Rory Laird is one of a new breed of defender turned midfielder that has transitioned from the backline to become contested bulls. They’re all of a similar ilk since being shifted into the centre of the park, but they were all vastly different players in defence.
Before 2021, Callum Mills plied his trade as John Longmire’s ‘Mr. Fix-It’, plugging holes in defence whether that be an oppositions’ most dangerous small forward or a third tall defender with his 189cm frame. Only getting brief tastes of life at the ruckmen’s feet, Mills’ entry into the Swans midfield has been years in the making and he has taken it with both hands this year.
Andy McGrath spent his first two years for the Bombers as a small defender, winning the Rising Star. He locked down dangerous forwards with resolute determination to provide for the team, and possessed lightning acceleration to close the gap on his opponent in the nick of time. Before his untimely knee injury, McGrath was one-third of a potent midfield brigade with ball magnets Zach Merrett and Darcy Parish.
Jack Crisp was again a different defender, with incredible endurance and a tendency to power out of the back 50 with ball in hand. He makes good decisions and has become one of the most consistent players in the league, having played a league-best 158 straight games without missing.
There are others, too. Cam Guthrie revitalised his career with his transition on-ball, whilst Dyson Heppell flew through his tenure in defence with a Rising Star award.
Two of them were top-five picks, destined to graduate from the back six. But two others were rookie draft selections, earning every game and receiving greater opportunities based on performance.
As a group, they have all become similarly spectacular in the clinches, dominating contested possession counts and clearances. They’ve been some of the most consistently great players in the AFL all season.
Rory Laird was the pick of this bunch as a backman. Two All Australian blazers and an Adelaide best and fairest in a two-year stint, he was hard-nosed and aggressive in defence, but electrifying when the ball was moving forward. Over his 45 games in 2017 and 2018 (including a Grand Final appearance), Laird averaged over 30 disposals per game and polled an impressive 28 Brownlow votes.
If you exclude Gavin Wanganeen’s 1993 Brownlow Medal, Laird had reached the summit of individual accolades as a small defender.
He says a transition to the midfield was always in his reach, but never quite in his grasp.
“The transition – initially – I tried a few times over the years and it didn’t really work,” Laird admitted.
“It’s a matter of actually spending a bit of time training and with the coaches and working out what they want to see out of me.”
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At just 177cm and with limited experience up the ground, Laird needed trust from the 2020 coaching staff and Matthew Nicks in his first year as a senior coach. He received the opportunity during Adelaide’s dour season, and earned his opportunity with the midfield group over the pre-season heading into 2021.
“I was able to actually be gifted a bit of time in there, a bit of continuity instead of a sort of pinch-hit for one game then back to the backline. I was actually able to practice and get a feel and a flow for it.
“I’ve been really lucky and I’m super grateful that they actually let me stay in there.”
Laird – along with Mills, McGrath and Crisp – has hit the ground running when given full opportunity.
He believes there are aspects of backline play that aids that midfield move, but there was also a steep learning curve to midfield craft that he is still going through.
“You learn a few things down at half-back, especially with the game in front of you – you can see where the ball’s going, how to read the play.
“Whereas if you’re going backwards and forwards it’s a fair bit of stuff happening in 360-degrees. I’ve been lucky enough to pick that up pretty well and it’s sort of working for me at the moment so hopefully I can continue to improve on some certain areas of my midfield game, but I’ll keep learning the position.”
Laird is averaging a career-high 32 touches per contest in 2021, with nearly 15 of them contested to go with seven clearances and five tackles. This comes after signing a monster five-year extension with the Crows in March.
The capacity to find consistency in individual performances and raise the floor of your worst games is something every player is striving to achieve.
Laird has found that rhythm to continue performing at the highest level, and keep getting the best out of himself.
“A couple of years ago I sort of worked out a routine – what worked for me in terms of training,” Rory Laird said.
“I realised, and a few of the young blokes realised, at some point in their careers a holistic approach to football. It’s not just going out and playing on the weekend.
“There’s diet, there’s recovery, there’s extras in terms of massage. There’s things that certain players like and certain players don’t like.
“I figured out my routine a couple of years ago and I found my body and my mind was feeling really good and I was actually able to go out and perform at a really high standard and play quality AFL football.
“For me to be able to sort of work that out and hone that over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to play at a consistent level for a short period of time now. That’s pretty much what I put it down to and – as I said – I’m still learning all the midfield stuff so that’s something I can keep learning as I go forward.”
The way has been paved by players like Rory Laird. Defenders of all stature can work their way into becoming A-grade midfielders, and their defensive instincts and ability to read the play transitions brilliantly to the contested game up the ground.
The next wave of small defender-turned-contested star will appear over the pre-season. Liam Duggan and Hunter Clark are two that have a propensity to make the transition. Brayden Maynard has signalled his intentions to become a midfielder in due course, whilst the cool-under-pressure Jack Bowes could make a seamless transition into rover if Stuart Dew didn’t need him so desperately in defence.
Dan Houston and Liam Baker have had their taste of it like Laird did, but will only know if they can make it in there if they’re given full opportunity in the off-season.
If the performances of Rory Laird are anything to go by, these types will become some of the most consistent contested players in the AFL when they do move into the middle after an apprenticeship in the back-six.
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