At the start of a season it’s natural for fans to pencil in their side’s “best 22” and then hope for that particular group of 22 team-mates to actually play together fairly regularly. Sure there’s injuries, and sometimes even pretty good players get dropped, but you’d think any given 22 players would still regularly go into battle alongside each other. But…you’d be wrong. Damn wrong.
What if I told you, in the entire history of the V/AFL, spanning back to 1897 across 15,402 matches – that the most times any unique line-up has played together is seven. Hard to believe isn’t it? I barely believed it either when I first generated this data. Let’s have a look:
It really does sound absurd to think that the most times the same combination of team-mates have actually played together is seven. But it’s true. Apparently the combined effect of injuries and form omissions has a drastic impact on specific team personnel. As can be seen in the table, after any given V/AFL match, there is a 92.58% chance that the same combination will never play together again.
There’s only a 6.17% chance of a line-up playing two times together – three times? Less than a 1% chance. Four times or more is exceedingly rare.
It’s important to note that, pre-1930, there were only 18 players per side (with the exception of 1897-98 where there were 20). 1930-45 was 19 per side, 1946-93 was 20 per side, 1994-97 was 21 and 1998 until now is 22 players per side. This means there is now less chance of this record of seven ever being broken…
So which unique line-up holds that record of seven games together?
It was South Melbourne in 1924 and perhaps it’s quite fitting that the team was captained by possibly the most well-known name in Australian Rules Football – the legendary Roy “Up There” Cazaly. Here they are:
7 games together for South Melbourne- all in 1924 (3 were consecutive):
Bobby Allison, Martin Brown, Roy Cazaly (c), Bill Condon, Fred Fleiter, Arthur Hando, Ted Johnson, Tom Joyce, Frank Laird, Herb Matthews, Charles McDonald, Charlie Nicholls, Jack O'Connell, Joe Scanlan, Paddy Scanlan, Mark Tandy, Les Woodfield. (18 players)
So no other full combination has played more games together. Their results:
We can see this combination played four games at home and three away, including three consecutive games together from the outset. They won five out of the seven, with the team-mates playing their last game together in a semi final – suffering a loss to Richmond at Windy Hill – a game that happens to be the only final ever played at the venue.
What about the most consecutive games together?
From rounds three to eight in 1929, readers would have noticed “No change” next to Collingwood’s line-up in the newspaper – and there were no late changes either. Yes, for six weeks in a row, the same 18 players ran out for the Pies. This record is also equal-second on the list of total games played together:
6 games together for Collingwood- all in 1929 (all consecutive):
Jack Beveridge, Harry Chesswas, George Clayden, Albert Collier, Harry Collier, Gordon Coventry, Syd Coventry, Charlie Dibbs, George Gibbs, John Harris, Albert Lauder, Billy Libbis, Norm MacLeod, Bob Makeham, Frank Murphy, Len Murphy, Harold Rumney, Leo Wescott. (18 players)
Perhaps this was the line-up of all line-ups during Collingwood’s rampaging era of 1927-30, which netted a record four premierships in succession. Led by the Coventry, Collier, and Murphy brothers, this group of 18 players were never beaten. They played together six times in a row for six wins, with their last outing together being a narrow win against St Kilda at the Junction Oval in round eight. It mattered not that this particular combination never re-united on-field – the Pies were well on their way to a third straight flag.
In the 22-player era
The most games played together in 22-man sides is five – this is jointly-held by Sydney in 2005 and Adelaide in 2016.
The Sydney combination’s five games were all consecutive and the 22 players formed yet another incredibly good line-up:
5 games together for Sydney- all in 2005 (all consecutive):
Luke Ablett, Jason Ball, Leo Barry, Craig Bolton, Jude Bolton, Amon Buchanan, Jared Crouch, Nick Davis, Sean Dempster, Nic Fosdike, Adam Goodes, Barry Hall, Darren Jolly, Tadhg Kennelly, Brett Kirk, Ben Mathews, Ryan O'Keefe, Michael O'Loughlin, Lewis Roberts-Thomson,Adam Schneider, Luke Vogels, Paul Williams. (22 players)
Adelaide’s quite recent go-to combination contained the crux of its 2017 grand final side:
5 games together for Adelaide- all in 2016 (2 consecutive):
Rory Atkins, Eddie Betts, Luke Brown, Charlie Cameron, Kyle Cheney Brad Crouch, Matt Crouch, Richard Douglas, Kyle Hartigan, Sam Jacobs Josh Jenkins, Rory Laird, Jake Lever, Tom Lynch, Jarryd Lyons, David Mackay, Mitch McGovern, Rory Sloane, Brodie Smith, Daniel Talia, Scott Thompson, Taylor Walker. (22 players)
What about Grand Finals sides?
There has actually only been one occurrence where the same line-up has played in two grand finals, but this was in the same season. In the 1977 Grand Final, North Melbourne drew with Collingwood and then fielded exactly the same line-up the following week in the Grand Final replay – winning by 27 points to take the flag. No grand final side has ever ‘got the band back together’ in any match in any following seasons. In fact, no line-up in any match has ever appeared in more than one season.
So it may have come as a surprise to many how rare it actually is for a club to field exactly the same line-up more than once.
It certainly highlights the importance of having depth on a club’s list.
So, enjoy that “best 22” when they do finally run out together because, chances are, it won’t happen again!
Paul P Mark