Lance Franklin looks out of the contest.
Sitting third in line, behind two Essendon defenders, Franklin raises his hand boundary side. But it doesn’t go there.
Instead, Justin McInerney kicks it to 35m out, right in the corridor. A probing kick, but one to disadvantage. Or so it seemed.
Franklin reacts first, turning and moving quickly. The defenders don’t.
Franklin comes down with the ball, and seconds later, kicks the sealer.
It might not be his most spectacular moment on a football field (where to start), but it’s an important one nonetheless, catapulting the “rebuilding” Swans to 4-0 for the year.
Beyond the highest highlights, his eight All Australian selections, two premierships, four Coleman Medals, Franklin can say something that few others can.
He’s shifted the course of the game — at least at the top level.
There’s no illusion of the brilliance of Lance Franklin.
Australian football has had a number of transformative contributors over its storied history. Players who opened up new positional frontiers, such as Ron Barassi the ruck-rover, or innovations like Pagan’s Paddock.
Winning accolades is one thing; leaving a lasting impact is another.
As modern football has evolved, defences have gotten far smarter than they used to be. Analytical work has been done to show the highest-value areas to protect, which includes the traditional “hotspot” near goal. Some of this is intuition, but in a more formalised manner.
Attacks, long used to isolating forwards inside the 50, now have to deal with multiple defenders piling into the hole in front of leading forwards. Football is a game of time and space, and if the ball is slow going into the forward line, space is almost impossible to find.
To open the forward line back up, there needs to be a reason for defenders to shift their focus. Franklin’s long, reliable boot is perhaps the best reason of them all.
In his prime, Franklin often operated in his “office”, usually on the left side of goal, but frequently higher up the ground than traditionally normal. As a threat to score from almost anywhere inside 70m, Franklin drew the best defenders away from those high-value areas, opening up the rest of the forward line for his defence.
This shifted the gravity of the game, and often unclogged forward lines.
Franklin may have been one of the first, but he isn’t the last. Taylor Walker and Joe Daniher, to mention just two, play similar roles, creating headaches for defenders and extending the effective scoring zone for their teams.
Preliminary work by Rob Younger, formerly of Figuring Footy and now of Melbourne FC, shows that stretching the scoring zone from 45m to 55m adds an extra 30 per cent of attacking area for defences to worry about.
While shots from so far out have far lower accuracy than from 20m straight out in front, going for goal removes the likelihood of a turnover on the entry kick. If a player has the ability and approval to make the distance (a status fought for by players in clubs), then the break-even accuracy for a shot is about 20-25 per cent.
Recent research relating to the EPL has shown that the more effective option may be to take the longer shot, even with a lower chance of scoring. Despite there being no points boost for long shots (unlike basketball), there’s still a powerful incentive to the long bomb compared to other inside-50 entries.
While Franklin is a prolific goalkicker, his huge effective operating range also gives him an incredible amount of value as a creator. Stretching the defence makes finding open teammates easier.
His vision to find teammates is extraordinary, able to read the moves of opposition defenders like a book.
The long bomb has more than just pure aesthetic appeal — it’s perhaps the best weapon against rock-solid defences.
Further, the use of key position forwards as creators — and not just goalkickers — has helped to shift the deck back to the side of attack.
The absence of magic
The thing that is undersold most about Franklin is the hard work that he has done through his career, and his transformation as a teenager with potential to one of the best ever.
Lance Franklin’s journey to the AFL may not have followed the most conventional of pathways, but the drive was always there.
That’s Dowerin, the nearest town to the Franklin family farm, in the WA Wheatbelt. Franklin’s primary school, the nearby Ejanding Primary School, closed down in 2000 after the Franklin kids finished up. That’s a world away from the bright lights and big nights of the city.
The easiest way to describe Franklin, and the laziest, is that he is able to perform feats of magic on the field. Or that he is freakish, beyond the bounds of an ordinary mortal.
