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All out attack: ranking the forward lines

Ashley Browne, Peter Ryan, Travis King and Harry Thring  December 31, 2015 10:00 AM

2015 Toyota AFL Grand Final - Hawthorn v West Coast

The Hawks' potent forward line was highlighted in the Grand Final

IN DETERMINING that Hawthorn has the best forward line entering the 2016 season, we needed to look past the simple 'points for' category, in which the Hawks did lead the competition last season.

What teams do in their forward line apart from scoring is also important, such as tackling, intercept marking, accuracy assists, and one-on-one contests.

The Hawks pretty much dominated those facets as well, which is why we ranked them No.1. The better teams tend to figure highly, but we have also tried to anticipate how the teams will look with their new recruits and if their best players are all fit and available. 

So we're bullish on the Swans, bearish on Freo, still cautious on the Cats and wondering how in the heck the Blues and Lions are going to turn things around.

1. Hawthorn

There are clubs with more talented individuals in their front half, but as a group, there is no better forward line combination than that of the Hawks. They kick the straightest, score the heaviest, generally execute the basics well, share the goals around and their defensive pressure inside 50 is immense. Flexibility is also the key with the Hawk forward line – rarely offering the same look for more than a few moments – and they clearly enter 2016 as the benchmark.

2. West Coast

A dangerous forward line, led by Coleman medallist Josh Kennedy, was the reason many believed West Coast could overcome Hawthorn in last year's Grand Final. The reality was much different, but the Eagles' potency can't be denied. West Coast's forward pressure was a feature last season with elite tackling (13 per game inside 50, equal third in the AFL) and forward 50 intercepts (4.2 per game, first in the AFL) helping Adam Simpson's side become the second highest scoring team behind the Hawks. With former Swan Lewis Jetta a chance to spend some time in attack, the Eagles could become even more damaging.

3. Adelaide

Boasting two genuine power forwards in Taylor Walker and Josh Jenkins, as well as one of the very best small forwards in the AFL in Eddie Betts, the Crows are well equipped to tear opposition sides apart up forward. Throw in Charlie Cameron, Troy Menzel and Tom Lynch and the club has serious depth and versatility. The Crows take 13.7 marks a game inside 50, the second most of any club in the competition and rank highly for most other key statistics.

4. Sydney Swans

Names rather than statistics carry the argument that the Swans have a potent forward line. In 2015, it averaged a goal 24.4 per cent of the time it went inside 50, was about mid-table for winning one-on-ones (30 per cent) and goal scoring accuracy (49.1 per cent) and managed to be the sixth highest scoring team for the season. But in 2016, it promises Lance Franklin in good health, Kurt Tippett confident and Isaac Heeney a year older and wiser. Add Sam Reid to the mix and defensive coaches will wake in fright. The Swans can also rotate Luke Parker through the forward 50 and create a system that has the offensive and defensive elements working in unison.

5. Western Bulldogs

The Dogs ranked no.4 for scoring in 2015 and this swayed us, as does the likelihood of further improvement from Jake Stringer, Stewart Crameri, Tory Dickson and Tom Boyd. Schooled at Hawthorn, coach Luke Beveridge likes forwards who work hard defensively – the Dogs were the no.1 tackling team inside their own 50-metre arc last season – and who share the goals around.

6. North Melbourne

North was one of the most efficient sides at putting the score on the board last season. The Roos were elite at converting from inside 50s and were fifth overall in scoring. However, they can still get better. Forward pressure is a buzz phrase in the AFL and the Kangas were only an average team at laying tackles, winning ground balls and intercepting inside their attacking 50. It's somewhat surprising, given the Roos' fleet-footed smalls – and their big men are no slouches - but the bonus is improvement that could see North's settled and experienced attack become even more dangerous.

7. Geelong

The Cats forward line revolves around Tom Hawkins, but an improved midfield will help his cause in 2016. Traditionally the Cats have worked together up forward, prizing assists above goals, and despite Steve Johnson's absence that won't change. Hawkins needs support from Mitch Clark, Shane Kersten or a resting ruckman such Nathan Vardy and the Cats also need to win more ground balls inside 50. If Daniel Menzel is fit natural improvement will occur, while the potential to roll Jimmy Bartel, Joel Selwood, Steven Motlop and Patrick Dangerfield between the midfield and the forward 50 is a major advantage.

8. Port Adelaide

Depending on how Charlie Dixon performs, hindsight could well suggest the Power should be ranked higher. Chad Wingard is a superstar, Justin Westhoff provides a great target and runs high out of attack, while Jay Schulz is one of the best set shots in the game.  Patrick Ryder adds a tall target and then there are a number of small options to crumb. Port's 53 per cent goalkicking accuracy was the third best in the AFL in 2015.

