Riewoldt, Pavlich, Brown – pick one

Nick Riewoldt is still playing exceptional football. Matthew Pavlich is still playing well. Jonathan Brown, whose combative style greatly diminished his powers, is still playing a role that no teammate can fill.

They are the contemporary game's most venerated forwards, relics of a less congested game that allowed key forwards to flourish. Brown and Pavlich are 32, Riewoldt 31. Dermott Brereton and Royce Hart were retired, and five years past their prime by that age, while even the greatest centre half-forward, Wayne Carey, struggled beyond his very late 20s.

But football's Three Tenors of the forward 50 metres remain on the stage, in part because their clubs find them so hard to replace. One consolation from the Saints' unexpected loss to Brisbane might be finishing low enough to draft a Riewoldt surrogate. Rhys Stanley hasn't improved that much.

The Tenors have had parallel careers. Riewoldt was a Tassie-born Queenslander whom the draft sent to Victoria, where he put down roots and captained his club. Jonathan Brown was a (very country) Victorian, who was sent to Queensland, as a father-son recruit, because his father Brian had played 51 games for Fitzroy.

Matthew Pavlich was a South Australian, who was drafted to Western Australia. He, too, embraced the club that fate had allocated him and, despite near-annual temptations, followed Paul Kelly's song and never returned to Adelaide. Brown spurned Collingwood bullion twice, in 2005 and 2008. Riewoldt passed on Eddie McGuire's overtures barely six months ago, and could have headed back to Gold Coast when the Suns were established. Brown and Pavlich were contemporaries in the draft of '99, Riewoldt the no.1 pick 12 months later.

Riewoldt might have played alongside Brown – a sliding door comparable to Nathan Buckley remaining in Brisbane with Michael Voss – if not for the abrupt introduction by the AFL of a rule that limited the Lions' recruiting zone to within 20 kilometres of Brisbane's city centre. In reality, this was the Riewoldt rule and Port Adelaide can be thankful that it played Nick in the preliminary final, not the grand final, of 2004.

Neither Riewoldt nor Pavlich has seen a premiership. Riewoldt is Powerball odds to hold the grail, Pavlich's dream remains, despite Freo's setbacks. That pair have captained disciplined teams coached by Ross Lyon that were capable, but collectively less skilful or quick than their grand final rivals.

Brown had a blessed beginning – three flags and a grand final in his first five seasons – but his team has been mostly woeful since and the club has taken as many hits as his burly body. If Brown had played for the Cats, they'd have surely shoved him by now. The Lions just don't have a Tom Hawkins in sight.

But the faded Brown can still influence contests and games, as he did in Wellington on Friday night, when he contributed a couple of goals and provided structure and presence. The ball still falls to ground, at the least, when it is kicked to him.

If you rank the Tenors on their 2014 output, Riewoldt is as far ahead of Brown and even Pavlich as he was of Michael Hurley on the lead last weekend. The St Kilda skipper has an unmatched ability to separate from a defender – only Greater Western Sydney's Jeremy Cameron would rival Riewoldt on the separation score, and he's a decade younger. Riewoldt, indeed, is the best performed of all key forwards this season.

But ranking the trio on their careers is a fraught exercise.

This column consulted with eight current officials at AFL clubs – most of them involved in recruiting/list management – plus one former senior coach – to try and get a read on how they were ranked within the industry. The question was framed ''which one would you take if they were starting out from the same draft?''

In this case, there was a clear, though not unanimous, choice. Brown was selected by six of those surveyed. Pavlich was chosen by one recruiter, on the grounds that his unique flexibility – All-Australian as key forward, key defender and midfielder – meant he could fill whatever hole appeared on the team sheet over his career.

One list manager opted for Riewoldt, ''by a fingernail'' ahead of Brown. Universally, the margin between the trio was viewed as slight. The case for Brown was largely about his physical style – that, as a crasher of packs and a big contested mark, he could influence games in ways the others could not. ''Brown had a massive influence,'' said one long-time official with coaching pedigree. ''He made teammates stand taller.''

Chris Connolly, who coached Pavlich at Fremantle ''and loves Nick Riewoldt'', said ''when the whips are cracking, how do you go past Jonathan Brown?''

The case for Brown also took account of his capacity to intimidate. Fremantle's David Mundy, when given the unpleasant job of standing in Brown's path as a young player, was warned repeatedly that he would ''be smashed''. Big Browny shared more than an interest in greyhounds with Tony Lockett. ''The safest place to play Jonathan Brown was to play on him,'' Connolly said. It is safer to be on a train than in front of one.

But Brown has paid a fair price for his crashing. He has played 251 games for 586 goals, compared with Pavlich's 297 games and 597 goals and Riewoldt's 265 matches and 588 majors. Pavlich advocates note that the Docker spent a fair portion of his career in the midfield and defence, while Brown played ''high'' upfield for the Lethal Lions of 2001-2004 when Alastair Lynch was the deep goalsquare target. Riewoldt, too, had a century goalkicker and gorilla, Fraser Gehrig, stationed deep behind him in those early years.

Statistics probably favour Pav, intangibles and leadership Brown and the contemporary performances Riewoldt. To a degree, shifting game trends also shape the value of each. The versatile game pushes Pavlich's claims, while it appeared a few years ago that the congested game had reduced Riewoldt's leading space and effectiveness. Commendably, Nick found a way back.

They started before the Age of Congestion, and they're still upright. If placing them on the podium is irresistible, the more pertinent question is how their one and only clubs will fill their boots.

The story Riewoldt, Pavlich, Brown – pick one first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

Smartphone
Tablet - Narrow
Tablet - Wide
Desktop