Kane Lambert during the 2019 Grand Final between Richmond and Greater Western Sydney. Picture: AFL Photos

THEY are some of the most important players to a team's success who get some of the least fanfare. They are not the medal and best and fairest-winning midfielders, nor the huge haul goalkickers who light up games and take centre stage.  

They are not the ruckmen, whose often solitary spot gives the big men their big dues and they are not the defenders, whose attacking traits are now seen as critical in the complex modern game. They are not even the small forwards, whose quick feet and tricks are part of the game's theatre. 

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No, this is a tribute to the humble, hard-working half-forward, whose value is often regarded more highly inside a club than out, whose job is often to support rather than star, whose impact is at times so unseen that even Champion Data's statistics model finds them difficult to quantify. 

"It's regarded as super critical internally and externally they don't get the appreciation we give them," said one senior coach. "It's not glamorous. It's consistency and hard work and they're not there to kick goals. To be honest, the goals are a bonus." 

Alex Neal-Bullen took the job into primetime last week when he was one of the best afield for Melbourne in its seven-point win over Port Adelaide. With two goals and 24 disposals, his influence was clearer than at other stages of his career, when his hard running, supplementary work up the field and defensive efforts have gone with less scoreboard reward. 

Let's dig into the job description. 


Moving the ball from a team's defensive 50 to inside its attacking 50 is the name of the game and so crucial in how the best sides play and venture up the field. If a team can't take the ball through defensive systems then they won't score but if they can't defend opposition ball movement then winning will be hard, too. But ticking both of those boxes needs the half-forwards.

History shows their importance. Champion Data shows the past eight premiership teams have ranked top six for defending ball movement and the past 10 premiers have ranked top six for their own ball movement, with the half-forwards crucial to both aspects. 

Over the past decade, the half-forwards have been central to each flag. Hawthorn had Cyril Rioli's brilliance and defensive efforts and Paul Puopolo's tackling pressure. Kane Lambert almost redefined the half-forward role for Richmond alongside Dan Butler, Daniel Rioli and Jason Castagna. The Tigers' batch of hard-working half-forwards changed the position as rivals tried to unearth the same qualities in their own in that role. Others failed in their bid to implement Richmond-like gameplans without the players who could carry out the hard-running roles. 

The Western Bulldogs had Liam Picken and Clay Smith playing those roles in 2016, while West Coast in 2018 had Jamie Cripps, Mark LeCras and Willie Rioli. Neal-Bullen had Charlie Spargo and Tom Sparrow with him in Melbourne's triumph in 2021, while Geelong trio Gryan Miers, Brad Close and Tyson Stengle were so effective in 2022. 

Tyson Stengle and Gryan Miers celebrate a goal during Geelong's clash against Fremantle in round 20, 2023. Picture: Getty Images

Last season, Collingwood's quartet of half-forwards did so much work and complemented each other – Beau McCreery, Jamie Elliott, Bobby Hill and Jack Ginnivan. They are sung heroes in coaches' Monday game reviews and stars of the down-the-ground vision that shows their running patterns. 

"Lambert was the one," said an assistant coach. "His work coming in as a mature-age player and absolutely committing to the role made Richmond so much better and so many of his teammates better."

"It's low possession but they are so valued inside every team," another coach said. "They go all the way back in defence and then are required to go and set up in the forward line." 

So what qualities do applicants need for these jobs?

Repeat speed is huge. The best are good pressure players and top-end runners who can defend the opposition's ball movement. They need to be able to run up the ground and be involved in link-up play once their team has possession and be good ball users to be part of the chain. Devastating transition plays have become so central in cutting up opposition plans, but to have a good transition game, teams need their half-forwards to be heavily involved. 

Sam Switkowski snaps a goal during Fremantle's clash against Brisbane in round one, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

Often involvement doesn't look like involvement: they need to push up the ground, guard space and then bolt back, be an attacking option and close off defensive outlets. Coaches are aware of this.

"Once upon a time they were the classy finishers but the role has changed – it's been that way for a long time but they're still underappreciated," a coach said. "If you can get the player with the class and pressure then that's the optimum." 

The early teams leading the charge this year have found their men for the roles. The unbeaten Giants are lightning up and back: they have Brent Daniels and Toby Bedford and have added Harvey Thomas to the mix as well. Neal-Bullen's game-breaking outing against the Power was excellent and the Demons have included recruit Jack Billings as one of their forward options, while the Swans have thrown Justin McInerney forward and have Will Hayward and Robbie Fox who have also played in the role.

Fremantle has trio Sam Switkowski, Michael Frederick and Bailey Banfield who submit to the team role, while Carlton has a fleet of half-forwards who have helped catapult the Blues to an unbeaten start to the season: Matt Cottrell, Lachie Fogarty, David Cuningham and even Elijah Hollands in his first game last week.

The Bulldogs (with Laitham Vandermeer, Harvey Gallagher and Rhylee West) and Port Adelaide (Jed McEntee, Darcy Byrne-Jones, Sam Powell-Pepper and Francis Evans) have also found their industrious half-forwards. Dylan Moore, at Hawthorn, is another who has perfected the position. 

Jamarra Ugle-Hagan and Laitham Vandermeer celebrate a goal during the Western Bulldogs' clash against West Coast in round three, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

Touches and scoreboard impact are hard earned. These guys kick expensive goals, not cheap ones. They are footy's miners – unnoticed underground getting their hands dirty before they surface and occasionally produce some gold. 

Cottrell, speaking to AFL.com.au last week, described the unheralded nature of the position.

"It's not a sexy role at all," he said. "People don't come to the footy to watch a half-forward run his patterns. They come for Charlie Curnow, not a high half-forward whose job it is to connect with the winger. But it's a good role, it suits my game and the way I play. I can get up and support the backs then hopefully challenge my opponent going back to goal. But, to give credit to the club, they really value it. Internally it's highly valued."

So, here's to the humble half-forwards, for it's time they got their adulation. Although, sensing there is a personality type within those who take on the role, they might not want it anyway.