Australian rules football is a game built for the tall.
While smaller players like Brownlow Medallist Lachie Neale and All Australian Caleb Daniel continue to make their mark on the league, the vast majority of 2020 AFL listed players are well above the average height of an Australian adult male.
The average 2020 AFL listed player measures in at 188.1cm, with 47.6 per cent of players at or above 190cm tall. That increases to 72.2 per cent when players 185cm or taller are included.
The average adult Australian male height is 175.6cm according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Just 9 per cent of players measure under 180cm, with the aforementioned Caleb Daniel the smallest player in the league at 168cm.
Daniel is 2cm smaller than Brent Daniels and Kysiah Pickett, the next smallest players in the competition.
7 per cent of players measure at or above 200cm, with Collingwood’s Mason Cox and St Kilda’s Sam Alabakis sharing the title for the tallest players in the league at 211cm.
Both Cox and Alabakis are products of the AFL’s Category B rookie program, which aims to attract talented athletes from non-traditional recruiting backgrounds.
AFL clubs can directly approach and sign international recruits as well as individuals who have not registered in an Australian Football competition for three years, whereas all other individuals have to go through the AFL Draft.
Initially used to coax talented Irish Gaelic footballers across to Australia, in recent years clubs have turned their attention to converting talented ex-basketballers, usually from the American college system, into professional footballers.
The lack of talented and agile tall footballers coming through the AFL development system has forced recruiters to look elsewhere, encouraged by the success of previous late basketball converts like Scott Pendlebury and Todd Goldstein.
AFL recruiters are also attracted by the fact these individuals, who may have played underage football, have already been in an elite sporting environment and are hopeful their skills can transition across sports.
While the likes of Alabakis, Collingwood’s Jack Madgen and Brisbane’s Tom Fullarton are college basketballers that returned home to Australia, the AFL’s much publicised next frontier is developing Americans into competent footballers.
There’s been limited success so far, with Cox the only American to cement a spot in the starting line-up of an AFL side. Originally from Oklahoma State University, Cox participated in the 2014 US AFL Draft Combine, where he impressed and signed a contract to play for Collingwood.
After developing his game in the second-tier Victorian Football League in 2015, Cox made his debut the following year and worked his way up to become a crucial member of Collingwood’s team, ultimately leading the club to victory in the 2018 Preliminary Final against Richmond.The only other American to feature this century is Jason Holmes, who played five matches for St Kilda over four seasons before he was delisted.
Former Hawthorn recruiting manager Gary Buckenara says the American experiment probably won’t continue due to the football department costs cuts driven by the impact of COVID-19.
“It’s going to be very hard to keep those overseas programs going,” he says
“Having draft combines over there (in America), the cost of it I think is just going to put the international category B rookie thing on the backburner for a while until footy recovers financially.
“Most clubs will make that decision that they’re better off spending that here in Australia, even if it means going more country or more indigenous type communities rather than travelling to Ireland or America.”
On the home front, the success of tall, big-bodied, and versatile midfielders like Patrick Cripps, Scott Pendlebury, and Nat Fyfe has made it more attractive for clubs to use high draft picks on these types of players as opposed to similarly talented but smaller players.
The average height of the number one draft pick over the last 20 years is 188cm; matching the average height of the 2020 AFL listed player.
Just two players under 180cm – Andrew McGrath in 2016 and Matthew Rowell in 2019 – have been taken first in the draft since 2000. Both are 178cm, still considerably taller than the average Australian male.
Buckenara says clubs have always been cautious when looking at smaller players.
“It’s a funny one because there’s always been that hesitance for a long time on guys that were around the 170-175cm mark,” he says.
“There’s been a lot of them come through the years that have just been ignored because of their small size and stature.”
Despite an outstanding draft year in the SANFL, Caleb Daniel slipped to pick 46 in the 2014 AFL Draft due to his height.
The Western Bulldogs’ decision to draft him has undoubtedly been vindicated, with the 24-year old featuring in the club’s 2016 premiership and being named as an All Australian in 2020.
“Genuine footballers, that’s what you look for when you’re a recruiter, blokes that are actually smart footballers,” says Buckenara
“Caleb Daniel is a smart footballer and he proved that through the under 18’s and under 16’s that he could just find the footy regularly playing a midfield role and his size didn’t bother him.
“I guess he was sort of like the pathfinder in modern footy as to he could not only go forward and play there and play in the midfield, but now he’s found the niche off the half-back flank as a small defender because he’s so dangerous rebounding. He hardly ever misses a target by foot.”
Smaller footballers certainly aren’t short on accolades. Former North Melbourne star Brent Harvey at 171cm holds the league’s games record with 432 matches, while Brisbane’s 177cm superstar Lachie Neale won this year’s Brownlow Medal.
But Buckenara says tall players – particularly ruckmen and key position players – are still the most valuable assets for a club because good ones are so difficult to find and develop.
“I’m always of the mind that the talls are very hard to find,” he says
“You can find enough midfielders in the way our game is played, there’s plenty of them – the rebounding half-backs, the half-forwards – but it’s really hard to find good key position players.”
AFL clubs often hold onto ruckmen and key position players longer than midfielders even if they’ve played few games because they take longer to develop.
Very rarely do tall players come from underage competitions into an AFL environment and immediately find themselves in the senior line-up because of the difference in body type.
“The bigger guys tend to take time because they need to put body on first. They just can’t compete with the bigger bodied players, so I think clubs are mindful to give them enough time to be able to put some muscle on,” Buckenara says.
“As a midfielder you don’t need to have that body strength as much as a ruckman or key position player who needs to hold their ground and not get pushed off like a ragdoll.
“Playing them in the VFL (second-tier) competition is a good grounding because you’re playing them against the big body guys, and they get a feel for how strong they’re going to need to be and how hard to work in the gym.
“If you look at a young guy called Tim O’Brien at Hawthorn, he’s been there for nearly seven years now and is only starting to find his feet.”
With stoppage and centre clearances a key statistic of the game that generally determines if a side wins or loses, having a good ruckman to give the midfielders first use of the football is important.
Traditionally the tallest player on the team, most teams only play with one ruckman while an additional utility tall provides assistance when the primary ruckman needs a rest. As a result, clubs are more willing to hold onto tall players in the hope they become elite.
“You’ve got to have that elite type ruckman like your Brodie Grundy,” Buckenara says.
“Ruckmen play a very important role especially if they’re mobile and agile and can get around the ground, jump and take a mark – they become really valuable.”
Tall players remain in demand even if they’re not elite.
Clubs that don’t have an established ruckman or are perhaps rebuilding and waiting for a younger tall to develop often turn to ruckmen on other club lists, who have developed but been starved of opportunity, or mature state league players as a short-term fix.
Players like Brayden Preuss, Daniel Currie, and Dawson Simpson have spent years in the AFL system across multiple clubs, but have never locked down a long-term role as a number one ruckman, making a career out of being a competent fill-in.
The AFL as a competition will continue to get taller. While the average height of players remains the same as it was in 2012, there’s no doubt in which direction the game is heading.
North Melbourne champion Wayne Carey is considered one of the best key forwards of all time. Retiring in 2004, his playing height was 192cm. Today Patrick Cripps, one of the competition’s elite midfielders, stands at 195cm.
Collingwood All Australian key defender Darcy Moore is 203cm tall. The club’s last premiership ruckman Darren Jolly was 200cm.
While the likes of Lachie Neale and Caleb Daniel – naturally talented footballers – will continue to prosper, for clubs who want success; the only way is up.