Mark Twain once quoted former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli as saying: 

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

That quote in itself may have been a lie; there is no record of Disraeli saying it.

There is at least some truth to that famous axiom, regardless of the actual source.

Numbers are to be relied upon and trusted until they can’t be.

It’s hard to lie about things that are seen by everyone at the same time, such as the sun rising in the morning, and setting in the evening.

Everyone watching the Suns’ demolition of the Tigers last Saturday would have seen a truly tremendous performance from Suns star Matt Rowell. Rowell’s day out included 20 clearances, the most of any AFL player in a game this century.

But not the most of any player ever — unless there was another little number-based lie involved.

So did Matt Rowell really fall two clearances short of Paul Salmon’s record, or is there something bigger at play?

Rowell’s day out

Gold Coast AFL player Matt Rowell handballs on his knees in the middle of the ground as Richmond players watch.

Matt Rowell picked up 20 clearances against Richmond according to the official count — no one else for the Suns or Tigers had more than eight.(Getty Images: AFL Photos/Dylan Burns)

Last year, Matt Rowell cemented himself as arguably the best contest player in the competition. The former number one draft pick set the AFL record for most tackles in a season, and finished the year fourth for clearances in the competition.

Rowell’s attack on the ball, or the opponent with the ball, is often mesmerising to watch. Last week against Richmond was a perfect demonstration of his incredible skill.

Rowell’s long-forged partnership with Jarrod Witts came to the fore last weekend. AFL clubs make calls for where the ruck will target his hit-out, with the clearance group often working together to open up space for the targeted player to work.

Rowell regularly put in effort before the ball was thrown to get himself into the best possible position to win the ball or prevent Richmond from escaping easily. He even successfully sharked some Tigers hit-outs, predicting the opposition targets.

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By the end of the game Rowell had accumulated 10 clearances from centre bounces and 10 more around the ground. He also racked up nine score involvements, four score launches, a game leading five tackles and 463 metres gained.

Rowell often does the hard work on the inside to open up paths of attack for more creative teammates on the outside, such as Noah Anderson or Bailey Humphrey.

On the day, Rowell set the tone for another famous Gold Coast win over Richmond, one which has gotten many to reassess their hopes for the year.

But what about the one game better than that of the big redhead?

The old ‘record’

Two AFL players in the rooms after a grand final, surrounded by people as they hold up the cup.

Paul Salmon (left) won premierships with Essendon in 1985 and 1993, and played a total of 324 games for the Bombers and Hawks.(Getty Images)

To put the quality of Rowell’s game into context, it’s worthwhile looking at the only player to officially surpass Rowell’s gigantic 20-clearance effort.

In 1998, veteran ruck Paul Salmon had achieved almost all there was to achieve in the modern game.

Salmon had won two flags at Essendon, established himself as a regular in the Victorian State of Origin side and was generally considered as one of the finest ruck-forwards of the modern era. Despite being 33 years old and at his second club, Salmon was still firmly a force to be reckoned with.

But he wasn’t always known for his work on the ground. “Fish” came into the league as the tallest player in history and generally forged his reputation on being an aerial powerhouse. Clearances, as most footy fans know, are generally won on the ground. Beyond his record holding game of 22 clearances, his next highest effort saw him only record 11 in a game.

So how could Salmon set such a high bar?

ABC Sport has reviewed Salmon’s record setting game against North Melbourne to determine how he accumulated such a number and to determine the impact of his clearances. To do so, ABC Sport has relied upon Champion Data’s definition of clearances — being either the clearing kick regardless of effectiveness, or the first effective disposal in a possession chain that exits the stoppage.

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According to a close review of the footage, Salmon “only” appears to have accumulated 16 clearances across the course of the game that windy day at Waverley. There are a couple of “edge” cases, given the somewhat subjective definition, but where possible the benefit of the doubt was given to Salmon.

The manner in which he did his work is also of note.

Salmon spent most of the day rucking against Corey McKernan, with Mark Roberts and John Longmire taking a few stoppages. Salmon had a significant size differential against all three players.

Aside from one holding the ball free, all of Salmon’s clearances were directly from ruck contests. Thirteen of his 16 clearances were “grab and go” plays — direct handballs or kicks from the bounce.

North also didn’t seem interested in stopping his surge. Only sporadically did North Melbourne seem to try to get a third body into the contest, as was legal at the time.

Salmon’s impact on the game seems huge in retrospect, even with six fewer clearances than the record shows. His clearances initiated two goals, he scored one himself, gained precious territory in tough conditions, and his side won.

Despite all of this Salmon was not rewarded with any Brownlow votes.

The issue with measurements

So why the discrepancy between the official number and ABC Sport’s revised Salmon statistic?

There are potentially several factors in play. Firstly, 1998 was the first year that Champion Data was the official statistics provider of the AFL. While the company had recorded some descriptive stats for the sport before, 1998 was a big leap forward. There were also several new measures being recorded at scale, including clearances itself.

The way that games were recorded back then was also radically different to how it is done now. In 1998, just two statisticians recorded the action, with limited quality assurance or review. In 2024, 10 employees work on each game, with late, offsite changes to measurements occurring at times.

This increase in staffing doesn’t prevent mistakes from occurring even today. Fans (and increasingly gamblers) often question the company seeking reviews or additions for the disposals of particular players.

Readers are invited to try it themselves — try to define and count every clearance or contested possession a player has in a game and see if you get it exactly right. It’s not as easy as it sounds.

To that degree at least one of Rowell’s clearances from last week’s game is borderline or dubious, especially considering other clearances credited to him.

The other truth is that even the most concrete of observable statistics are prone to error, change or improvement. Even the kilogram, core to so much of society, has been replaced and refined over time. Until 2019 the standard kilogram was replaced 44 times, before being eventually replaced by a constant formula.

Measurements of almost any variety are usually quite nuanced — and the difficulty increases as the level of subjectivity rises. Even something that seems clear cut can be complex.

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In the end, despite the inevitable discrepancies that come with any statistical measure, Rowell’s game is officially a record since 2000. It’s beaten on recorded clearances only by Salmon’s effort in 1998.

Are these true records, indisputable and above all other games for all time? There’s over 100 years of V/AFL footy that have largely gone untracked and unmeasured.

In some cases, records are more likely to hold. For example, it’s unlikely tackles were ever as high as they are now given the footage that remains.

But in this case, it’s difficult to know. The number of stoppages may have been too limited to allow some earlier star to grab the pill as many times as Rowell or Salmon. But perhaps past dominant players found simpler stoppage structures and tactics easier to fully dominate.

It’s a question for the old timers and archivists. Apocryphal, or hard to verify, records have long lived through the fabric of the game — such as Haydn Bunton Junior’s famous 88-kick day against South Fremantle in the WAFL in 1962. Sometimes the glory of the yarn is better than the cold truth of reality

Right now, however, we can watch Rowell go at it and wonder just how he fits into the broad arc of history.

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