In at the deep end with the full forwards

In at the deep end with the full forwards


The great full forwards of the past and the present are larger than life. They jostle for position in the mind, stretching back in an unbroken link to Gordon Coventry, but there are as many varieties of full forward as there are fish in the sea.


Full forwards are usually at the end of a sequence of play rather than creating it, so the qualities they need can seem rather one-dimensional. If all is going well up the ground they just need the Royal KLM skills—Kicking Leading Marking—but when things are going pear-shaped, then the more subtle skills of the game, and the temperament of the full forward are called into play. Teams have won premierships with and without big-name full forwards. Gary Ablett’s nine goals couldn’t get the Cats over the line in 1989 whereas the Crows won in 1998 with a stop-gap full forward.


Today’s style of play can make it difficult for full forwards, because they can never be sure when the ball that’s being raffled up ahead will be coming toward them, or there will be no space to lead into, or they will be flying for a mark against a pack of defenders. We’ve all heard words like these: ‘The days of the spectacular full forward have gone. The game has speeded up to such an extent that there’s not much chance any more for the big lead and the screaming high marks that characterised the play of Bob Pratt, Ron Todd, Gordon Coventry and so many other greats.’ These words were actually written back in 1967 by Hawthorn’s John Peck in the chapter on full forward play in the classic footy book High mark edited by Jack Pollard (2nd edition, John Murray Publishing, Sydney and Melbourne). Nearly 50 years later, the more things change the more they stay the same.


The full forward who has given me most enjoyment over the years is Tony Lockett, especially during his more mature years at the Sydney Swans. Other than the obvious things, his great assets were his fast hands and his football brain. My abiding memory of Lockett was seeing him gather the ball with his back to the goals to find a facing player right in his way, and using his great palming skills to turn and kick a long goal off a step. It was a gentle palm-off because the palmee was his own team-mate! His St Kilda coach, Ken Sheldon, reckons that Lockett was the best player he ever saw, ‘by a mile.’ Some years ago I visited North Ballarat Oval looking for evidence of a young Plugger, but the only sign was a team photograph where he was a tot of a club mascot. In his playing days Lockett was a Leviathan of the deep, and the person within was irrelevant.


The legends of Coventry and Lockett live on in the naming of the deep ends at Docklands. Another legendary full forward of the past was Essendon’s John Coleman, lean and hungry for goals, so if he were a fish he’d be a slippery Brown Trout, except I don’t think they have Trout down Port Fairy way where he was born.


Some full forwards wear their heart on their sleeves, like Richmond’s Matthew Richardson. He was both endearing and frustrating for Tiger fans, but as he matured he battled like a courageous Blue Fin Tuna for his team, avoiding the overt signs of frustration when things didn’t go right for himself or his team-mates.


Lance Franklin is another who sometimes shows his exasperation when the ball isn’t delivered to him well. And his exasperation is justified, as Sydney’s fortunes may rest on the delivery to Buddy, who is not renowned as a high mark, but is one of the few leading forwards these days. I was a lacrosse player for ten years, and that whole game is based on passing to a leading player, so I absolutely admire that Buddy leads and leads and leads. If he were a fish he would be the magnificent iconic Murray Cod.


Someone who didn’t seem to mind what happened ahead of him when he was playing at full forward was Gary Ablett senior, whose rather introspective temperament was suited to doing his own thing. He was totally self-sufficient like a roaming Marlin, and you would be eaten alive by him down at Kardinia Park if you didn’t get out of his way. If Ablett was a ball of muscle, Peter Hudson kept any pecs he might have had hidden under his long-sleeved Hawthorn jumper, although he was almost impossible to move off the ball. He grew up on the muddy grounds of Hobart which must be good for the soul. Despite his chubby legs he floated with grace around the goals like a Leafy Sea Dragon.


