Shane Edwards and Robbie Gray’s genius is more exciting than pure athleticism

In American sports, especially American football, athleticism normally wins. The best athlete can dominate by sheer force of ability.

In basketball this is less the case but it’s not a coincidence that virtually all of the 50-100 best players in NBA history happen to be about 6’6, can jump over a house and run up and down the court in what feels like five seconds.

Football is moving in this direction as well. Teams are smartly betting on athleticism even where a player’s skill level is probably less than that of most AFL footballers, but the player has a rare mix of size, speed and power that makes them too good to be true.

It makes sense. You can teach a player to kick and handball, you cannot teach them to run at the speed of light. The best two examples of this in the modern game are Rhys Stanley and Noah Balta. They are both genuinely freakish athletes from a size/speed standpoint but leave something to be desired as far as footy smarts.

As a supporter’s aside Noah Balta is like Alex Rance before he became the force of nature that he became in about 2014. That is to say it is as love/hate as Paulie and Christopher in The Sopranos. No, I am not comparing Balta to Rance because as far as I can tell Balta is not the ferocious competitor that Rance was, few are. Just comparing the physical archetype.

I love these freak athletes and there is very little more exciting than watching them go to work. Early in the season at the MCG, Balta spilled a mark with the defender on his hammer but then picked up the ball and accelerated after turning on a dime.

He burnt the player about where the 50 arc meets the boundary and took a bounce while moving at lightspeed. The ball bounced past his hands and out of bounds throw in.

This is often the result of these freaks really turning out. As such, one of the things that are more exciting than watching one of these genetically superior freaks go to work, however, is watching one of the geniuses at work.

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Gray and Edwards are such geniuses.

Shane Edwards and Jack Graham celebrate.

(Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

I try to follow the Daryl Morey rule banning intraracial comparisons – if you want to compare a player it must be to a player of a different race to prevent cognitive biases from seeping in – as much as I can.

But it is genuinely pretty hard in the AFL given most players are from roughly similar backgrounds and the indigenous portion of the AFL is relatively small as a proportion of all players in the league. In this case, however, the rule works because Gray and Edwards are largely similar players from entirely different backgrounds.

They are forward half geniuses with just enough athleticism to get by. Both played not necessarily with exceptional speed but instead lateral quickness that would be the envy of most other mortals. It has been exceptionally remarkable from Gray given the knee injuries that threatened to derail him early on.

Their highlight reels are littered with side steps around tackles at the speed of light, weaving through traffic without a care in the world, and then finding a teammate or the goal out of the corner of their eye. It has been remarkable to watch.

Both play that sort of high half forward role most effectively, though Gray was a better one out forward than Edwards.

What Edwards does better than anyone though is the forward handball. Richmond’s success has been built on a surge mentality, effective aggression and pressure around the ball, and the forward handball. It is not hard to believe the idea that Edwards was running sessions on how to handball.

However, you get the sense that it would have gone as well as Will Hunting trying to teach high school maths. It must get to a point where someone as preternaturally talented just throws their hands up and exclaims ‘do you know how easy this is for me?!’ to the kid who is rubbish at the 7 times tables.

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Edwards and Gray work perfectly as these forward half players because of their creativity and gumption. They were able to have significant impact on games in the most important part of the field.

Gray had better raw numbers than Edwards and was probably in his prime a marginally better player but these players can’t be quantified just by the numbers they accumulate.

Robbie Gray of the Power marks the ball in front of Tim O'Brien of the Bulldogs.

(Photo by James Elsby/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Edwards was so deft and talented with ball in hand, so exquisite in his kicking and his vision, and so sharp in his movements that to define him by his numbers would be insulting to the experience of watching him play.

They each would attempt kicks and handballs that no other player would be allowed to, purely because coaches deferred to their ability to read the game and their ability to execute when the whips are cracking.

This ethereal thing that they both had is why I haven’t brought up how many games they played or goals they kicked, disposals they averaged. It doesn’t matter. It’s not about what numbers they racked up, it’s about how they played the game. Grace, poise, cleanliness personified.

The other aspect of Gray’s game that should be remarked upon was that he is the clutchest player since Jimmy Bartel. Bartel is another of my all-time favourites largely for the same reasons as Gray or Edwards, though Jimmy was of course more positionally versatile and less creative with ball in hand.

But what defined Bartel was that he was a clutch assassin. Gray has taken that mantle and it seemed like he stepped up just as Jimmy’s career was wining down. Since 2013 Gray has kicked a goal to put Port the lead in the fourth quarter nine times, by far the most in the AFL.

This does not take into account the truly exceptional ball use and cleanliness in big situations that Gray exhibited when the whips were really cracking.

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I know that this column has focused more on Edwards than Gray but Edwards is one of my favourite Tigers ever and there are only so many more chances to watch him. Allow me the opportunity to pay him tribute.

I am grateful to have watched him pick up the ball with his left hand, neck already craned with his eyes already looking upfield because the pickup is so easy for him, and swinging his fist through the ball to land in the waiting arms of a player in an acre of space.

I am grateful to have seen him attempt the inboard kick that only he and Dustin Martin had the freedom to attempt, and have it come off, as well as to have watched Shane Edwards tear apart game after game through intellect and clean ability to execute the skills upon which the game was built.

It’s been a pleasure to watch him go from the annually most underrated player in the AFL to simply one of the best.

A three-time premiership Tiger who has, once again, displayed his exquisite timing in terms of his retirement. This was the year where his game was falling off, he was not contributing like he had in years past, and it was time.

What has not left him though is his footy smarts, so don’t rule out Edwards having one more of those wow moments in September. One more kick inboard, one more weave through traffic, one more sight of the glint in his eye as he sees something nobody else has even conceptualised.

Why can’t we rule that out? Because there’s still room for that kind of player in footy. The player who puts it together with spit and duct tape from a physical point of view, but they are a football PhD.

This is what makes me love this game so much.

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