Something we already knew, but a nice piece
Michael Hurley elevates himself to top-shelf defender and leader
MICHAEL Hurley knows he’s playing good footy, but when assessing one’s own form, it’s prudent to acknowledge others playing in the same position.
Right now, Hurley is the second best key defender in the game behind one man — Richmond’s Alex Rance.
“I definitely admire, almost envy him,’’ Hurley said.
“He’s the pinnacle of defensive players in the competition. By the time he finishes up he very well could (the best of all time).
“To watch him, you just marvel at the confidence in his game. He looks like he knows he’s going to win his one-on-ones regardless of who he’s playing on.
“And with that, he helps his teammates just as well as any player. He’s the best.
“He has a great balance of knowing where his man is and where the ball is and there’s no doubt, when he attacks he knows he’s going to get it.
“Just his hunger for the contest, his willingness to crack in and help and win contests most others won’t.
“I was watching him the other week against Sydney, it was the last quarter and he was everywhere, he was massive.’’
Nice words, but Hurley is also selling himself short.
Among the key defenders, Hurley is rated No. 1 in ranking points (99), disposals, uncontested possessions, metres gained and is No. 3 for marks and intercept possessions.
Rance is rated No. 2 in ranking points (92), intercept marks, intercept possessions and for losing one-one contests.
The blinding stat is Hurley is ranked 18th for losing one-on-one contests.
It’s not that he’s incompetent at the body-on-body stuff, it’s simply how coach John Worsfold wants him to play.
Hurley defends space as much as the opponent and can be caught out arriving late for the contest.
The flip side is that Hurley is clearly the most attacking key defender in the game and a key part of Essendon’s — call it what you will — slingshot and rubber band offence.
“The way we play now allows me to be more attacking,” he said.
“I’m not going to give away how we defend, but the positioning John wants the backs in allows you to be in quite attacking positions.
“I feel if you get it right, you’re often in the right spot and that’s allowed me to take my attack to the next level.”
Only one player ranks higher in both aspects and that’s Rance.
“It’s hard to do both at elite level,’’ Hurley said, “and Rance is elite in both. I’m slightly more to the offensive side.”
Hurley is playing the kind of football which earned him All-Australian selection at centre half-back
He missed all of last year because of the drugs suspension and after the first two games of this season, he looked sluggish and indecisive.
Defence coaches Mark Harvey and Dan Jordan hammered him about being aggressive, particularly Jordan.
“I was doubting myself after missing some footy,’’ he said.
“Dan really drove the contest, drove the aggression, the hunger, being ruthless and hard to play on. He was very important for me in the first few weeks of the season.’’
It was the second time in his career that Hurley needed guidance.
The first time was in 2014. He was 24, with promise, still raw and footy was important but not nearly enough.
He leaned on Brendon Goddard and Jobe Watson several times and says it propelled his football forward.
“I was pretty disappointed with where my footy was at,” he said.
“I wanted to see how I was perceived by others, I wanted to know what two blokes who I really respected thought of my game.
“At that time, I was just happy playing AFL, I wasn’t necessarily hungry enough to be a better player, be a contesting player. They drove me. That was big for me and I thank them for that.’’
Hurley is now the linchpin of Essendon’s defensive six, made up of veterans in James Kelly and Mark Baguley, youngster Andrew McGrath, two players trying to establish themselves in Michael Hartley and Martin Gleeson, and probably Patrick Ambrose when he returns from injury.
At 27, Hurley personifies leadership and substance and last week against Sydney displayed both without touching the ball.
After the siren and after Gleeson’s opponent Gary Rohan marked and kicked the matchwinning goal, Hurley searched for his teammate. His rationale was everyone made mistakes..
“You could see it in his eyes,” Hurley said.
“He was obviously gutted by what had just happened. I just put my arm around him and said, ‘Don’t be too hard on yourself, don’t let that one moment of the game get you down’.
“We had half a dozen opportunities to ice that game and we couldn’t get it done. He just happened to be in the goalsquare for the final bit of play.
“I know I had a couple of opportunities where I would’ve done things differently. BJ, Joey Daniher ... we all made mistakes.
“People won’t remember but I got run down with three-and-a-half minutes to go. Buddy ran me down and he kicked inside 50 and they had a shot for goal.
“No one remembers that. I was pretty cut up about that. We did the review and there were probably 25 things in the final five minutes we could’ve done differently.’’
Earlier in the Swans game, Franklin went at first-year player McGrath, which prompted Hurley to be the protector.
“You never like to see your young fellas pushed around,” he said.
“Good on him, he stood up for himself but it was great to see guys flew in to fly the flag.”
Aggression, he said, was central to his performance.
“I’m slightly undersized as a key defensive player so I have to play with aggression, that’s always been one of the things I’ve not so much prided myself but had to put in my game.
“I’m naturally competitive and the aggression is important. You need to have that physical attribute to your game or else you’re going to get pushed around.
“You can’t afford to let the young fellas or yourself get pushed around.’’
As another All-Australian selection beckons, barring injury, Hurley says fun has returned to his football.
With it is a belief in the group that anything is possible.
“It’s fun, the club is going great, the young guys are exciting and they are exciting me,’’ he said.
“This is group is the best group I’ve played with. I was thinking about it the other day, about the upside and the best footy we can play. I’m not sure in my time we’ve been in this position.”