THE EVOLUTION of a football 'bad boy' and a senior coach's rolling contract saga feature in the next instalment of AFL.com.au's 50 biggest stories of 2023.
A landmark appointment at AFL House and a proud stance from a young Indigenous star also stand out as significant moments in a memorable season, while a premiership contender came undone in September for the second straight season.
In a six-part series, AFL.com.au is counting down the biggest football stories and most memorable on-field moments from 2023, continuing with 40-31.
PART ONE 50-41 Biggest stories of 2023
PART TWO 40-31 Biggest stories of 2023
PART THREE 30-21 Biggest stories of 2023
PART FOUR 20-11 Biggest stories of 2023
PART FIVE 10-6 Biggest stories of 2023
PART SIX 5-1 Biggest stories of 2023
40. Premiership defence falls flat
On three separate occasions in 2023, Geelong did what it had not done once in the five previous seasons, losing three matches on the trot. Those losing runs – between rounds one to three, nine to 11, and 22 to 24 – were the critical periods that undid a premiership defence that saw the Cats in the top eight for only eight weeks of the season before finishing 12th. The retirement of Joel Selwood and Cam Guthrie's toe injury meant the Cats struggled in the midfield and didn't take full advantage of their forward-line firepower. Defender Tom Stewart was their standout player and only All-Australian as the Cats missed finals for just the second time in 17 seasons. Introducing more youth alongside his premiership stars shapes as a balancing act for coach Chris Scott in 2024.
39. King Charles claims second Coleman
Bags of 10 and nine goals in his two games against West Coast formed the centrepiece of Carlton star Charlie Curnow's brilliant 78-goal home and away season, which resulted in his second consecutive Coleman Medal and All-Australian selection. The magnetic key forward used his strength in contests, agility at ground level, high leap and sharp kicking to be the League's most prolific goalkicker. An underwhelming finals series, however, saw the athletic 26-year-old kick just three goals from three games as the Blues were eliminated by Brisbane in a preliminary final. The challenge is now there for the star Blue to deliver when he next gets the chance on the finals stage.
38. Concussion ends careers as awareness grows
After two seasons on Adelaide's inactive list due to concussion symptoms, wingman Paul Seedsman announced his retirement in August. Unable to exercise or concentrate on day-to-day tasks without experiencing symptoms following a head knock in early 2021, it was recommended by an independent AFL concussion panel that the 31-year-old no longer participate in contact sport. Brisbane defender Marcus Adams, Hawthorn ruckman Max Lynch and Sydney backman Paddy McCartin received similar recommendations, prompting their own difficult decisions. All highlighted that they had chosen to prioritise their health, despite still feeling a drive to play the game, as awareness of concussion and its potential long-term impacts grows by the year.
37. New footy boss makes her mark
After replacing Brad Scott as interim football boss late in 2022, Laura Kane was appointed executive general manager of football in August, becoming the AFL's most senior football official and expressing her pride at becoming the first female to hold the key role. The appointment continued Kane's rise as a highly influential figure in the game after five years with North Melbourne before joining the AFL in 2021. She worked well with clubs and made a strong impression around the competition as the AFL faced challenges, including the Gabba lights failing during a match and the goal umpiring error in Adelaide's round 23 match against Sydney. With a preparedness for the public nature of the role, Kane promised to listen to fans and learn from their concerns.
36. Demons' finals flop
Coming off the 2021 premiership in Perth and determined to give their Melbourne-based faithful the opportunity to experience a flag at the MCG next, the Demons are 0-4 in MCG finals in the two years since, having gone out in straight sets each year. With boardroom battles and unwanted off-field headlines forcing the club to defend its culture, it's been a rapid fall for a team boasting so much talent and an ability to beat anyone on its day, as shown during a 7-1 run leading into finals this year. After finals losses by seven points to Collingwood and two points to Carlton, getting it done again on the big stage is now the challenge for this talented group.
35. Jamarra takes proud stance
Thirty years after Nicky Winmar's iconic and defiant stand against racism, Western Bulldogs forward Jamarra Ugle-Hagan made a similarly powerful gesture when he stood up for himself during a match-winning performance against Brisbane in round three. Ugle-Hagan lifted his shirt and pointed to his skin after kicking the first of five goals at Marvel Stadium following an emotional week for the 21-year-old. Ugle-Hagan had been racially abused by a fan the week prior and his stance was instinctive, with the talented forward wanting to show his presence. "Hopefully people look back on it 30 years from now and say nothing has happened since," he said after the match.
34. The evolution of Toby Greene
There was a time in Toby Greene's career when his supreme talent was overshadowed by his combustible nature, having amassed 22 Match Review charges in 176 games. With too many diverse charges to list here, he cost his team frequently and was marked down as a player because of it. Greene has rewritten his story in the past two seasons, however, and become one of the game's best leaders in 2023, named All-Australian captain, leading GWS to a preliminary final, and winning the Kevin Sheedy Medal as the Giants' club champion. The Giants grew as a result of one of the best individual stories of the year.
33. Lions turn choke into crucial lesson
Brisbane led by 25 points with 10 minutes to play in its round 18 clash against Melbourne but missed an opportunity for a significant MCG win as the Demons overran them in a brutal one-point loss. What it turned into, however, was probably the most valuable loss of the Lions' season, sparking a review of the final minutes that helped them be more prepared in a series of four close wins in the next six weeks. That run ultimately sealed a top-two spot and aided the Lions' passage to a Grand Final in a terrific season that saw them fall only four points short of the Magpies in a classic decider.
32. Power stick to August plan with Hinkley
When Port Adelaide revealed its plan to delay any decision on Ken Hinkley's coaching future until August – regardless of how the season was playing out – there were plenty of critics, particularly when the team rose to top spot after round 14 and enjoyed a 13-game winning run. Would their refusal to sign him then and there be a distraction for the players in a premiership campaign? Could Hinkley, with his rising stocks, be targeted by a rival who could offer more security? As it turned out, the Power stuck to their guns and announced a two-year extension on August 15. A late-season stumble, however, saw the team finish third and bow out of finals in straight sets, leaving Port with a 5-7 finals record under Hinkley and an 0-3 record in preliminary finals in the coach's 11 seasons.
31. Dogs launch late review after off-season change
The perception of the Western Bulldogs for the past two years hasn't matched the output after finishing eighth and losing an elimination final in 2022, and missing September all together this year. Whether or not you believe the Bulldogs are the most talented list in the AFL, their 3-5 finish to the season was underwhelming, with a shock seven-point loss to West Coast in round 23 their ultimate undoing. After sweeping changes had already been made to the coaching group, a review involving successful club CEO Peter Jackson was announced to assess various aspects of the men's program. It's a year that will leave players and football staff alike under pressure to improve in 2024 and deliver while the talent is there.