Lunchtimes at Brighton High School in the late 1960s were spent with a Carlton mad girlfriend watching Kenny Whelan having dobs, now known as kick-to-kick. He was built like South Australians’ favourite fish, the Whiting, which means there was nothing of him, and we just took it for granted that he would outmark everyone in those schoolyard packs. But lo and behold, a few years later there he was playing for Sturt in the SANFL, and he was just as unbeatable in the air in that company, kicking 100 goals twice at full forward. Sadly, Ken is no longer with us, but his legend lives on.


Another icon for many South Australians was Tony Modra, who kicked 100 goals for the Adelaide Crows in 1997. A renowned high flyer, he was left out of the 1998 grand final team by that shrewdest of coaches Malcolm Blight, who must have thought that opportunities for high marks in the forward line in grand finals would be few and far between. And as we saw in the Western Bulldogs’ grand final triumph over Sydney Swans, the only high mark was Liam Picken’s, who played like a perky Nemo. Extending the maritime analogy, Mods and another blond full forward charmer, Sydney’s Warwick Capper, would be playful Dolphins.


The Crows current full forward Taylor Walker has given us plenty of thrills and spills this year, and on the television coverage it feels like we are on a roller coaster alongside him. Tex is dapper and sinewy like that nocturnal hunter the Conger Eel, which at two metres and built to match, you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark waterway. Tex unusually combines his full forwardship with the captaincy, which says a lot about him. Another full forwarding captain was Melbourne’s David Neitz, who was moved from centre half back to full forward, won the Coleman Medal in 2002, the first Melbourne player to do so, became Melbourne’s leading goal kicker with 631 goals, broke the club record for most games captained, and became the longest serving Demon in history. These are three amazing feats taken together, but Neita was the epitome of modesty, like the gentle vegetarian Dugong.


Neita is an exception to my belief that full forwards are born not made. Yet without a strong work ethic,  the flashy skills won’t result in consistent hauls of goals. You couldn’t teach the tricks that a player with a touch of genius like Jake Stringer possesses, but he hasn’t yet produced the results on the board that his club and supporters yearn for. I would love to see Jakey—all arms and legs and up on his toes—have a standout year for the Western Bulldogs, and consistently show us all his tricks, like those rare Cuttlefish off Whyalla that shimmer between blond and mauve.


If I was writing this piece after February 2017 I might be talking about the hotshot full forwards in the AFL’s new women’s league. Like most sport lovers I tuned into the ABC’s ‘Australian Story’ program, which showcased the Western Bulldogs player Moana Hope and one of her mentors, Bulldogs vice-president, Susan Alberti. The first woman to kick 100 goals in the VWFL, Mo looks like a fabulous player, strong and bold, too feisty to be a mermaid. I can’t wait to see her and all the other women players in action.


When all is said and done, the job of a full forward is to kick goals. Tony Lockett’s kicking style for set shots was a model. Picture him holding the ball low down, bent over, looking at the ball as he ran in rather than at the goals, and keeping his head down as he followed through. He knew that once you’re lined up at the goals, you don’t have to keep looking at them as you run in—you need to keep watching the ball as you drop it on your foot. In most sports keeping your head down until the action is completed is what gives accuracy and power, whether it is a moving ball game like tennis (think Roger Federer), or a still ball game like golf (think players who get the putting yips and look up anxiously before they’ve completed the stroke). It grieves the croquet coach in me to see so many footballers looking up to see where the ball has gone before they have finished their follow through.


As spectators, we assume that the kicking-for-goal techniques of full forwards at the highest level should be perfected and set in stone. But we can see that it ain’t always so, and good coaches should be able to improve each players’ kicking technique if necessary. My brother told me once that at a training session with the Crows, Blighty had a session on long kicking, and by the end of it, all players were kicking ten metres further than they were before.


A full forward likes to play in a settled team so he can get to know how the players ahead of him play. The essence of the great Hawthorn teams of the 1980s was teamwork, and Jason Dunstall was the epitome of teamwork at full forward. He was hungry for goals but just as happy creating them for others. He had an ideal temperament being resourceful and positive, and I admired his honesty and decency. Strong and direct like a Barramundi, he was also understanding of his team-mates.


