THE All-Australian team was announced last night. Hawk Josh Gibson wasn’t in it. This won’t have been a surprise to him, for he didn’t even make the short list.
As an oversight, it was like leaving Kramer out of a Seinfeld episode – you can get away with it but (for this year at least) the whole thing works better when he is there. As if to prove the selectors’ folly, Gibson went out a week ago and had the second most spoils in a final (16) since these statistics began in 1999. The record for most spoils in a final (21), incidentally, is held by … Gibson.
The qualifying final performance, coming as it did days after the shortlist was announced, will have left the selectors looking a little sheepish as he repelled ball after ball from forward thrusts.
Several football insiders and analysts have posited that Gibson might be the best spoiler in the game, if not the best spare defender. This is one of the vogues of the game, playing an extra man in defence to read the play and join any marking contest. Gibson knows when to leave his man and get across to help out his fellow defenders.
Matthew Scarlett, who retired last week, and Dustin Fletcher are regarded among the best defenders of the past decade, but both stopped playing on the best forward years ago. Their value was in taking a lesser player and joining other contests and being liberated to create with the ball running out of defence.
Gibson still often takes the best forward, but he can just as often take a lesser player and be available as the spare. Sam Fisher has been playing this role for St Kilda for some years, Nick Maxwell likewise at Collingwood.
“He is as effective as anyone going around at the moment because of the impact he has,” said Ben Hart, the former Adelaide defender turned Collingwood defensive coach, who saw Gibson up close in the first final and will be a keen observer as he takes on his old side this week.
“He reads the play really well and realises his man is not going to get used so he gets back and assists the other defenders,” Hart said. ”If you haven’t kept him engaged with your movement or the way you are moving the ball then you know he is going to get around there and get to the ball.
“One way [to combat him] is to use his man, but it does not always work that way because he will get in dangerous positions to get used. But the thing is to try and separate him as well. If the two key forwards can separate, he hasn’t got enough room to get across and effect a spoil.”
Gibson’s effectiveness is also in creating a rethink in the minds of opposition midfielders about subsequent attacks. When a side finds itself playing squash with the footy into the forward line, as Collingwood did in the first half of the qualifying final, it reconsiders how to go forward, which creates its own pressure on the ball carrier, giving tacklers time to move in.
The fact that Gibson punches the ball 20 to 30 metres makes it hard for sides to apply defensive forward pressure.
“I think what makes him so effective is that Hawthorn’s pressure around the footy is so great that you can’t be as precise going forward as you would like,” Hart said.
Collingwood’s defender Ben Reid also plays the same role at times, such as he did last Saturday night, but his greater effectiveness in a best-on-ground effort was to mark, not spoil.
“For me personally it is more about having the defence mindset first,” Reid said.
“You can’t think to mark it if it is not the right opportunity, it’s all about the timing and knowing when to do it and not. First and foremost it is defence first.”
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