A look at the most experienced line-ups in VFL/AFL history

I first pondered the significance of experience levels of VFL/AFL teams after witnessing the sheer domination executed by the Brisbane Lions from  2001-2004.  That playing group was undoubtedly one of the very best the game has seen.

While talent and ability are the most valuable traits that a sports team can possess, highly experienced teams will usually consist of highly talented players – it makes sense that only very good players, unless their careers are cut short by injury,  are more likely to play for long periods of time.

So how did that Brisbane Lions playing group stack up experience wise? Well, I was not surprised to discover that, going by average games per player,  it did in fact field the most experienced line-up to ever contest a match.

It was round 22, 2004 vs North Melbourne at the Gabba. The total games played by Brisbane’s 22 players as they ran onto the field was 3,718 – an average of 169 games per player.

Here it is – the most experienced line-up to ever take the field (3,718 total games, 169 average):

Brisbane Rnd 22, 2004 vs North Melb. at the Gabba: 
Jason Akermanis (209), Simon Black (147), Daniel Bradshaw (136), Jonathan Brown (89), Blake Caracella (156), Robert Copeland (73), Richard Hadley (23), Shaun Hart (270), Chris Johnson (218), Clark Keating (114), Nigel Lappin (237), Justin Leppitsch (205), Alastair Lynch (303), Dylan McLaren (25), Craig McRae (191), Mal Michael (154), Tim Notting (109), Martin Pike (234), Luke Power (130), Chris Scott (196), Michael Voss (243), Darryl White (256)

As you can see above, there were some pretty handy players in that side! The line-up featured eight players with 200+ games to their name, 12 with 150+, and a staggering 18 players with 100+ games experience. For the record, they defeated a considerably less experienced North Melbourne side by 114 points on that Saturday evening.

So let’s a have a look at the top 15 most experienced sides to grace the field in VFL/AFL history:

Most experienced line-ups (average games per player) in VFL/AFL history:
Rank Average Games Club Season Round
1 169.0 Brisbane 2004 Rnd 22
2 168.0 Brisbane 2004 Rnd 21
3 165.8 Hawthorn 2015 GF
4 165.4 Brisbane 2004 GF
5 165.1 Brisbane 2004 PF
6 161.4 Hawthorn 2015 PF
7 160.4 Hawthorn 2015 SF
8 160.2 Hawthorn 2015 QF
9 157.6 Brisbane 2003 QF
10 157.5 Geelong 2010 QF
11 157.4 North Melb. 2016 Rnd 6
12 156.4 North Melb. 2016 Rnd 5
13 156.0 Brisbane 2003 GF
14 155.7 North Melb. 2016 Rnd 10
15 155.5 Brisbane 2004 Rnd 20

As we can see, the list is dominated by Brisbane 2003/2004 and Hawthorn of 2015 – both the culmination of truly great dynasties.  The mighty Geelong of 2010 also makes the top ten.

A surprise inclusion in spots 11, 12, and 14 is North Melbourne during 2016. This was a club that barely made the finals that year or surrounding seasons, yet sits in the company of all-time great dynasties. This North Melbourne list did boast competition games record holder Brent ‘Boomer’ Harvey (432 games) in his final season, as well as not one, but two other 300-game players in Drew Petrie and Nick Dal Santo.  Perhaps these three were blowing out North Melbourne’s average?

Maybe we should use another method – the median – which, unlike the average,  is not much affected by such outliers.

Median Games

Using the median, Geelong in 2011 sits number one. It was round 19 vs Melbourne at Kardinia Park.

Here is the line-up with the highest median games to ever take the field (176.5 median games):

Geelong Rnd 19, 2011 vs Melbourne at Kardinia Park: 
Jimmy Bartel (197), Paul Chapman (214), Allen Christensen (11), Joel Corey (229), Mitch Duncan (22), Corey Enright (215), Tom Hawkins (72), Steve Johnson (167), James Kelly (186), Cameron Ling (238), Tom Lonergan (68), Andrew Mackie (143), Darren Milburn (289), Cameron Mooney (218), Brad Ottens (238), Matthew Scarlett (261), Joel Selwood (106), Mathew Stokes (104), Harry Taylor (82), Travis Varcoe (92), Trent West (13), David Wojcinski (191)

The line-up listed above is a very accomplished one indeed. It featured eight players boasting 200+ games experience, 12 with 150+ and 15 players with at least 100 games to their name. Oh, and by the way, Geelong won this match by  a colossal 186 points!

Here is the top 15 line-ups going by median games:

Most experienced line-ups (median games per player) in VFL/AFL history:
Rank Median Games Club Season Round
1 176.5 Geelong 2011 Rnd 19
2 173.5 Brisbane 2004 Rnd 22
3 172.5 Brisbane 2004 Rnd 21
4 172.5 Geelong 2010 PF
5 171.5 Geelong 2010 SF
6 170.5 Geelong 2010 QF
7 167.0 Brisbane 2003 Rnd 10
8 165.0 Geelong 2010 Rnd 17
9 165.0 Hawthorn 2019 Rnd 22
10 164.0 Brisbane 2003 Rnd 7
11 164.0 Geelong 2011 Rnd 4
12 163.5 West Coast 2019 SF
13 163.0 Hawthorn 2019 Rnd 20
14 162.5 West Coast 2019 EF
15 162.5 Hawthorn 2013 Rnd 8

The top of this list is dominated by Geelong during 2010/2011 and Brisbane 2003/2004.  A notable absence is Hawthorn of 2015 which featured so heavily in the the average games table – Hawthorn is instead represented by line-ups from 2019 – a season in which they failed to make the finals.  West Coast also feature with two line-ups during 2019, but the experienced reigning premier failed to make the top four in 2019 (thanks to Hawthorn funnily enough) and were bundled out of the finals losing to Geelong in a semi final at the MCG.

Deciding if the average or the median is a better indicator of overall experience is a tough one. But I lean towards the median since it is not  much affected by outliers.

Why are these lists topped by recent teams?

It’s certainly no co-incidence that the all-time average and median lists seen above are topped by great dynasties of modern times. Firstly, as mentioned, only very good players will be retained by clubs and play at the highest level for a decade or more and, secondly, there are simply more games per season these days compared to times gone by. Another factor is that the better sides regularly play deep into the finals which means those players rack up even more games.

The most experienced contests

Let’s now have a look at matches played where both teams were highly experienced:

Matches played where both teams averaged at least 130 games:

Match Season Round
Brisbane (155) vs Adelaide (143) 2003 SF
Hawthorn (144) vs North Melb. (148) 2016 21
Collingwood (139) vs Geelong (146) 2011 GF
Hawthorn (138) vs Sydney (137) 2014 GF
Fremantle (135) vs Hawthorn (162) 2015 PF
Hawthorn (143) vs Fremantle (132) 2015 15
Sydney (131) vs Hawthorn (149) 2015 16
Geelong (135) vs W.Bulldogs (139) 2009 QF
Sydney (136) vs Fremantle (133) 2007 14
Hawthorn (135) vs Sydney (134) 2015 8
Hawthorn (133) vs Geelong (134) 2014 QF
West Coast (130) vs Hawthorn (136) 2019 23
W.Bulldogs (131) vs Collingwood (131) 2010 1

A chain is only as strong as its least experienced link?

So far we’ve looked at line-ups with the highest average and median games  -but what about minimum games?