Nick Riewoldt, the ex-Saints champion turned commentator with Fox Footy, reckoned that Martin would be a rare forward capable of kicking 80 goals in a season, if kept exclusively forward.
Riewoldt said he did not think the AFL would see another forward break the 100-goal barrier, a safe call today given that the Coleman medallist struggles to get far past 60 goals.
It appears that 80 goals is the new 100. Riewoldt felt we would see another player surpass 80, and nominated Martin as one player with that capacity.
“It’s just going to take somebody to be probably really courageous from a coaching point of view and just allow someone to [stay deep]. I mean, I think if Dusty just sat deep – when he goes deep – if he sat deep all the time, I think he could kick 80 in a year.”
Riewoldt said the Tigers would have to “just hold their nerve” and keep Martin forward, and of course, they would depriving themselves of their premier on-baller. “You’re robbing Peter to pay Paul. But I think if he did he’d be capable.”
The presence of Lynch and Riewoldt means there’s little chance that we’ll find out just how many Martin could kick. He booted 37 in his stellar triple crown season of 2017 (Brownlow, Norm Smith Medal and flag), when his ratio of time spent midfield to forward was about 70-30.
Martin remained around that 70-30 ratio in 2018, but Hardwick deployed him forward more often last year, when he was closer to 55 per cent midfield, 45 forward. He booted 32 goals in 2019, but that relatively modest tally doesn’t take account of Dusty’s willingness to donate goals.
Martin ranked in the top five players for winning one-on-one contests in the AFL last year. As with Patrick Dangerfield – a superior overhead mark compared to Martin, but much less proficient at snaps – the query on stationing him as permanent forward is not simply the loss of midfield drive, but the reality that once a player is kept forward, he invariably draws better defenders than if he drags an ill-suited midfielder or flanker to the goal square.
On Friday, for instance, Jeremy Howe, who has played on the “resting” Martin on occasions in Richmond-Collingwood games, fared better than the smaller Brad Shepherd.
More broadly, it is revealing that Riewoldt nominated Martin – not Jeremy Cameron, Lynch or anyone over 193 centimetres – as the forward with the capability of breaking the 80-goal barrier.
Riewoldt believes there is still a place for the star key forward, but that the game has never been as difficult for those who ply his former craft. He thought Cameron had the potential to be the best forward in the game, even though he did not play as a “traditional” key forward.
“You could argue they’re almost more important because the ability to win one-on-one contests, when you get them, there’s such a premium on it now, but it’s just the way the game’s played now. It’s never been more difficult to be a key forward.”
Riewoldt’s fellow former key forward and Fox colleague, Jonathan Brown, said, funnily enough, the trend was towards teams playing more key forwards. But due to the numbers deployed in defence, the role of those key forwards had changed.
Today’s key forward, Brown said, was expected “as much to make a contest down the line, get the the ball to ground, avoid having intercept marks taken against you.
“So the key forward is very prominent in our game, but not from the score because there’s so many numbers back there now, defensively.
“The game certainly doesn’t flow like state of origin on Friday night.”
The game hasn’t flowed like Friday night’s exhibition much, because teams actually tackle in the real season. The key forward isn’t extinct, and Dusty isn’t about to become one.
Perhaps, we’ll only see Martin re-invented as a primary forward late in his career, Leigh Matthews-style, if and when Nick Riewoldt’s cousin Jack has finished.
Jake Niall is a Walkley award-winning sports journalist and chief AFL writer for The Age.