The 2020 HPN All Australian Team

Walking the abandoned streets of Australia, you keep hearing “why doesn’t HPN pick an All Australian Team?” Even if it isn’t true, it is a requirement of all football media members to spill forth about selections for the All Australian team.

As HPN are holders of Official AFL Media Passes this year – used precisely zero times this year thanks to COVID cancelling all games at Manuka Oval – there is an obligation to pick a team or forfeit the things.

It’s been a while since HPN wrote a piece here, so let’s have at it and pluck some low hanging fruit.

The sexy methodology

Like in previous years, it is worth acknowledging that HPN will take a slightly different approach than the official side, before compromising slightly at the end.

The two sides that we will present are based primarily on our Player Approximate Value (PAV) and per-game mPAV player rating systems, with some additional guidance from other statistical measures HPN has developed.

Generally, the aim is to find the 22 most valuable players across the course of the year. But there are some restrictions in play:

  • Forward and defensive value is key in those parts of the ground – but total value is used as a tiebreaker.
  • There’s a ground level for minimum overall rank – top 100 players in the league for the All-Australian consideration
  • Roles (sort of) matter. There has to be a balance of taller KPDs, intercepting defenders and creative types off halfback. Up forward, there’s a blend of talls and smalls.
  • The AA team has a spot reserved for a mid-forward.
  • Set positions don’t really matter, like they don’t matter in real football.
  • There’s only one ruck in the first team, but a ruck/forward has been chosen in the A team for variety.

Unlike last time, we aren’t picking different teams using these methods.

Obligatory stolen idea from Mitch Robinson

Sometimes traditions are too good to give up. This year, Mitch Robinson’s bolt from the blue is:

That’s a pretty solid idea Mitch! It’s also a better way to reward players from less prominent positions in the All Australian Squad.

Unfortunately, we are at a limit of “one Mitch Robinson idea per piece”, which means that the reserved slot for a specialist wing classification falls out.

The justification is that each team uses their wings/outside midfielders differently, and separating out the roles on a scale like this is hard to do effectively. As a hypothetical team, there will be a hypothetical training camp in place to teach structures and roles, much like the International Rules team finding a goalkeeper each time they play Ireland.

They’re talented. They will work it out on the day.

The 2020 HPN All Australian Team

Without further ado, here’s the side, which will then be broken down and explained over the rest of the post.

Defenders

Tall defenders: Steven May (31st total PAV, 2nd defensive PAV); Jacob Weitering (64th total, 4th def).

Most had May as being unlucky to be overlooked in the official All Australian Squad of 40. Subjectively, HPN isn’t sure he belongs in this class, but on the data he does. His spoil, meters gained and intercept marking numbers are strong, and he has been better than average in contested one on ones.

On those more discrete statistics, Weitering was a no-brainer.

Mid/intercepting defenders: Luke Ryan (24th total, 1st def); Nick Haynes (87th total, 12th def).

HPN has written about the brilliance of Haynes this year already on the ABC. Here’s a one minute refresher:

Ryan’s performance has been more understated – often being forced to play tall for an undermanned Freo backline. Ryan has turned field general, and still been able to do it all to keep them in games.

Small/rebounding defender: Adam Saad (42nd total, 25th def); Jake Lloyd (69th total, 11th def).

Both Saad and Lloyd were overlooked in the AA40 squad. Both are a little unlucky that they played for teams that were generally overmatched throughout the year. That gave them plenty of work and they each were shining lights in their sides. It’s hard for good defenders in bad teams to gain recognition.

Midfielders

Ruck: Nic Naitanui (3rd total PAV, 7th midfield PAV)

Naitanui’s value around the ground sees him eclipse a very strong field of rucks, who as a cohort were perhaps as valuable in 2020 as ever previously seen in the modern era. He’s got the best hitout win-rate of any prominent ruck, getting a tap in around 60% of his contests, and he gets a hitout to advantage nearly every fifth ruck contest, which is a benchmark only equalled by Gawn among solo rucks.

As discussed by HPN for ABC recently, Naitanui’s increased gametime has seen the Eagles move away from a long term dual ruck strategy into using Naitanui as their main man, and that’s how he sits in the HPN AA team’s ruck role as well.

Inside midfielders: Jack Steele (4th total PAV, 7th midfielder PAV), Lachie Neale (5th total, 4th mid),

Belconnen’s own Jack Steele has very much had a breakout year, and he ranked 4th overall according to PAV. As well as being extremely highly rated as a ball winning midfielder, he’s also second in the league for tackles and fourth for pressure acts, adding some real hardness to this group.

Lachie Neale collects and disposes of the ball more often than anyone, he sits in the top 10 for pretty much any other midfield-relevant statistic available, he averages a very high 92% of time on ground, has helped bring smaller midfielders back into vogue, and will probably win the Brownlow medal.

Offensive midfielders: Patrick Dangerfield (1st total PAV, 9th midfield PAV Marcus Bontempelli (2nd total, 5th mid), Christian Petracca (9th total, 17th mid)

The starting midfield group features a good mix of pure ball winning along with players who are no slouches at the coal face but their value lies in their broader impact.

The latter group starts with Patrick Dangerfield, the number one ranked player according to PAV this year.

As well as being an upper echelon on-baller, Dangerfield also leads the competition in inside 50s and goal assists, is third in metres gained, and is a nightmare matchup when swung info forward 50. He would be very much freed up in a team like this to find space and use his pace.

