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The AFL’s five most box office players


What does it mean to be box office? To me, it means that you will sit down and watch something for the sole reason that someone is in it.

Who are the footballers that we can apply this to? Who are the footballers who, despite everything that is going on around them, are so good that you just want to watch them? They’re magnetic.

The best example of a box office player in recent memory is Matt Rowell through the first three games of his career. It felt like the entire footy public was watching Gold Coast games through his sheer force of his very specific footy personality.

He has crashed back down to earth and just become a very good inside mid with truly absurd contested ball statistics (more than twice as many contested possessions as uncontested possessions) instead of that game wrecker everyone was just waiting all weekend to watch.

Before we get to the list, I want to start with an honourable mention, Dustin Martin. ‘Dusty’ is my favourite player since Matthew Richardson.

I love Martin and for five years in a row, he would have been the first one picked. But this year he has played as though he has been burdened because, in large part, it seems like he has been burdened with the death of his father, his catastrophic injury last year and his recent illness.

He just has not been the dominant, explosive beast that we have come to know over the last four to five years. Time will tell if he is ageing and his game is slipping somewhat or if he is just having an understandably down year.

So with all of that said, let’s get down to my list.

1. Toby Greene
Nobody in the AFL is more box office than Toby Greene. Is this a bit of recency bias? Maybe it is, given he just kicked seven against the Bulldogs and every time the ball went forward in the second half I literally stood up, as if it would give me a better angle of my TV screen. But seriously, who does it like Greene?

Last Saturday, I literally spent the whole day looking forward to GWS versus the Bulldogs during a bad round of footy. I was especially excited to see Greene because I just love watching him play.

I spent the entire day noticing my idle mind would wonder over to ‘gee I wonder if Toby will get going tonight’. He marks and jumps like a key forward, roves like a forward pocket and reads the play like a footy savant, which he probably is.

Toby Greene

(Photo by Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)

Watching him move when watching him play live is an experience unlike any other. All of his movements when not around the ball are so exaggerated.

He runs and walks with an almost affected strut and his chin is up constantly. He’s always barking orders and every time he gets within the vicinity of an opposing player, he pushes or prods, constantly yapping at them.

Greene is that rare elite footballer who is as much fun to watch when he doesn’t have the ball as when he does. I have compared him in the past to the shark from Jaws and this is true in terms of both menace and the fact that he’s always moving.

They should take a leaf out of Brisbane’s book where they play ‘Let it Go’ for every Joe Daniher goal and just play the Jaws riff for every Greene goal. That would distract from the crowds at least.

But as a neutral, the tipping point for me in making Greene my number one is just my sheer excitement when he gets near it.

At the start of the last quarter of the Brisbane-GWS game earlier this year, GWS were streaming through the middle of the field and Greene was one on one with Jarryd Lyons on the 50 but behind him.

The ball was kicked a little high so it gave Greene a chance to turn a 50-50 to his advantage. He went up for the mark and didn’t take it but landed like a cat and tore after the ball before Lyons knew what hit him.

Lyons lunged after him, but Greene grabbed the pick-up and snapped truly from 45. It was that brief moment of genius that makes you appreciate how truly special Toby Greene is and why I try to watch as much GWS as humanly possible.

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2. Shai Bolton
Not to start negatively but I have a supporter gripe: I think Shai Bolton knows that he is box office and feels the need to prove it every single time he steps on the field. The problem is that it comes off so often.

I truly do not know how you tackle Shai Bolton. Trying to tackle him seems to be akin to trying to grab a fish with your bare hands while snorkelling. It is borderline impossible.

He contorts his body like the elastic man to avoid tackles and has that rare combination of short-area quickness and long speed that make you wonder how effective he could be as a return man in the NFL.

Bolton has received wide adoration this year, particularly as the footy public has started catching up to what Richmond fans have known for two years now. He is electricity personified on the footy field.

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)

My worry with Bolton is that he has become allergic to taking an easy option, or to giving the easy handball. He often succeeds but I just hope that he is able to play within himself and only do the outlandish when it is humanly possible to achieve it.

However, when you are a person who is constantly pushing the line of what actually is humanly possible like Bolton is, then maybe you do not see any limits for yourself.

Realistically, maybe that’s what being box office is? Having no limits set for yourself.

