Castagna’s career, while less discussed or heralded, warranted ranking ahead of others who’ve left the game, including the star-crossed 2014 No.1 draft pick Paddy McCartin, whose passage to Sydney from St Kilda saw him find his calling as a key defender, but the repeat concussions confined to just 63 games at two clubs.
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