Will Schofield: The four best backlines in the competition

Forwards sell memberships and mids sign sponsorships, but backs win premierships. WILL SCHOFIELD analyses the teams he thinks have the best chance at a flag based on their backline.

Jake Lever and the Demons defence are proven premiership performers. Picture: Michael Klein
Jake Lever and the Demons defence are proven premiership performers. Picture: Michael Klein

With just two games separating the top of the AFL ladder and seventh, what is going to separate the contenders from the pretenders?

Well, forwards sell memberships and mids sign sponsorships.

But backs win premierships.

Yes that’s right, the men’s department. The backline is no place for the faint-hearted. You live and die by the sword each week, with every poor decision likely resulting in a goal to the opposition. Life as an AFL backman is a stressful one.

The Dockers defence has lifted it into Premiership contention, Alex Pearce and Luke Ryan two of the keys. Picture: Paul Kane/Getty Images
The Dockers defence has lifted it into Premiership contention, Alex Pearce and Luke Ryan two of the keys. Picture: Paul Kane/Getty Images

The backline holds the keys to many important aspects of a team’s success. Obviously, they dictate whether goals are scored or not. Winning one-on-one battles, scrapping to put every last bit of pressure on the opposition and saving the day when the midfield can’t get it done. They are the last line of defence and without a good one, your team can’t seriously challenge for a premiership.

They also dictate a team’s ball movement. Ideally, teams get midfield dominance, win centre bounce clearances and play the game in their half of the ground. But that isn’t always the case. When things don’t go to plan up the ground, the backline is waiting. A good defence not only stops opposition advances but they counter-attack off them after creating turnovers. They can move the ball fast or slow, how they see the game unfolding in front of them is incredibly important as quite often, the ball starts with them.

This is where the season will be won and lost. The backline.

With only eight home-and-away games remaining in the AFL season, let’s take a look at the top four backlines in the league and why these teams are the only true contenders for the 2022 AFL premiership.

Melbourne

Harrison Petty’s lock down roles enable Steven May and Melbourne to set-up its league-leading defence. Picture: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images
Harrison Petty’s lock down roles enable Steven May and Melbourne to set-up its league-leading defence. Picture: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

With Steven May, this is the best backline in the competition. Without him, they fall back to the rest of the pack. It speaks not only to the quality of May, but also to the importance of his role in their structure. Often the deepest defender, May controls the way the Demons setup defensively as a back six. With him at the back of the play, he can provide depth, not allowing out-the-back goals. He can also position himself or others as the loose defender if any opposition forwards get sucked up into the play.

Angus Brayshaw, Michael Hibberd and Christian Salem are their runners and creators. They can all defend when they need to, but their ball-winning ability and ball-use is just as important.

Jake Lever is May’s partner in crime, together they are formidable. Like any good partnership though, when you lose one the other suddenly doesn’t look as strong.

Despite the caliber of names in this backline, there is one man who plays perhaps the most important role. Harrison Petty. Unassuming and underrated, Petty’s role is the enabler. He enables all others in that backline to be aggressive and assertive while he just goes about his business every week. Take a player like this out of the team and suddenly May or Lever needs to play more defensively, which then ripples down into their runners.

Melbourne are still the hunted and the question is, can this backline defend the title?

Fremantle

Brennan Cox and Griffin Logue team up to nullify Charlie Curnow. Picture: Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images
Brennan Cox and Griffin Logue team up to nullify Charlie Curnow. Picture: Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images

The term Flagmantle has been bandied around in a jovial manner by some, but this team is no joke. Sitting fourth on the ladder, their game style is built on team defence and the gatekeepers of this are their back six.

Like the rest of their team, this backline doesn’t have any standout stars, just a lot of players paying their role. Alex Pearce and Griffin Logue (when not a forward) are their shutdown men, given roles on the best forwards every week. Brennan Cox and Luke Ryan are their interceptors, charged with not only defending their own player but reading the ball early to intercept and begin their ball movement. Youngster Heath Chapman also fits this mould, but is currently out injured. Jordan Clarke, Hayden Young and others have played the role of ball users. Get the ball in their hands at all costs type players, they take the game on and take risks. Both important aspects to a great backline.

