The irreplaceables: Who your AFL team simply can’t afford to lose in 2023
From proven stars to those less heralded, and even to a pair of fresh draftees, we take a look at who your team cannot afford to be without in season 2023.
The dashing Rory Laird may be a dynamic midfielder – the Crows’ 2022 best and fairest was also selected in the initial 44-man All-Australian squad – but it’s still hard to go past Walker as the man the Crows can least afford to lose. “The Big Texan” will be 33 in April but remains the key pillar up forward. He booted a team-high 47 goals in 18 games, including bags of five against Collingwood and Richmond. His on-field presence and leadership, despite having served a suspension for racial abuse, remain crucial in the club’s rebuild under coach Matthew Nicks.
The Lions have star talent across all lines – including Brownlow medallist Lachie Neale, Hugh McCluggage, Daniel Rich, Harris Andrews, Joe Daniher and now Josh Dunkley – but close onlookers insist Charlie Cameron is irreplaceable should he succumb to injury. The must-watch small forward finished with a team-leading 54 goals, his pace and creativity on show with three goals in each of the winning finals against Richmond and Melbourne. He was goalless twice last season, each time against the Demons, with the Lions losing both games. Cameron is also a major selling point for a club jostling for attention in rugby league heartland.
Sam Walsh, Patrick Cripps and Harry McKay are elite talent, but a case can be made that Jacob Weitering (second from left) is the man the Blues can least afford to lose for a lengthy period in 2023.Credit:Getty Images
Many Blues supporters will argue Brownlow medallist Patrick Cripps, fellow gun midfielder Sam Walsh, and athletic forward Charlie Curnow are irreplaceable (the Blues were without the latter in that fateful round-23 clash against Collingwood), but key defensive pillar Weitering is pivotal to this side. He was the league’s best defender before he was hurt against Colingwood in round 11, the Blues going 2-2 without him between rounds 13 and 16. A deeper dive shows the Blues dropped off the moment he was hurt, given they won only four more matches. Weitering was less than 100 per cent upon his return, and was unable to anchor the defence as well as he had. He does not need many possessions to have a major impact.
Jordan De Goey
The Magpies had every chance to rid themselves of De Goey this year amid his highly publicised off-field issues, but the strong football the midfielder-forward played, particularly through the finals when he was best afield against Geelong and Fremantle, highlighted why his burst football is irreplaceable. De Goey can turn a match instantly, with his power and poise a rare combination. A strong case could also be mounted for rebounding defender Darcy Moore and dual best and fairest Jack Crisp, while star youngster Nick Daicos is quickly vaulting into the elite category, but De Goey is the man who could drag the Magpies to a premiership.
Jordan De Goey had an eventful 2022, but he is a legitimate match-winner few teams have.Credit:AFL Photos
This a tricky one, considering how poor the Bombers were last year. Midfielder accumulator Zach Merrett and the slick Darcy Parish are headline acts, but do they hurt opponents enough? Defenders Jordan Ridley and Mason Redman are key figures, while ruckman Sam Draper will be a star. But goals are precious, and Peter Wright, having claimed his maiden best and fairest on the back of a team-high 53 goals, is irreplaceable – for now. Jake Stringer had a poor 2022 (25 goals), while Wright became the consistent figure many had tipped in his time with the Suns.
The Dockers are an intriguing proposition heading into 2023 after a busy trade period, but their best player is clearly Andrew Brayshaw. The hard-running midfielder is the man they can least afford to lose. Former Demon Luke Jackson may slot into this category over the next year or so, but Brayshaw, having averaged almost 30 possessions per game in 2022, is the heartbeat of this side. The Dockers have a strong midfield, aided by the acquisition of Jaeger O’Meara, which should help Brayshaw flourish even more in 2023.
Where do we start here? The Swiss army knife that is Mark Blicavs could mount a case as the man the Cats could least afford to lose. Joint best and fairest Cam Guthrie is super consistent, and Patrick Dangerfield was brilliant in the finals, while veterans Tom Hawkins and Isaac Smith, and freshly recontracted young defensive star Sam De Koning were among others under consideration, but Cameron is central to the Cats’ back-to-back plans. With Hawkins likely to miss the opening games, Cameron’s ability to create havoc up forward (and in bursts through the midfield) will be pivotal. A joint best and fairest with Guthrie in a premiership year reinforced how highly valued the former Giant is.
Jeremy Cameron was a key figure in the Cats premiership – and is a man his team cannot afford to have sidelined in 2023.Credit:Getty Images
Gold Coast Suns
The Suns finally appear to be a team in serious finals calculations, and the smooth-moving Miller has been central to this. He does not get the attention in Melbourne that he deserves, but that will change should the Suns finally deliver a breakthrough finals run. Miller’s run and carry from half-back and through the midfield are pivotal, and are why he finished third in the Brownlow Medal count and was named on a wing as an All-Australian. Midfielder Noah Anderson, second in the best and fairest behind Miller, is a man on the rise, while defender Sam Collins is another the Suns will not want to get hurt.