Marcus Bontempelli has been a roughly a goal-a-game player playing out of the centre square, where he sits second in the league for centre clearances and 6th for inside 50s. Like Dangerfield, the offensive value he provides puts him above a lot of players with similar direct on-ball value.

Like Steele, Christian Petracca has had a breakout year, and like Dangerfield and Bontempelli, adds a lot of offensive threat to his solid midfield game.

He is now a true midfielder-forward hybrid, combining a strong, tanky inside midfielder build (sitting second for contested possessions) with the ability to burst into space and hit the scoreboard directly or indirectly. He sits second in the league in score involvements and also gets a goal a game himself.

Forwards

Key forwards: Tom Hawkins (14th total PAV, 1st offensive PAV), Jack Darling (41st total, 3rd off)

Hawkins an automatic pick, winning the Coleman and sitting well ahead of any other player in offensive PAV based on goals as well as other key offensive factors. As discussed at the ABC, Hawkins has had a career year as an old-fashioned key forward operating in acres of space.

Welcome to Tom Hawkins Island

His prowess is such that he has even presented as a sort of giant small forward, having more ground ball gets than most other forwards due to how often he gets a chance at a crumb with just his direct defender nearby.

Jack Darling has had a very solid year, in which his ability to impact the play beyond just goalkicking, particularly via contested marking and helping bang it inside 50, has seen him take over from Josh Kennedy as the Eagles’ more valuable big forward.

Mid-sized forward: Jack Gunston (36th total PAV, 2nd offensive PAV)

In a year when success caught up with the ageing Hawks (as HPN dissected for the ABC here), Gunston battled superbly as an often near lone hand in the Hawks forward line.

Gunston took nearly a quarter of the Hawks’ marks inside 50, and his 21.3% share of their total team score was second only to 23% by Tom Hawkins and 22% by Matthew Taberner.

Small forwards: Tom Papley (40th overall PAV, 4th offensive PAV), Dan Butler (55th total, 8th off)

Papley was second behind Tom Hawkins for marks on the lead, and second behind Christian Petracca for forward 50 ground ball gets. That’s how he kicked the 10th most goals this year despite working with limited opportunities as the Swans lost the inside 50 battle nearly every week.

From round 9 onwards he kicked 7 goals and 17 behinds, still getting the scoring opportunities but suffering from a bout of inaccuracy.

Butler kicked the 8th most goals this year while allegedly serving as a kind of defensive small forward. He led the competition in tackles inside 50, his 33 being ten more than Mitch Wallis at 23.

Midfielder-forward: Dustin Martin (10th total PAV, 8th midfield PAV, 32nd forward PAV)

It’s become fashionable to mock the practice of naming midfielders in the forward slots of the AA team to fit more midfielders, but teams with great midfielders are increasingly crafting specialised forward roles for them as well.

HPN took the decision, after in-depth looks for the ABC at the matchup havoc sewn by Dustin Martin and Nat Fyfe in roles like this, that the All-Australian team should specifically have a midfielder taking one of those precious six forward slots.

While arguments could be made for Dangerfield, Bontempelli or Petracca from within this team, given their respective dual value as both prime movers and attacking players, Martin remains the exemplar of the art.

His game is now honed to specifically exploit his 1 v 1 strength in advantageous locations, letting him find and use space to set up attacks or serve as a target inside 50. He’s second in the league for inside 50s, 5th for running bounces and 10th for score involvements, and also like many of the most dangerous midfielder-forward hybrids, he’s kicking roughly a goal a game too.

The bench

Clayton Oliver (8th total PAV, 1st Mid PAV)

Taylor Adams (13th total PAV, 3rd Mid PAV)

Oliver and Adams are both more pure inside ball winning players than any of the midfielders named in the starting 18, and are pretty conventional examples of that archetype.

They lag a bit behind Steele and Neale mostly due to offering less in the way of offence than they do – less forward movement as measured by metres gained and inside 50 penetration. Their presence would allow the more creative midfielders in this side more time and space.

Travis Boak (16th total PAV, 2nd midfield PAV, 62nd offensive PAV

If Oliver and Adams are AA bench level inside mids, Boak is their more outside mid counterpart, sitting clearly behind the likes of Bontempelli, Dangerfield and Petracca in total value but just as good in the areas he specialises in.

A handy enough clearance winning player, he doesn’t hit the scoreboard as frequently as they do, but still provides plenty forward of centre in indirect ways, ranking 8th for inside 50s and score involvements and 12th for goal assists in the league.

Sam Menegola (22nd total PAV)

Often pegged as a wingman, HPN has chosen to leave Menegola on the bench as a sort of utility, not quite highly rated enough to break into the 18 in any one area but rated 22nd overall for PAV and well deserving a place in the side.

His value was pretty evenly spread across all three parts of the ground, a little higher in forward and mid than in defence. He takes marks, gets a lot of uncontested possessions and metres gained, and kicks regular goals.

Australia ” A”

Finally, with all said and done, many positions in a ranked team like this are inevitably close-run things, and there’s always a list of apologies to be made. Other methods of valuation, and many people’s eye tests, will make different choices from among the broad elite group of players in the AFL.

As per Mitch’s idea above, then, here’s the “Australia-A” side of near misses and plausible alternative selections, the players who also rated very highly in PAV terms, but just not quite as high as those selected above. Many of these players will no doubt make the official team.

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