AFL 2023: Mid-year All-Australian team
Patrick Cripps was deemed by the umpires to be the premier player of 2022, 12 months after a similarly powerful inside midfielder, Ollie Wines, took the Brownlow Medal with a record vote tally.
But this year Cripps has struggled to lift his sputtering Blues. His output is respectable, on basic numbers, but his influence greatly diminished.
Nick Daicos, meanwhile, has become the symbol – and an architect – of Collingwood’s potent running and transition game. Daicos is a completely different footballer to Cripps and Wines, playing a game founded on stunning ball use and run, rather than brute force and winning contests in tight spaces.
In 2023, the game has shifted ever so slightly to one that elevates the skill set of Daicos, his brother Josh and a breed of midfielders who play a game that prioritises running and judicious decision-making and skill execution.
If Cripps and Wines are far from spent forces in the AFL, they also are far from contention for berths in the All-Australian 22 at the midpoint of 2023.
Unlike the heydays of Gary Ablett jnr, Dustin Martin, Chris Judd and Wayne Carey, there is no clear-cut No.1 player in the AFL this year. At different stages, Jeremy Cameron and Marcus Bontempelli have been touted as No.1s, while Melbourne’s dynamic duo, Christian Petracca and Clayton Oliver, have maintained their super-elite standards. Where Oliver differs from Cripps, Wines and other slower inside beasts, is that he runs and garners territory as well as winning contests.
Bontempelli has had a profound influence on results, dragging an up-and-down Bulldogs team over the line in games against Brisbane, Fremantle and Greater Western Sydney. Petracca has been close to “the Bont’s” level in several games.
That pair is among the first selected in the mid-year best 22.
Besides the Bont and Petracca – who duelled in the 2021 grand final – the easiest selection for the mid-year All-Australian side is the game’s current premier defender, Collingwood skipper Darcy Moore.
The Collingwood captain isn’t the best player in the game, but he is right up among the most valuable – a reality that likely won’t be reflected either on Brownlow night (Moore, Steven May and Jacob Weitering did not score a single vote last year) or in the AFL players’ own MVP award, which also pays scant respect to key defenders.
Collingwood, at 11-1 and clearly the best-performed club to date, provide four of the All-Australian side, the most of any team.
Jordan De Goey has continued to produce at the level he found during the 2022 finals – the standard he promised but didn’t deliver until last year. As with Petracca, De Goey has the combination of speed/power and inside and outside ball-winning – and a knack for a timely goal – that made him a must-pick midfielder for the best 22 of 2023 to date. As Patrick Dangerfield opined, De Goey has been a top 10 AFL player this year.
His likely suspension for the head-high bump on Elijah Hewett will cost him weeks and, by season’s end, it could well scupper his first All-Australian guernsey.
Nick Daicos, too, is certain starter and easy call. Nominally a half-back flanker, the second son of Peter Daicos has been shifted around by Craig McRae – notably into the midfield/forward on Anzac Day – to solve problems or shift the tide.
Nick’s elder brother Josh vied for a spot on a wing with a number of players, including Sydney’s foot-skilled Errol Gulden and Essendon’s emerging Nick Martin. Had veteran teammate Steele Sidebottom not suffered a knee injury, he might have taken that wing spot that I’ve given to the oldest of the Daicii.
Moore and Nick Daicos fill two of the six defensive slots. Hawthorn skipper James Sicily and St Kilda’s Jack Sinclair are the next pair whose influence on games warrants selection, although Sinclair has been moved on to the ball on occasion.
Sicily is a defensive interceptor nonpareil, capable both aerially and on the deck, and wins the third tall/intercepting position ahead of Saint Cal Wilkie.
The second key defender spot could have gone to May or Gold Coast’s Charlie Ballard. I’ve opted for Harris Andrews, who anchors the Lions’ defence and has regained his mojo after a so-so season in ’22.
Port Adelaide’s Dan Houston (Dan who?), a consistent running defender, rounds out the back six. Richmond’s Dan Rioli was close to landing that sixth spot.
In attack, I’ve selected three talls. Jeremy Cameron, despite a quiet spell lately, was the first forward picked. And while Charlie Curnow booted 15 of his 38 goals in games against weak opposition (West Coast and North Melbourne) and has had a few unproductive outings, he has carried a Carlton forward line that doesn’t get Darren Jarman-delivery.
Oscar Allen (forward pocket next to Curnow) is a contentious selection, but consider the degree of difficulty in playing full-forward for an embarrassing Eagles outfit that can’t hit targets; Allen’s 32 goals is the equivalent to 40-plus at Brisbane, Melbourne or Collingwood.
Toby Greene’s unique ability to create scores makes him the first small forward, while Charlie Cameron’s electrifying talents hand him the other small forward position. I’ve positioned Petracca as a high half-forward on the basis that he spends ground time up forward and that teams routinely have a midfielder rotating across half-forward.
Jordan Dawson’s superb disposal and recent history on the wing earns him the other wing spot, even though he’s graduated to genuine midfielder and this is a compromise to picking pure wingmen.
As the game tilts towards those who can win their own ball AND run and use it, Port’s Zak Butters has emerged as one of the AFL’s elite and gets the nod in a midfield compromising the Bont, De Goey and Oliver (first on interchange).
It is a feature of this team that there are seven club captains. Zach Merrett, a surgeon with the footy in his hands, has taken over the leadership of the improved Essendon and deserves one interchange berth, ahead of more half a dozen other mids.
Lion machine Lachie Neale, Port’s Connor Rozee, Freo’s Caleb Serong, Hawk Jai Newcombe and Gold Coast pair Noah Anderson and Matt Rowell all had serious claims but couldn’t be accommodated in the 22. Neale’s omission means there is no current Brownlow Medal winner in my team, the champs Martin, Dangerfield and Nat Fyfe having reached the dusk of their careers.
In a season of underwhelming rucks, Bulldog Tim English edges out Fremantle’s Sean Darcy to be the only specialist ruck picked.
The final two bench spots are filled by a versatile defender in Swan Nick Blakey and the oft-maligned but lately consistent and even accurate Joe Daniher, who can also provide ruck relief. He has produced strong performances over the last seven weeks.
It is a team that recognises impact, and above all, places more store in what the players do with the ball in their hands than on simply getting it.
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