Quoting again from High mark, John Peck says ‘I can’t emphasise how much it’s necessary to get to know the players around you. There are some who’ll look for you every time, and try to put the ball down your throat . . . Then there are the fellows who want to run, and are prepared to leave you like a shag on a rock. It’s important to get to know [their] mannerisms too. If you study these ‘runners’, you finally learn to anticipate exactly where they or the ball will go. In getting the ball from them, sometimes you’re relying more on your own judgement than any contribution of theirs. Often you even get to a stage where you know the ball will go off the side of their boot when they’re kicking for goal—and position yourself to take delivery of it.’


Ken Farmer didn’t care how, why, where or when the ball came to him. He just kicked goals, some 1419 at an average of 6.3 per match for the North Adelaide Football Club between 1929 and 1941. He was the first SANFL player to kick a hundred goals and did so in 11 of his 13 seasons. He was in his element at full forward, hunting goals as efficiently and intuitively as a Seal catching fish, and his biggest bag was 23 goals 6 behinds. As a Roosters supporter, and as a librarian at the State Library of South Australia, I am delighted that Ken Farmer’s scrapbooks have been donated to the State Library for all to research and enjoy, with their fascinating mix of newspaper cuttings, photographs, programs and memorabilia. Some of these scrapbooks will be on show in our Treasures Wall in June 2017 as part of an exhibition on South Australian football.


The current Coleman Medallist, West Coast Eagles’ Josh Kennedy, embodies all the attributes you can reasonably hope to have in a full forward. A good kick, lead and mark, he also tackles, spoils and handpasses, and we only became conscious of his stuttering run up to goal through that hilarious television commercial featuring his younger self. In my final fishy analogy, he would be that hard working versatile all rounder the Australian Salmon.


So the life of a full forward at the deep end is as much about hard work and concentration as it is about glamour and excitement. It’s a fun exercise to think who you would like to have at full forward, and what sort of fishy creature they would be, in the team you would want to watch in an underwater heaven.



  1. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Hi Carolyn – you left out Scott Hodges, who had a pretty good Mullet.

  2. The obvious is Paul Salmon, no imagination required and maybe Matthew Lloyd as an eel.

  3. A Brighton High graduate, Carolyn? Clearly a person of class and distinction (Fac Optima Bene etc. etc.). Here’s Whelan kicking his 100th in 1974:

    Of course, following the literal line, we had a full forward at Norwood named Mark Ducker – no fish but at least a water fowl. The flight of his kicks were long and accurate. There was also something catfishy about Mark Ricciuto’s late career period as a full forward.

  4. John Timlin says

    Odd to omit the Bulldogs’ Kelvin Templeton who kicked 15 goals in a match against St. Kilda, won the Coleman Medal with 118 goals, the Brownlow in 1980 and captained Footscray.

    John Timlin

  5. Really interesting concept here. Ken Whelan among the first I saw.

    I’d argue that Capper was more frozen fish finger although not as coherent when interviewed.

    Thanks Carolyn. I really enjoyed this.

  6. Richard Jones says

    Well, Carolyn I have to go with the Port Fairy ‘trout’: John Coleman.
    He’s the best footballer from which ever position you care to choose, full-forward included, I’ve ever seen.
    And that from a Geelong supporter who saw his first VFL game in 1949. So Coleman to my way of thinking is superior to both Douglas Wade and Gazza Ablett snr.
    Both full-forwards as was Coleman, of course.
    I didn’t see footy live from the early 60s to the mid-70s as had gainful employment in PNG. Shortwave radio linked in to ABC Nth. Qld. was our way of keeping in touch from the S-E Papuan coast in the Sixties.

  7. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Rude of me not to have thanked you for this Carolyn.

    Best mark I ever saw was Ken Whelan one handed, leaning backwards over Ian McKay at Unley,

  8. CarolynSpooner says

    Thanks folks for your comments on my first piece, and for the Kenny Whelan follow-ups. My chosen players were selective and some favourites, rather than a comprehensive overview, and I resisted mentioning Brian the Whale Roberts, but love your other suggestions.

  9. Coleman

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