It’s why Keanu Reeves sees the script of John Wick 3 and sees himself killing a bad guy with a horse and sees no issues with it. There are no limits on what he can achieve. Bolton is the real-life equivalent of this.

3. Jeremy Cameron
Jeremy Cameron is kind of a weird player and probably closer to a half forward flanker than a genuine key forward in terms of how he plays. But he is in a key forward’s body. That’s what makes him so box office.

Cameron has X-Men-style physical abilities. He can explode away from defenders assigned to him, usually key backs who simply cannot match him for sheer pace, and his kicking is sublime.

Honestly, the way he moves is a bit like a fighter jet. Precise and fast, but also big beyond comprehension.

What Cameron has added, though, is the ability to attend centre bounces and be something of a factor. He only attends about three centre bounces per game on average, but the threat of him in there means that you have to watch him every time.

Jeremy Cameron of the Cats (R) celebrates a goal with Tom Hawkins

(Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

This experiment reminds me of when Hawthorn were enamoured with putting Lance Franklin into the centre square just to see what he could do.

Like Franklin, Cameron is a great field kick and a crazy athlete and his size around the ball is an obvious plus.

Have you heard Patrick Cripps is Wayne Carey’s size? Modern midfielders hey. Crazy. Commentators should mention that a bit more. Hey Scott Pendlebury, pass me that basketball. You used to play, did you?

However, also like Franklin, I could not help but think that the way to win games is to kick goals. I am no footy tactician but it seems to me that it might be wise to keep the guys who are best at kicking goals near the goals.

It is true that Cameron has been poor against top-eight teams this year with only two goals in four games, but that isn’t what this is about. He will tear a game apart and you will not be able to take your eyes off him while he does it.

4. Charlie Curnow
Fourth on this list is Charlie Curnow, a player whom I never, ever thought I would see again. I still have yet to hear the story on what actually happened with his knee.

Who has a three-year knee injury? Because of that, I figured there was no chance he was ever coming back, especially given his two healthy years were predicated on bouncy athleticism.

If I were betting, I would have bet against him having the year that he is having this year. I also would have bet against Joel Embiid with his foot injuries as a seven-foot basketball player ever becoming a good player. What does this tell us? Don’t take my gambling advice.

At the time of writing, Curnow is leading the Coleman Medal race. But that isn’t really the point of Charlie Curnow. It’s how he does it.

Charlie Curnow

(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

It’s like he has never kicked a regulation goal in his life. He’s always taking a big mark or bounding (and that is the only word because the way he runs with his knees is bounding like a cougar) away from defenders, kicking disgusting snaps.

Generally, Curnow just loves nothing more than a little bit of Curnow time.

This even extends to his celebrations. He will kick one of his ridiculous goals with the enthusiasm of a yoked Tom Papley, the league’s second most ferocious celebrator.

Curnow clearly spent the three years on the sidelines incapacitated from the thigh (not waist) down, lifting weights to work on the glamour muscles.

His chest looks like you could store wine in it and when he kicks a goal he is not afraid to get the Hulk Hogan pythons out, irrespective of the state that the game is in.

Curnow loves Curnow, and the camera loves him too.

5. Lance Franklin
‘Buddy’ gets on this list based largely on legacy. He’s going at nearly three goals a game this season but the whispers of whether the decline is coming are starting to seep in.

But still, if I’m watching footy and Sydney are playing and I get the text ‘did you see that from Buddy?’ I am dropping everything and getting to my TV and seeing what he’s up to.

He reached ‘text your friends’ status in about 2006 before texting even really was a big thing and he’s now a box office emeritus footballer.

Lance Franklin Swans

(Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

But the fact is he’s still capable of putting it all together and thrilling neutrals like he did when he tore the game away from Richmond in Round 11. He did it with some absolute Franklin trademarks like the big, looping, 55-metre set shots and the Franklin bomb into an open goal square.

But beyond any of that, if you’re watching Sydney play, you’re searching for that number 23 strutting across the park.

Every stride Franklin takes is with the confidence of a player that knows the defender who has his arm across his chest had the poster of Franklin recreating the Michael Jordan wingspan photo up on his wall.

I have made this comparison before but Franklin, like Tom Cruise, is simply box office royalty.



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