Greater Western Sydney
The Giants are a team in rebuild, or at least in a refresh, under new coach Adam Kingsley, but Greene remains the key. He was still the leading goal-kicker last season (37 goals in 15 games) and has all the tricks. Has there been a medium-sized forward who is a better mark? Josh Kelly remains a prime midfield mover, while Sam Taylor is an All-Australian centre half-back, but it’s Greene who is a box-office attraction for a team still struggling in a competitive Sydney market.
There are no ifs, buts or maybes about this – the Hawks are in a major rebuild. And there will be short-term pain. James Sicily is a central figure in defence, and a potential new captain. He led well when deputising for Ben McEvoy last season, and claimed the Peter Crimmins Medal. Jai Newcombe is a Sam Mitchell favourite, but it’s key forward Lewis the Hawks cannot afford to lose. He needs to leave an imprint up forward, particularly now that Jack Gunston has gone to Brisbane. Lewis booted 37 goals last season, three behind the leading Luke Breust, and finished sixth in the club’s best and fairest.
This is another interesting debate. Many would say Max Gawn is the man the Demons cannot afford to lose – and with good reason. His ability to dictate terms in the ruck and around the ground is a key reason why the Demons remain in premiership contention, but the addition of ex-Pie Brodie Grundy has eased the burden on Gawn. However, Oliver, a four-time best and fairest, cannot be replaced in the midfield. He is one part workhorse, one part champion stallion, finding and extracting the ball in the stoppage heat. Now a three-time All Australian, Oliver finished equal fourth in the Brownlow Medal count. Christian Petracca and Steven May deserve honourable mentions.
Roos on the rise: North Melbourne draftees George Wardlaw and Harry Sheezel with coach Alastair Clarkson.Credit:Getty Images
Harry Sheezel and George Wardlaw
It’s been a brutal few years for the Kangaroos but, hopefully, it’s positive vibes only from here. It could be argued Alastair Clarkson is the figure they could least afford to lose, such is the “halo” effect the four-time Hawks’ premiership coach brings. Syd Barker medallist Jy Simpkin, Luke Davies-Uniacke, Nick Larkey and even Cam Zurhaar have claims but, having witnessed the fallout of No.1 pick Jason Horne-Francis’ departure after only one year, the Kangaroos cannot afford a repeat with their back-to-back picks (No.3 and No.4 overall) in this year’s draft, Vic Metro guns Harry Sheezel and George Wardlaw. It may be unfair to saddle the pair with any pressure, but it’s the bigger picture view we are talking here. They represent the club’s future, and an encouraging 2023 is needed. They cannot afford to get this wrong.
Ollie Wines, the 2021 Brownlow medallist, has become the heart and soul of this side, while Zak Butters is a rising star, but Rozee, the reigning John Cahill medallist, is taking on, to borrow US jargon, the franchise tag. Named on the bench in the All-Australian side, Rozee is a man coach Ken Hinkley cannot afford to lose if he is to win a contract extension.
The strong marking forward is the key marking target inside attacking 50 – and holds the Tigers’ premiership ambitions in his hands. He had a fine 2022, booting 63 goals in 19 games, including back-to-back bags of six against Collingwood and Hawthorn, and claimed the Jack Dyer Medal. Jack Riewoldt still has an important role to play inside 50, but this is Lynch’s team. A case could be argued for the dynamic Shai Bolton, robust midfielder Dion Prestia and, yes, Dustin Martin, but the Tigers got through without Dusty for long periods last season.
Skipper Jack Steele has become an A-grade midfielder, and his absence would have a major impact, on and off the field. Jack Sinclair, named in the initial 44-man All-Australian squad, also has claims. But it’s King the Saints have lost after a major shoulder injury. Just how much this is felt will soon be known, given new coach Ross Lyon and his team do not expect King back for some time. He booted a team-high 52 goals last season, despite a mild case of the yips, and is the figurehead for what Lyon hopes to be a finals push.
This is another tough ask, and so it should be, as the Swans were grand finalists last season. Forward Isaac Heeney, midfielders Chad Warner and Luke Parker, and defender Dane Rampe have claims. And Lance Franklin, with 52 goals last season, still has a key role to play. But close onlookers say Callum Mills, the Bob Skilton medallist, is a midfield force the Swans cannot afford to lose. Tough, diligent and unrelenting – he epitomises what the Bloods code is all about.
West Coast Eagles
The Eagles were a mess last season. They were heavily impacted by the pandemic and injuries, while their sluggish mark-kick game plan was exposed. Naitanui, a three-time All-Australian and 2020-21 John Worsfold medallist, managed only eight games because of a medial ligament injury. He is the heartbeat of this side, even though he typically has a low possession count. If they are to challenge for the finals, a fit Nic Nat is a must.
This may be a contentious call, given the Bulldogs are led by Marcus Bontempelli, arguably the competition’s best player. They cannot win a flag without him, but they do boast a strong overall midfield, despite the loss of Josh Dunkley. However, considering their recent need for a tall key defender in what has been an undersized back half, Jones – the former Blue who sat out of the AFL last season because of the AFL’s vaccination regulations – is the man the Dogs cannot afford to be without. An honourable mention goes to Aaron Naughton.
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