From The Notebook: Half forwards, contests, and different approaches

There’s a reason half-forward is one of the most difficult positions to play.

Depending on the game, team, and opponent, the role can fluctuate wildly. Sometimes they’re asked to play a defensive role on a half-back. Other times they’ll need to come up to contests and play as a pseudo-onballer. And then there’s the small matter of winning possession and trying to kick goals yourself.

In two games this weekend – Brisbane v Western Bulldogs and Carlton v St Kilda – there was a fascinating tactical battle which illustrated all the moving parts which come with playing as a half forward.

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Brisbane v Western Bulldogs

“I had (Robbie) McComb come up from half forward and play on me at stoppage a little bit to try and free up a (Jack) Macrae. They’re pretty clever like that, and they like to have numbers around the ball. It took me a little bit to get going but I thought I was able to impact in the end.”

Those are the words of Lachie Neale, speaking after Brisbane’s 41-point win over the Bulldogs. McComb wasn’t a midfielder on the night – zero centre bounce attendances confirmed it – but around the ground stoppages often looked like this:

The Bulldogs’ aim was to neutralise Brisbane’s best midfielder, in turn giving the likes of Macrae, Tom Liberatore and co more room to operate with less competition to win first possession.

On the surface it worked. The Bulldogs won clearances 44-31, parlaying it into a 57-50 inside 50 edge. However – and you knew that word was coming – the move of bringing McComb on to Neale changed the game flow.

Brisbane had two options to counter it, and spent the middle two quarters alternating between them (the Bulldogs’ move was seemingly dropped at three quarter time based on what was viewable on broadcast).

1: If the Bulldogs are bringing an extra player to stoppages, by definition Brisbane have an extra player somewhere. By keeping that person a kick behind the ball – and having a high level of pressure around the ball – it means the Bulldogs have to get super clean possession to trouble Brisbane. If the pressure is good, it can force turnovers like this:

If the clip won’t play for you, click here to view

Handily for Brisbane, their pressure was much improved from the week prior against Melbourne. It meant when the Bulldogs did win first possession at around the ground stoppages, they were often rushed. Then if they did manage to clear, it wasn’t into dangerous areas, allowing Brisbane’s defence to remain set.

2: Bring their extra number up to stoppages so numbers are equal. This actually has the effect of freeing Neale up, because he knows McComb’s role is purely defensive. The Lion doesn’t have to worry about getting hurt the other way.

There was one perfect demonstration of this in action. Knowing numbers are equal around the ball, Neale’s single-mindedness eventually results in Brisbane swarming forward and earning an inside 50:

If the clip won’t play for you, click here to view

It’s such a fine line between these strategies working or failing, and it feels overly simplistic to say ‘Bulldogs bad, Lions good’ based on the scoreboard. Regardless, it was a fascinating tactical battle.

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For those who have missed any posts or updates over the last week, here are a handful of links to catch up:

Coming on Wednesday: What minutes played by age tells us about 2022 narratives
Sunday 3rd: North’s Round 16 Review
Friday 1st: What To Watch For: Round 16
Monday 27th: From The Notebook: Round 15
Monday 27th: North’s Round 15 Review

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Carlton v St Kilda

Against Fremantle, Carlton found great success in bringing half forwards up to contests and dragging their direct opponents along with them.

It had the effect of disrupting Fremantle’s normally rock solid defensive setup, and off the back of repeated clearance wins – 44-30 overall – the Blues were able to get to work on their forward half game, finishing the afternoon with a 64-40 inside 50 advantage.

With the return of Adam Cerra against St Kilda, it meant one of Carlton’s ‘half forwards’ was really just a midfielder thrust into a slightly unfamiliar role.

Much like the week prior, Carlton wanted to get numbers up to contests wherever possible. But the difference between this game and last week was the presence of St Kilda’s half-backs: namely Brad Hill and Jack Sinclair.

Hill, Sinclair – and St Kilda as a whole – were more than comfortable allowing those Carlton numbers to go right into contests. Their calculation was by staying defensive side of those battles, it allowed the Saints more room to get the ball into the hands of their two key distributors and kick-start rebounds.

To start the match it was Hill allowing a rotation of Blues to go into contests, then hanging off the back to be used when Saints won first possession:

If the clip won’t play for you, click here to view

Then it was Sinclair tight roping the excruciatingly thin line between allowing his matchup to present, and not breaking the team defence by giving up easy possession:

If the clip won’t play for you, click here to view

Sinclair and Hill had a whopping 22 disposals between them to quarter time, 15 of them kicks and cut Carlton apart at every possible opportunity.

The key to make Sinclair so tricky for opponents is how he fulfills all his defensive roles well. While Hill is more susceptible to either a defensive forward or isolation, Sinclair can play as a ‘normal’ small defender before hurting teams with ball in hand.

It meant Carlton had minimal answers to Sinclair, who continued on his merry way to 37 disposals and 11 marks.

A slight reshuffle of the matchups as the match went on – Matthew Cottrell spending more time forward on Hill, or if not him one of the other smalls such as Josh Honey or Corey Durdin – slightly nullified Hill’s influence, but he still consistently found the ball from start to finish.

It was a constant push and pull between the two teams wanting to play in their preferred method while being wary of the other’s strengths.

Funnily enough though, it’s one of those cases where if they played again this week, I’d be surprised if there were any significant changes from either side in this area.

St Kilda would have been happy with Sinclair and Hill’s games, and Carlton probably assume – quite understandably – they were the better team for large portions and should have taken control if not for missed chances.

A game is full of these fun little sub plots, and understanding them makes things so much more fun to watch.

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