In 2010, Adam Goodes set the scene better than almost anyone else could in The Age:
“There’s nothing magical about Indigenous footballers. They are not born with any special powers. Their skills are not bestowed from birth, just waiting to bear fruit on an AFL field 20 years later.
Like any other footballer, to get drafted they’ve had to sacrifice things along the way, such as time with family and friends, and put years of effort into improving their game and their fitness.”
Despite making the game look easy, Franklin worked hard to do so.
Growing up, he and his family would travel hundreds of kilometres for games. His sister, Bianca has previously recalled a young Buddy kicking the ball for hours in the backyards, first with his sisters, and then endlessly against the farm’s tin shearing shed with goalposts painted on it. His dad, Lance Sr, gave him the nickname Buddy — which has become one of the most synonymous nicknames in Australian sport.
By grade four, he was telling his teacher that he was going to be in the AFL one day.
Goodes also said that the work only really starts for a player when they hit the AFL. That’s certainly true for Franklin.
When Franklin came into the league, he was a 196cm, 87kg relative beanpole, who mostly dominated in the air and through multiple efforts around the ground. Buddy’s early footy days were often marked as being a tall utility, who may pan out as a defender or ruck at the top level.
Over time, Franklin got stronger. Now standing at 199cm and 105kg, Franklin can dominate with both strength and speed.
While Franklin does push the limits of what a player can do on the football field, he isn’t some sort of innate anomaly. He isn’t the tallest player in the league, the heaviest, the strongest, or the quickest.
Franklin’s kicking action, while unorthodox, maximises the leverage required to propel a ball into the ether. The much-vaunted lean onto the left and the “natural arc” that helps him propel the ball, developed by kicking it against a farm shed. It’s not some mystical force; instead just boring physics.
Franklin has excelled as a goalkicker, in an era built around team scoring. Daniel Hoevenaars from InsightLane has undertaken a project which adjusts goalkicking for the era’s defensive and scoring patterns — putting Franklin’s feats in context. If anything, his 950 goals to date undersells his brilliance.
Franklin has fought the physical toll of being an elite player, and the mental. He has been open about his mental health battles, and attempted to normalise seeking help. Franklin has also fought epilepsy, suffering seizures throughout his career.
On the way, he’s faced tone-deaf public commentary of his conditions, including a columnist recommending his now-wife Jesinta Campbell postpone their wedding.
That’s not to mention the numerous injuries he has suffered on his way to 300 games, having seen surgeries from his shoulder to his groin to his knee, among other injuries to calves and hamstrings, and head and back.
Franklin has also fought against the racism of the day. Franklin is a proud Indigenous Australian — a Noongar-Whadjuk man — who has captained both the All Australian team and the Indigenous All Stars.
He has been the subject of racial vilification from the crowd, and shocking commentary from elements in the media. When his wife was interviewed on Sydney radio by Kyle Sandilands, she was asked if Franklin was “half or is he full Aboriginal”.
As a multiple All Australian, he was still being tagged with the label “cult hero”, a term connoting niche battlers, significantly underselling his role in the game.
If Lance Franklin isn’t the main attraction, then no-one is.
It’s all work — hard work. Fighting through for so long, and performing at such a high level, shows that it isn’t all divined onto Franklin.
The long road nearing its end
Despite the setbacks and struggles, Franklin has left an indelible mark on the game.
In an era where defences have begun to get the upper hand, Franklin has led the charge to a dynamic attacking future, breaking defensive structures along the way.
Franklin at 34 isn’t the Franklin of even a couple of years ago. Lance has set up closer to goal, relying on the quick ball movement of his teammates to deliver the ball inside 50. He’s still kicking goals from anywhere, and dragging the gravity of defence with him.
The famous nine-year deal that lured Franklin to Sydney is due to expire at the end of next season, and the star is only 50 goals away from the (actual) 1,000-goal mark. That’s rarefied air that only five other players have reached.
There’s no talk of a retirement tour — at least not yet — but every game that he plays should be savoured. It’s not often you get to watch a game-changer at work.