THE RISE of the interceptor has never been more evident than last weekend.
On Friday night, Sam Taylor's remarkable performance in Greater Western Sydney's shock upset victory over Geelong was pivotal as the impressive 22-year-old continued to emerge as one of the game's most influential defenders.
Not only did Taylor completely thwart Cats spearhead Tom Hawkins, keeping the reigning Coleman Medal winner to just one goal with minimal impact on the game, but he also left an offensive impression himself through his ability to generate rebound.
That started both in the air and on ground level. Taylor had 21 disposals, 17 intercepts, 12 marks and eight intercept marks for the night. His reading of the game, combined with his ability to execute, was first-class all evening.
Such a trend continued on Saturday evening, when Port Adelaide's scintillating off-season recruit Aliir Aliir claimed the Showdown Medal for a performance where he collected 21 disposals, 16 intercepts, 11 marks and 10 intercept marks.
Taylor, who missed five matches earlier this season with an ankle injury, now ranks joint-seventh in the League for intercept marks per game and second in the competition for groundball intercepts. He is tied for intercept marks with Aliir, who has undoubtedly been one of this season's most significant trade acquisitions.
Combine Taylor's stats with the fact he's been in the third-most contested defence one-on-ones in the League this year and coach Leon Cameron's claim after the game that he'd otherwise be in Therabody AFL All-Australian contention is clear to see.
"He's been unbelievably awesome," Cameron said.
"If he wasn't injured throughout the middle of the year, he'd probably be in line for his first All-Australian. He reads the ball so well, he wants to take on the big forwards and clearly there's not much bigger than Tom Hawkins.
"Sam's significant last quarter was just first-class. He likes those big moments and he seems to keep having them week-in, week-out. Our boys just grow so much confidence when he's out there."
Taylor and Aliir wouldn't be far off the pace in the running for a spot in this year's 40-man All-Australian squad. But they're not the only young defenders in the competition both in career-best form and profiting from the increased influence of being able to read the game and intercept across half-back.
Over the last decade, stats from Champion Data show that the League's leaders in intercept marks have steadily grown. In 2010, Nick Maxwell led the AFL in this category with 2.6 intercept marks per game. This year, both Liam Jones and Jake Lever are due to average more than four intercept marks per game each.
Should they do so, they will become the first players to break the four-per-game average over the course of a season (counting all players who have played more than 10 games in a single campaign).
The fact Lever is on track to do so is all the more remarkable given he also leads the League in groundball intercepts per game (6.4). Taylor, Jacob Weitering, Tom Doedee and Harris Andrews are the only other players to rank top-10 in both categories.
The fact Jones is on track to achieve the feat as well is also quite noteworthy, given the Carlton defender has been in the joint-most contested defence one-on-ones of any player in the competition this year (5.8 per game). His loss percentage of just 11.8 percent is the best of any player in the top-five in this category.
Go back through the last decade and it's clear to see just how influential the League's leaders in intercept marks are for both their team, and for their own individual success as footballers.
Maxwell in 2010 was a premiership captain, Ben Reid in 2011 was an All-Australian and played in a Grand Final, Ted Richards in 2012 was an All-Australian and a premiership winner, while Brian Lake in 2013 won a premiership and a Norm Smith Medal.
Easton Wood in 2015 was an All-Australian and a best and fairest winner, while Jeremy McGovern – in the three seasons he has led the League for intercept marks – was twice an All-Australian, won a premiership in one and made a Grand Final in another.
Lever made the All-Australian squad and played in a Grand Final in 2017, Phil Davis made a Grand Final in 2019, and Nick Haynes was an All-Australian and won a best and fairest when he achieved the feat last year.
That spells good news for Jones and Lever's All-Australian chances this year – and perhaps for the latter's premiership hopes later in September. As for Taylor and Aliir, watch out for them to be competing for the League's highest honours in the future.
2021 INTERCEPT MARK LEADERS
4.2 Liam Jones (Carlton)
4.2 Jake Lever (Melbourne)
3.9 Harris Andrews (Brisbane)
3.4 Darcy Moore (Collingwood)
3.3 Jeremy McGovern (West Coast)
3.2 Jacob Weitering (Carlton)
3.1 Aliir Aliir (Port Adelaide)
3.1 Sam Taylor (GWS Giants)
3.1 Tom Stewart (Geelong)
3.0 Tom Doedee (Adelaide)
2021 GROUNDBALL INTERCEPT LEADERS
6.4 Jake Lever (Melbourne)
5.8 Sam Taylor (GWS Giants)
5.6 Marcus Adams (Brisbane)
5.4 Sam Frost (Hawthorn)
5.4 Will Day (Hawthorn)
5.4 Jacob Weitering (Carlton)
5.3 Tom Doedee (Adelaide)
5.3 Dylan Grimes (Richmond)
5.3 Dyson Heppell (Essendon)
5.2 Harris Andrews (Brisbane)
5.2 Nic Newman (Carlton)
INTERCEPT MARK LEADERS *
2010: Nick Maxwell (2.6)
2011: Ben Reid (2.8)
2012: Ted Richards (3.4)
2013: Brian Lake (3.6)
2014: Sean Dempster (2.7)
2015: Easton Wood (3.6), Jeremy McGovern (3.6)
2016: Jeremy McGovern (3.6)
2017: Jake Lever (3.9)
2018: Jeremy McGovern (3.7)
2019: Phil Davis (3.9)
2020: Nick Haynes (3.4)
* To have played more than 10 games in a season.