9. Richmond

The Tigers can clunk a mark in the forward line, but they lag behind when it comes to some of the defensive aspects. Some more consistency from Ben Griffiths and Ty Vickery would be nice, and is this the year Liam McBean commands a regular senior berth? In a perfect world, Dustin Martin would play as a permanent forward where he could wreak havoc. The Tigers laid the fewest tackles inside 50 of any club in 2015 (eight per game) so this shapes as an obvious area of attention heading into next season.

10. Greater Western Sydney

The addition of Steve Johnson and Jon Patton, who played just three games last year after his second knee reconstruction, should add plenty of firepower. There's no shortage of talent up forward, led by emerging superstar Jeremy Cameron, and a maturing GWS looms as a dangerous outfit. The Giants cracked the ton six times last year compared to the Hawks' 14, so there's some way to go yet, and their attack was only ranked middle of the road in most key stats. But watch out when it all clicks.

11. Fremantle

The system is fine but is the personnel resilient enough to consistently execute it? The Dockers have two stars in Hayden Ballantyne and Michael Walters, a champion near to the end in Matthew Pavlich and a workhorse in Chris Mayne as their mainstays up forward. It is enough to build plenty around but Matthew Taberner, Alex Pearce (who looks a natural defender) and Ed Langdon need to play a role if required. The idea appeals of Zac Clarke as a more permanent forward in a role that new assistant coach David Hale perfected, and the thought of Nat Fyfe occasionally terrorising defenders inside 50 is enough to please Dockers' fans. The Dockers' pressure is good but finding more than two players who can mark inside 50 (Pavlich was 29th in the AFL and Mayne 34th in 2015) would be a bonus. 

12. Collingwood

It's true the Magpies have one of the strongest forwards in the competition in Travis Cloke, but his inaccuracy in front of goal often limits his impact. Fellow key forward Jesse White is inconsistent, but usually good for a few goals. Jamie Elliott can kick match-winning hauls but his influence is sometimes completely negated. It will be fascinating to see how Jeremy Howe fit into the forward mix at the Pies in 2016.

13. Essendon

So much of what the Bombers did forward of centre in 2015 was cover-your-eyes awful. They didn't score enough, ranked last in the AFL for scoring accuracy, couldn't win one-on-one contests or keep the ball inside 50 if they did. Save for the blazing season from transplanted defender Cale Hooker there was very little joy. New coach John Worsfold has a lot of work to do entering next season. Having diminutive small forward Nick Kommer back from injury after two years would be a start.

14. St Kilda

The Saints moulded a forward line to carry them towards finals last season and unearthed some genuine talent. Josh Bruce was a revelation, while a fitter Paddy McCartin alongside Nick Riewoldt makes for a promising mix of talls. One area in which the Saints were poor was ground balls inside 50, but with the three small forward Jacks – Billings, Lonie and Sinclair – another year older, that could change rapidly. The rebuilding Saints were solid in most facets in 2015, however their efficiency converting inside 50s to goals and accuracy were well under-par. Alan Richardson will hope for much better returns next season.

15. Gold Coast

Tom Lynch is one of the most talented young forwards in the AFL despite carrying a relatively low profile. That will change this season as he heads up an attack that failed to fire in 2015. The Suns' statistics were not much better than Carlton's last season (the Suns had the second fewest marks and ground ball gets inside 50 and the third fewest tackles) and the loss of Charlie Dixon and Harley Bennell robs them of some firepower. Having said that, a fit midfield potentially gives the Suns plenty of upside and players such as Brandon Matera, Jack Martin and Jarrod Garlett will sit under the feet of Lynch and former Bulldog Jarrad Grant. Natural improvement from key tall Peter Wright and bursts of brilliance from Gary Ablett (and even new recruit Callum Ah Chee) means scores could improve in 2016. 

16. Melbourne

Once you look past Jesse Hogan, the Demons' forward line depth drops off dramatically. They were one of just four clubs to average fewer than 10 marks inside 50 a game and they also rank among the bottom few for tackling, goals inside 50 and accuracy. The Demons have addressed major inadequacies with their defence and midfield, but now the forward line needs work and Hogan needs help.

17. Brisbane Lions

The Lions ranked close to or at the bottom of every forward line stat that mattered in 2015, and the anaemic performance forward of centre was soul destroying for a midfield that was able to win the ball and at least push it forward. Former Cat Josh Walker, no.2 draft pick Josh Schache and the returning Michael Close should trigger some improvement, but the Lions are coming from a long way back.

18. Carlton

Blues fans have heard enough about how many goals former Blues Jarrad Waite, Eddie Betts and Jeff Garlett combined for last season (145) compared to Carlton's entire team (219). Time will tell if Lachie Henderson and Troy Menzel's departures hurt as much. But with a new coach in place, it's about looking forward and there's plenty of room for improvement to say the least. The Blues were ranked last or second-last for marks, tackles and intercepts inside 50 last season and were poor in most other areas. Brendon Bolton says a team-based approach can overcome the lack of established forwards, but 2016 looms as a monumental challenge.