THE RE-EMERGENCE of a big, big sound, and how it shaped the season, features in the next instalment of AFL.com.au's 50 biggest stories of 2023, alongside an AFLW star who went one better in a brilliant individual season.
There was trouble out west in both camps as record losses and player movement left West Coast and Fremantle assessing the damage at the end of difficult seasons, while a Collingwood star put everything together to deliver on his potential.
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 30-21.
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
30. Butters' brilliance stuns Demons and fans
The performance Zak Butters produced against Melbourne in round 10 was of such a high standard that it immediately thrust the gutsy ball-winner into Brownlow Medal contention and signalled his arrival as one of the game's very best onballers. In the wet at Adelaide Oval on a Friday night in May, the 23-year-old won 41 disposals, 10 clearances and 18 contested possessions in one of the best individual performances of the season, propelling the Power to a four-point win. He could do no wrong with the ball in hand, spinning and stepping around opponents, using his kick creatively and dangerously, and firing off rapid handballs mid-air. By the end of the season he was a star of the competition, finishing equal fourth in the Brownlow Medal and winning his first club champion award and taking out the AFLCA Champion Player of the Year gong.
29. Dees' Grundy move can't go the distance
The pitch to Brodie Grundy to move from Collingwood at the end of 2022 and pair with star ruckman Max Gawn at Melbourne made sense to the 29-year-old, and there was merit in the Demons making the play to try and get an edge on the competition. By the time Grundy was dropped after round 17, however, and asked to work on his forward craft in the VFL, it was clear the partnership was not going to work. One of the best ruckmen in the AFL at his peak, Grundy's on-field ability was wasted at the Demons this year, and Gawn also thrived when given the space to be a standalone big man. Grundy was traded to Sydney after just one season and the parting of ways looks likely to work out best for both parties.
28. Return of the Orange Tsunami
It's a moniker that had been used far less with Greater Western Sydney since their 2019 Grand Final loss, but new coach Adam Kingsley was determined to bring back a playing style that boasted the power and speed of the Orange Tsunami. In both their defensive pressure and offensive burst, the Giants were a relentless team to play in 2023, particularly after round 12, when they went on an 11-2 run to charge into a preliminary final against Collingwood, where they fell one-point short of a Grand Final. Asked during the pre-season about the Orange Tsunami label, Kinsley told AFL.com.au: "It's a label that we want to stick, and it's a label that we want to grow". With one of the best backlines in the competition, a deep and dangerous midfield, and a forward line led by Toby Greene, it was clear in 2023 that the Orange Tsunami is back.
27. Exodus hurts stumbling Freo
After the Dockers' arrival in 2022 as a young and talented team on the rise, 2023 was a significant stumble that came with more player exits. Following on from Blake Acres, Rory Lobb and Griffin Logue 12 months earlier, the club lost important small forward Lachie Schultz in a trade period shock and wingman Liam Henry, just as his game was clicking. It was a deflating way to end a season that started 2-5, included a four-game losing streak, and ended with 10 wins and a 14th-placed finish. Without trade period replacements, the Dockers will need new players to step up in a crucial 2024 and improvement to come from everyone as coach Justin Longmuir enters the final year of a contract.
26. Superstar De Goey finds right balance
In the space of 12 months, Jordan De Goey made the transition from being a controversial star to one of the most important, game-breaking players of 2023. With his off-field life settled his on-field influence soared, and the 27-year-old ended the year with a premiership medal around his neck and a September highlights reel to envy. With his big-game credentials now well-established, finding that elite level consistently through the season is De Goey's next challenge after making the All-Australian squad but not the final team and finishing 10th in the Magpies' club champion award.
25. Spotlight intensifies on concussion management
The stakes with concussion management for players' careers and lives has become clear in recent seasons, and it was in that context that Port Adelaide was handed the sport's largest ever concussion-related sanction when it was fined $100,000 in August for breaching the AFL's guidelines. Aliir Aliir and teammate Lachie Jones clashed heads in the round 20 Showdown against Adelaide, resulting in Jones being substituted with a migraine. Aliir was cleared to return, however, without undergoing a SCAT5 concussion test, with the defender later placed in concussion protocols the following Monday. The Power accepted their fine and conceded a mistake had been made, with half their fine included in the club's football department soft cap.
24. Conti breaks through as stars rise
Runner-up in the AFLW best and fairest in season seven, Richmond star Monique Conti had this year's award wrapped up by round eight after a dominant season in the midfield. A cross-code superstar who also represented the Melbourne Boomers in the WNBL, Conti was the toast of the AFLW after adding a prestigious best and fairest to her fifth All Australian selection, polling 23 of a possible 30 votes. Under-appreciated by the umpires, North Melbourne gun Jasmine Garner was again the coaches' pick as the League's best player, also winning the AFLPA MVP, while Greater Western Sydney's Zarlie Goldsworthy won the Rising Star Award.
23. Record loss a low in Eagles' worst season
While a continued injury crisis at West Coast went some way to explaining the club's heavy defeats in 2023, the extent of the 171-point loss to Sydney in round 15 landed as a shock. Amid a club-record 16-game losing streak, the Eagles conceded a massive 31 goals at the SCG as the Swans became the first team since 2011 to kick more than 200 points. The loss heaped more pressure on coach Adam Simpson before a 101-point loss to Fremantle in round 22 that looked like being a tipping point. Ultimately Simpson survived and change came elsewhere as chief executive Trevor Nisbett planned a transition to new boss Don Pyke, and the high performance team was reinvigorated. Ending the year with a successful National Draft, underpinned by Harley Reid's selection at No.1, was a highlight as the club reset for 2024.
22. Highlights and heartbreak for new Lion
Brisbane midfielder Will Ashcroft was an instant hit after arriving with pick No.2 in the 2022 Draft, averaging 22.1 disposals in his first season, standing up in big moments, and changing the dynamic of the Lions' midfield as they built towards a Grand Final appearance. The prolific ball-winner was on track for Rising Star honours, but that – and the opportunity to play finals – was ripped away from him in round 19 by an ACL injury. It was a cruel blow for the 19-year-old, who is determined to return in 2024 bigger and stronger having shown the competition how talented he is with an incredible Goal of the Year winner against Fremantle in round seven.
21. The dangerous tackle crackdown
Players faced a critical change to the way they approach the game in 2023 as the AFL set about eliminating as much as possible the 'dangerous tackle' and placing an increased duty of care on players. In 2023, there was an expectation that players who chose to tackle would also act to prevent their opponent's head hitting the ground at force. As players, coaches and fans adjusted, a flurry of cases found their way to the Tribunal – and the Appeals Board – and the dangerous tackle became a weekly point of debate, peaking around June. By the end of the season there had been a clear shift. Coaches were teaching new techniques and players were finding ways to cushion the blow for their opponent and execute safer tackles. As with head-high bumps, it was a change the game needed if the League was serious about protecting players' heads.