The Dockers have let through the least points against on the ladder for most of the season, only submitting to Melbourne this week.

Don’t let last week’s loss to Carlton fool you, that was the midfield’s fault. Not only can this young team from the west challenge this season, they can win it all.

Geelong

We shouldn’t be surprised the Cats are once again challenging towards the back-end of the season. They do this every year. And as their midfield and forward lines age, this team is held together by one of the most impressive backlines in the competition.

Almost every one of their backs is a hybrid type player. Can play tall or small, can use the ball well, can intercept, can defend – they have it all.

Tom Stewart is the Steven May of this team, the dynamic and structure completely changes without him. So it may be a rough four weeks without the three-time All Australian after being suspended for his high hit on Dion Prestia.

Mark Blicavs punches away from Connor West. Picture: Daniel Carson/AFL Photos via Getty Images
Mark Blicavs punches away from Connor West. Picture: Daniel Carson/AFL Photos via Getty Images

Mark Blicavs, Jake Kolodjashnij and Jack Henry are all incredible players given their versatility. Tall or small, these players rarely get beaten in contests, while also managing to help out their teammates in the air. This team looks better when Blicavs doesn’t have to play in the ruck, that’s what ruckmen are for.

The new kid on the block Sam De Koning is the real deal. This youngster plays on the best forward most weeks, not only halving contests but quite often winning them. Geelong have a budding superstar on their hands, watch this kid grow into a great of the competition.

Some say Geelong are getting old, I say with this backline, age isn’t a barrier to the premiership cup in 2022.

Sydney

Tom McCartin and brother Paddy are leading the Swans defence. Picture: Brendon Thorne/AFL Photos/via Getty Images
Tom McCartin and brother Paddy are leading the Swans defence. Picture: Brendon Thorne/AFL Photos/via Getty Images

Don’t sleep on the Sydney Swans. For as long as I can remember the Swans have had a strong backline. They play a certain way, a style that hasn’t changed in over two decades. Ruthless one-on-one, speak to any forward in the competition and Sydney’s backline is one of the hardest to play against. They keep their opposition in front of them with strength and determination, if you’re going to beat this team you’ll have to go through some contests.

The McCartin brothers Paddy and Tom are back together like kids playing in the backyard. Connection between backmen is perhaps the most important part of a great backline, it overrides skill, talent and just about anything else. The connection between these two takes the ‘Bloods’ culture to a new level.

Dane Rampe takes the most dangerous small forward every week, has been doing this forever, and will never let his teammates down. Across the competition, Rampe sits in the top five players I’d love to run out with. Jake Lloyd, Oliver Florent and others rotate throughout the ball using posts, Lloyd being the prime ball-user plays an incredibly important role to this team.

But the star this season has been the man they call the Lizard. Nick Blakey looks unconventional at times but is a star. Run and carry, ball-use and aggressive in the contest, this son of a gun can win a game off his own boot. Which is saying something for a backman, let alone a young one.

They don’t sit in the top four on the ladder and have been inconsistent as a side this year, but they will challenge this season, their best is as good as anyone in the league.

Honourable mentions

Questions remain on Marcus Adams and the Lions defence come finals time. Picture: Albert Perez/AFL Photos/Getty Images
Questions remain on Marcus Adams and the Lions defence come finals time. Picture: Albert Perez/AFL Photos/Getty Images

Brisbane: They have all the pieces in defence, but can they put it together when the whips are cracking in September? They haven’t been able to in years gone by, but this could be the year.

Richmond: This is the team you don’t want to come up against in the finals. An incredibly even team across the board, their back six anchors this premiership-winning side. Unlike Brisbane, these guys know what to do come finals time, keep them in the back of your mind.

Will Schofield
Will SchofieldContributor

Will Schofield spent 14 years as an Australian rules footballer who played as a key defender for the West Coast Eagles in the AFL - battled his way to 200 games, a premiership in 2018 and Life Member of the Eagles. Can be heard on Fox Footy, Perth radio 6PR and his podcast Backchat. A fantasy footy aficionado, he's turning his skills to SuperCoach for the first time this season.