On the verge of achieving the 300 games milestone, it has dawned on me just how important Jack Riewoldt has been to my footballing spirit. More specifically, my heightened level of anticipation for tonight’s clash with the Lions has made abundantly clear just how much I have grown to admire the Richmond champion.
I first saw Jack when he was a teenage prodigy playing for Clarence in the then Southern Football League’s premier competition in 2005. My most vivid memory of that day, though, was not the glimpses of aerial brilliance and innate goal kicking that he displayed.
Instead, it is of watching New Norfolk march on to a 38 point premiership victory, and their first in 23 years, at North Hobart Oval.
The four goals he kicked and the number of ‘speccies’ he took did not matter. The Eagles had beaten the Roos and our small town heroes had triumphed over the ‘smug Eastern shore.’
In fact, it was another goal-kicking machine that day that captured my 11-year-old imagination. Adrian ‘Chopper’ Burdon, a rugged full forward with a knee brace the size of most of my school mates, was my hero.
Standing behind the goals at the bowls club end while ‘Chopper’ kicked for goal will live with me forever. As far as I knew, Jack Riewoldt was football evil. He was no different from the big names of each club that New Norfolk played.
Ex-North Hobart and Carlton coach Brendon Bolton, with his gun full-forward Robbie “The Wiz” Devine, also fit that mould.
It is understandable then, that I was torn by the news of Jack joining Richmond with pick 13 in the 2006 AFL Draft. In hindsight, the past experiences probably clouded my judgement of his recruitment and subsequent performances between 2007 and 2009.
As is well-documented in debates about all young key forwards, their first three or so years in the league are often a period of both physical and developmental growth. My read on Jack’s inconsistencies through my teenage eyes during this period was of an ex-Clarence player letting my beloved Tigers down.
In reality, he was finding his feet as a player in a side that was desperate for success but lacking character. The 2010 season though, laid a foundational block for the identity that could come to define Hardwick era Richmond.
That year, Dustin Martin made his debut as the enigmatic tyro that let his actions speak for him. Meanwhile, Trent Cotchin projected future leadership qualities and vibes.
Riewoldt on the other hand provided consistent energy up forward. The result of this was the first of his three Coleman medals.
Much like Matthew Richardson before him, Jack gave us reason to believe that year. Our hopes increased every time he crossed the line from that moment forward, but some were still left unconvinced.
The football public knew of his undeniable talent, but a serious question remained – was effort centred on an intrinsic or extrinsic drive? That is, did he want to achieve individual goals or was team success the ultimate?
Many echoed the thoughts of Ben Cousins when it was reported that he had a heart-to-heart with the young forward.
In a 108 point loss to Geelong at Kardinia Park in 2010, Riewoldt managed to kick three of his sides’ seven goals. As the microscope was placed on the Tigers many, including Cousins, criticised Jack’s over-the-top goal celebrations in the drubbing.
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Such a sentiment stuck over the course of the next few seasons. The team began to gel under Damien Hardwick, but Jack’s motivations needed clarity. Ego was a trait he was more often than not associated with.
If you need evidence, look no further than the infamous incident with the media in 2014. Hopping the barricade at a train station to escape a throng of reporters was seen as a selfish escape. This was not the act of maturity many expected from a player in his eighth season.
Something changed the following year though. Almost as if a light switch had been suddenly flicked. For the first time, it felt like a member and supporter that he was not just out there to give us hope of a win.
He took it a step further, and it seemed that he became aware of who he was and where he was as a player.
Jack was a Tiger. A leader of a pack of cubs eager to achieve great things. That year, he changed his style of play to that of a traditional centre-half forward and won All-Australian honours in the position.
Though he kicked his lowest tally of goals since the 2009 season, his high marking and excellent field kicking meant that teammates were able to share in the spoils. Ty Vickery, Brett Deledio, and Dustin Martin all finished the year with more than 20 goals.
But to me, it’s not the positional change I see as the only selling point on Jack’s growth that year. Instead, I focus on the round 17 loss to Fremantle in 2015.
David Mundy’s last-minute goal secured a tight, four point win for the Dockers over Richmond. The result also meant that Richmond missed a big chance to go into the top four. Watching the game live, dejected in the top-level of the MCG I witnessed 21 players’ heads drop as the siren bellowed out.
The one outlier was Jack, a look of frustration emblazoned on his face as he dropped to his knees and smacked the turf. It was an act of passion I had seen so many times before from the likes of the aforementioned ‘Richo.’
It was clear that he wanted the club’s success more than his own. Jack had our interests at heart. He still does today.
I can name countless examples to highlight this from the era of premiership success that Richmond have gone through in the past five years.
His performance in the shock 2018 preliminary final loss to Collinwood that gave his side a glimmer of hope comes to mind. Or as recent as round 11 of this season, where a five-goal haul and clinic of high-marking ensured victory over Adelaide.
A different example should be looked at if we are to really hammer home Jack’s journey to becoming the team first player he is today. We need to look no further than the 2017 season.
Riewoldt was given charge of Richmond’s forward line as the only key forward in the team. Surrounding him was a fleet of small forwards in Dan Butler, Jason Castagna, and Daniel Rioli.
Week after week, Jack often found himself double and triple-teamed. In such adversity, the ultimate form of leadership was born and on display.
Riewoldt threw himself into packs, crashing them to give his crumbers every chance. He also drew the attention of key defenders so that decoys like Jacob Townsend, whose 15 goals from six games at the back end of the year will live on forever, could prosper.
Quite remarkable really that he was able to kick 54 goals himself and play a central role in Richmond’s drought-breaking premiership.
To this end, I have come to truly admire Riewoldt the footballer. It is not coincidental that his maturity and leadership have gone hand in hand with the club’s improved fortunes. These factors have, without doubt, played a significant role in the three flags.
Much like the personal growth that Riewoldt has gone through as a player, so to have I as a fan.
This has coincided with a clearer understanding of who I am, and that is a proud and parochial Tasmanian. I have put aside any remaining local allegiances to see the bigger picture.
Our State is a place where competition can come through circumstance as much as it can one’s peers. Economic issues, small population, and geographic isolation mean that seeing someone achieve great things in life is all the more special.
Similarly, our contribution to the development of the national game is seriously important. Like Baldock, Hart, Stewart, Roach, and Lynch before him, Jack Riewoldt has written himself into history books.
This list of names is not to create debate or for comparison, but are instead there to highlight the company he deserves to keep.
At club level with the Tigers and in his home State, Jack is, without question, one of football’s elite.