They say possession is nine-tenths of the law; in footy the number of possessions is often shorthand for how well someone played.
Thirty touches is usually a good day out, less than ten might trigger a missing person’s report.
Legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis once said “It’s not the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t play” when referring to what makes music great.
It’s similar to footy — there’s only one football on the field at any time, and only one person can possess it at any given time.
Coming into finals, the media experts anointed Geelong forward Gary Rohan as the player under the most pressure.
The mercurial forward had, of course, committed the crime of averaging two less disposals in finals than he had in the home-and-away season.
Then, the Rohan-aissance happened.
After the Pies and Cats clash on the weekend, the two coaches anointed the Cats veteran as the best on the ground, despite only winning the ball 14 times.
While the Cat made the most of the ball when he got it, it was also his work off the ball that helped turn the tide in the game.
For secondary targets and pressure forwards there’s a real art of knowing where to be when the ball starts moving around.
Anticipation and movement is key to their art form, beyond mere accumulation of leather.
Some of the most pivotal moments of one of the most spectacular weeks of finals in elite football history came in ways that aren’t a traditional kick or handball.
It’s these moments that seem likely to shape the final three weeks in one of the tightest and most engaging seasons in V/AFL history.
Gary Rohan’s unique role for the Cats
As a football player, Gary Rohan is an enigma.
After starting his career as a utility, the Cobden product has settled into a quite unique role. An undersized tall, a hyper athletic, supersized small.
He is the classic tweener, a tall small forward. He is also someone who does most of his best work without the ball in hand.
He’s one of the rare players that is quite publicly prominent without ever being a star of the competition.
Perhaps due to his prominent draft position or his distinctive red locks, Rohan tends to grab more than his fair share of airtime.
Rohan’s work is largely done in the front half of the ground, but much of it is away from the focus of the cameras.
In the current Geelong set-up, Rohan plays as a hybrid between a third tall forward and a pressure forward, alongside other small forwards such as Tyson Stengle and Brad Close.
While coach Chris Scott calls Rohan an “energy guy”, Cats teammate Patrick Dangerfield had a slightly different take when talking to the media this week.
“Quite often the criticism he (Rohan) receives, the people, their use-by date in footy has expired because they clearly don’t get the modern game. He enables other players to do the special things they do.”
Rohan’s work as a credible marking target helps to drag the defence away from the twin towers of Hawkins and Cameron, while his defensive work helps create repeat forward entries and forward stoppages.
Much of this work is focused on spacing and placement.
It’s all focused around the tension between the belief that every player wants the ball all the time and the reality that there’s only one ball to go around.
Rohan has played a lot of important football for big clubs.
Despite missing the Swans’ premiership in 2012, Rohan has played 24 finals to date in his 174 total career games.
He’s turned up big in a few of them, contrary to popular opinion, such as the 2014 and 2016 Preliminary Finals for Sydney.
In that sense last weekend wasn’t a breakout, but more a reminder of what he can do if things break the right way.
When things break right
Part of the game for a player like Rohan is working to the right spots at the right time. A great example of this is his first goal on the weekend.
Every player at a stoppage has a role, and in this time it was Rohan’s job to be the goalside option.
As Geelong won possession from the throw-in and the play developed, Rohan’s opponent — Isaac Quaynor — floated towards the square to kill any quick kicks towards goal.
The young Pie’s shift is the percentage play most of the time.
Rohan read the play and kept his distance from the contest and Quaynor, and Jeremy Cameron was able to find him.
Almost all of the time, Rohan would not even have a chance to contest the ball there. Instead, his placement drags one or two defenders away from his teammates, allowing other easier pathways to goal.
This was one of the rare examples of where smart placement paid off for the player directly.
The play that created that stoppage is also a great example of the value of space and half chances.
Rohan kept wide of Cameron, working his way not towards the flight of the ball but instead to the front of the contest drawing an opponent away.
When the ball spilled wide, Rohan used his blistering speed to get to the ball first. A similar contest in the Lions-Tigers game two days before had an even better direct result.
Like Rohan did against the Pies, Charlie Cameron held the space then worked his way towards the back of the contest, in case the ball tumbled out the back.
Cameron’s work was spectacular, reaching the ball first and executing a perfect tap on the ball right towards Eric Hipwood and an open goal.
That tap doesn’t count as a kick, possession or a handball, but was critical in a game decided by less than a goal.
[GIF: Rohan – in the middle of the ground – works hard to set up the matchwinner]
The last goal of the game was also set up by Rohan’s positioning and gut running, anticipating that the Cats would win the ball.
Jeremy Cameron’s presence wide makes the Pies defence commit to covering him, allowing Rohan all the time in the world to set up Close’s game winning goal.
Rohan’s defensive work also showed up in the game, with a stellar chasedown tackle ending with a free kick.
Rohan’s defence forms a key part of Geelong’s forward wall.
A similar tackle, closer to goal by Michael Frederick put the game away for Fremantle on the weekend.
This teamwork goes both ways for the Cats.
For Rohan’s second goal of the game, Cam Guthrie kicks it towards a Hawkins one-out on Darcy Moore. Hawkins turns his head early on and spots Rohan unmarked on the lead, and then blocks for him.
The clean pathway created by the battle underneath allowed Rohan’s speed and leaping ability to impact the contest.
In the Melbourne and Sydney game, Jake Melksham’s block was a little more blatant, but no less effective.
Most of the time these little things fade into the background. This year, they might be the difference between finishing with the cup and finishing your season early.
Counting the beat
Part of the struggles to sum up the impact of players like Rohan are the limitations of traditional statistical categories.
The language of possessions and kicks doesn’t extend easily to blocks and knock-ons.
That’s before you get to the concept of spacing, and how a high lead by Franklin can lead to a deep one-out opportunity for a Papley.
Rohan’s impact, like say Ryan Clarke’s for the Swans, doesn’t even show up in ways that traditionally highlight influential yet disposal-light forwards.
Like a great band, not everyone can solo at the same time. Everyone has to play their role at the right time.
Across the rest of September other less heralded players will step up and star, based on years of hard work getting the little things right.
Keep an eye out for the little things, as they are likely to make a big difference in the race to the flag.