PEOPLE OFTEN COME to me and ask, who are the most difficult players to line up against in the AFL? Naturally, they expect to hear names like Patrick Dangerfield, Dustin Martin and Nat Fyfe, but as good as they all are as offensive-minded weapons, in my mind they aren't the toughest to play against, or on.
I've been watching plenty of footy during my injury layoff and have cast my mind back to recent seasons to come up with the five players who I consider the absolute hardest to go head-to-head with. I've picked each player for a different reason, which I'll explain.
The hardest all-around match-up? ... Touk Miller
I'm not sure there's a more underrated player in the competition than Touk Miller. He's an absolute beast in the midfield and never really gets the public praise he deserves. Perhaps it's because he's up on the Gold Coast. But from my point of view, he is undoubtedly the hardest player in the competition to play on, as he can beat and test you in multiple areas.
Not only is he the hardest and most ferocious tackler in the game (seriously!), and can lock down on you one-on-one, if given the role, but he possesses a great running capacity, reads the game as well as anyone and can push from a stoppage and hurt you forward of centre, something which we're seeing a lot this year. The other area of Miller's game which you notice when you're out on the ground with him is that he never fumbles. Never! He is so clean around the stoppages and has exceptional evasive skills, which means you have just a fraction of a second to shut him down, or he's off.
I actually remember playing against him in Under 18s and he was the same back then as he is now, except these days he's stronger, fitter and a better ball user. Next time you're watching a Suns game, keep your eye on him. He's an outrageous talent.
The best runner? ... Ed Curnow
I'll never forget the moment when I realised just how much of an elite runner Ed Curnow is. We were playing the Blues at Marvel Stadium back in 2018 and Curnow and I were on each other at a stoppage inside our forward 50, late in the last quarter. Carlton won the ball back and Curnow bolted 120m from one side of the ground to the other. I chased him, but it felt like I was running on sand as he put a gap between us.
Obviously, Curnow has made his name as a lock-down player in the Blues' midfield, so when you have someone with that running ability pinned to you for the game, it feels impossible to get any separation. You feel like no matter how much you run them ragged, they have more left in the tank and can put you to work at any time.
It's funny because Curnow often looks as though he's completely run out of petrol tickets, but I honestly haven't come across another player in the league who can run as much as him. I don't know if there's a player who has the ability to repeatedly put in hard sprint after hard sprint. You know you're in for a tough game when he stands next to you at the opening bounce!
The most physical player to play on? ... Josh Kennedy
I learned plenty in 2016, en route to our premiership, but something which will always stick with me was just how great a player Josh Kennedy is. Don't get me wrong, I already knew he was elite, after all, he was my footy idol growing up and someone I wanted to mimic on the field. But playing on him is a whole different caper, and where you discover much more about someone's game.
Going into that Grand Final, Luke Beveridge gave me the job of keeping a close check on Kennedy around the stoppages. It's fair to say I was pretty damn nervous! What makes him so great is his brute strength. Trying to quell his influence is near impossible when I literally couldn't move him. Every time I tried to body him up, he would just throw me out of the way with ease. At first I thought it may have been because of my lack of pre-seasons, but even now he can comfortably move me, and probably most midfielders, out of the way with ease.
The only other player which really rivals Kennedy in the strength and physicality stakes is North Melbourne's Ben Cunnington. He's got quite similar attributes and is so difficult to move when you're in a one-on-one contest with him. You pretty much just hope to break even around the stoppages with these guys!
The best defensive-minded player? ... Scott Pendlebury
This one might surprise quite a few people, not because of the name, but the category which I've put him in. Scott Pendlebury is an absolute legend of our sport, and I don't use that word lightly. What he has done for Collingwood over the past decade and a half will have him walking into the AFL Hall of Fame whenever he decides to call time on his career.
Everyone rightly praises his ball use, vision and ability to seemingly slow time when in possession, but I truly believe his best attribute is how he sets up defensively and is always in a position to thwart any attack. Because he reads the game better than anyone, Pendlebury is always able to ensure he's in the right place at the right time. And because he is so damaging with ball in hand, you've always got to pay him real respect.
The way he communicates to teammates on the ground is exceptional. There's no other player I've come across who talks as much as Pendlebury. Whether it's setting up his fellow midfielders at a stoppage or motivating a teammate, he's always working, directing traffic and making everyone around him better.
The best trash talker? ... James Sicily and Mitch Robinson
It's so difficult to split these two, so I'm going to call it a dead heat! Both James Sicily and Mitch Robinson have A-grade trash talking skills and love getting under the opposition's skin, which we see on a regular basis.
With Sicily, it's not so much what he says, but the cheeky way in which he says it. He's very clever and sneaky with how he sledges, but can certainly back it up with the way he carries himself and plays in defence. Luckily I don't play on him too much, but the times I've been in his vicinity have been a little nervy, as you're never quite sure what will come out of his mouth next!
Robinson is a little different, but, at times, equally effective. He will really try and intimidate you and make you uncomfortable, combining banter with the physicality. Earlier this year, in Ballarat, he was wrestling with me, chirping in me ear, and trying to bait me into doing something silly. We've actually had history, Mitch and I. In 2019, he broke my ribs in a crunching tackle and even brought it up when I saw him at the Brownlow Medal that year.
So there you have it. The five (actually, six) players who I find the trickiest to play on (or near), and some players who probably deserve a bit more credit than they currently get in the media and the wider football public.