Sometimes it just takes a flick of the eyes to signal that it is on.
A quick lead to the wing, or a one-two handball. A lead to a pocket, away from the sight of a distracted defender.
The unspoken bond between two teammates on the same page can deliver breathtaking results. Like a handball over the top between the Krakouer brothers, or a John Platten kick to a Jason Dunstall lead.
It’s well known that a great team will always beat a team of great players, but great teams are often built on strong connections. Those connections can be what move a side from also-rans to running at the top of the ladder.
This year is no different, with particular partnerships tearing up grounds across the country. These are some of the most successful pairings this year from all across the ground.
Building steam with a grain of salt
Good defences don’t just defend, they also know how to move the ball well together. For every defensive drill in training designed to kill the contest is another which transitions defence into attack.
It makes sense, as a result, that most of the most common combinations between kicker and target on the footy field are amongst defenders. While these kicks seem innocuous, they often set the foundations for a counterattack, or at least resetting the defence for the next opposition foray forward.
And a turnover in the defensive half is one of the most crippling acts on the field.
Shannon Hurn and Alex Witherden are both mainstays of an under-siege Eagles defence in 2022. Hurn’s long right boot has been a pivotal weapon for the Eagles for more than a decade. Witherden is effectively serving an apprenticeship alongside him, the likely heir to Hurn’s defensive distribution role.
This year they are the most frequent kicking pair in the AFL. Hurn has gone to Witherden 16 times and Witherden back the other way ten. Many of these connections have come either directly from kick-ins or shortly after.
But these forays haven’t been fruitful. Rebound from defence is an elusive art, and these two skilled rebounders have generated virtually no effective attacking chains from their combination this year.
The role and positions found by Witherden and Hurn is a clear illustration of West Coast’s somewhat conservative ball movement. Many of their kicks to each other are finding uncontested comrades in deep positions as they search for avenues out of bad positions.
Forced very deep just to hold the line, the Eagles are the worst team in the league for scores from intercepts and scores from the defensive third.
In contrast, some of the other kick-sharing pairs have fared better generating attack from their own efforts, especially the combination of Will Hoskin-Elliott and Steele Sidebottom at Collingwood.
The relationship between Hoskin-Elliott and Sidebottom shows signs of a rejuvenated Collingwood, more aggressive with ball in hand after boasting one of the league’s most defensive (and effective) set-ups.
Blues clues: How the link between Walsh and Cripps pays off
If you listen to any coach speak, the “contest” is bound to come up. The fight for the ball is chaotic and dramatic, moments of controlled violence designed to secure the pill.
In training sessions, tight hands work is critical. Patterns of passing and movement are drilled into players, becoming second nature for when the stakes get higher. It’s no surprise, as a result, that midfielders dominate the players that connect via handballs this year.
But it’s not just a small group that each midfielder looks for. Here’s a look at one of the prolific players at using the ball by hand this year, Sam Walsh.
The Carlton midfielder has handballed it 110 times this year, with 99 of those finding 28 different teammates.
One relationship stands out in particular — that with Patrick Cripps.
Instead of dealing it out, Walsh thrives when he is receiving it from Cripps. The pairing is the second most prolific partnership in the league this year in terms of volume, with 24 handballs flying from Cripps into the hands of Walsh.
More importantly for Carlton, the Blues have scored 40 points from chains involving Cripps handballing it to Walsh — by far the best outcome in the league.
The combination pairs Cripps’s sublime ability to find the ball in a telephone booth and create space for teammates with Walsh’s skillful ball use.
When going the other way — with Walsh moving the rock by hand to Cripps — the Blues have failed to score this year.
The combination of players via hands is almost entirely a product of the midfield setting. It’s the escape handball from a stoppage, or a chain through the middle to propel the ball forward. Most of the list above is led by hard at it types, releasing it to players slightly more comfortable on the outside.
Target shooting: The art of forward 50 entries
Finding targets inside 50 is one of the toughest and most important parts of football.
As St Kilda coach Brett Ratten told ABC Sport last week, the connection sits with both the kicker and the target in getting open. If an upfield player kicks it to a bad spot, or a forward tails off to a pocket, a certain goal can turn into a hard shot.
Broadly speaking, there are two types of kicks inside 50: to a player and to no-one in particular.
The latter is the more common sight — like a long bomb to the “hotspot” at the top of the square.
These kicks hope for a pack grab in the air or a crumber below, but usually end in neither. The pack-crashing mark is a sight to behold, but one that is altogether rare.
A little more than half of all inside 50s don’t go to a single target. These types of inside 50 entries only account for about 25 per cent of points — relatively low percentage plays.
The better way to goal is the targeted entry, to a teammate either open, one-out or on the lead.
This is the bread and butter of a good forward line. It’s also one of the truer tests of symbiosis between teammates, the ability to know where a teammate is before anyone on the other team can work it out.
Geelong have honed this to a fine art with their targeting of Tom Hawkins, recipient of the most targeted entries of any player this year. Geelong have a wide spread of players who deliver the ball to their spearhead, with varying amounts of success.
But other individual pairings have stood out this year, including one lower key pairing from the reigning premiers.
Over the past decades defences have improved in denying these opportunities. However, Melbourne’s dynamic forward line has excelled by finding precisely these types of opportunities. This is typified by the combination of Charlie Spargo and Bayley Fritsch.
Despite both playing forward half roles, Spargo generally plays a kick higher up the ground, applying pressure. When he has the ball in his hand, he can quickly sum up the situation before delivering the ball with lower, spearing kicks
Fritsch, on the other hand, excels at finding space on the field when there should be none. As a tall small forward, he tends to lead away from the traditional posts for a key position forward. Sometimes it looks like he is forgotten about on the ground, but in reality this is a product of hard work.
Despite working largely at the edges, the pairing has been very successful this year — a problem for the rest of the league.