After 222 games, two league premierships and two Magarey Medals, former Sturt captain Zane Kirkwood has announced his retirement from the SANFL.
Conceding that a re-occurring back injury, which he had surgery for in the off-season, is the reason behind the decision, the highly decorated individual’s career will end just seven rounds into the season.
Current Sturt coach and former Sydney Swan Marty Mattner described the mercurial midfielder as “a great of the SANFL”, as the sun sets on a league career which started at Port Adelaide in 2008.
“We chatted pre-season about how this was going to be his last year,” Mattner said.
“And then it sort of progressed over the last couple of weeks and we spoke about how he was struggling with the week-to-week of footy.
“And he decided that it would be his last game of footy this week (against Central District).”
The 2016 and 2017 Magarey Medallist’s role had been impacted in recent years, but his output was still at a level which pleased the Sturt coaches.
“We spoke pre-season about (Zane) playing more forward this year,” Mattner said.
“Which Zane was happy to do, he embraced that role and has played some really good footy up there.
“So it’s been a real credit to him, to change the way he’s played, to become a more permanent forward and still been able to impact.”
The hard working midfielder came to Sturt from the Magpies in 2014, following the restructuring of the Alberton side to become an AFL reserves side.
He impressed straight away, winning the league’s highest individual award as the best player in the competition as the Double Blues made it to the second week of the finals; a far cry from almost closing their doors two years earlier.
Sturt’s football manager Chris Trapp spoke about how Kirkwood was “tough, absolutely tough”, upon reflecting on the modern-day SANFL great’s career.
“He’s good one on one and so clean with his hands, with really good goal craft as well,” he said.
“His vision and decision making was so important too, and what he could see to get the ball going.
“Just an all-round great package as a footballer.”
As impressive as his impact has been on the field, the Sturt faithful will tell you that his contributions off the field are just as special.
“What’s been most impressive has been his off field stuff,” Mattner said.
“It’s his ability to be selfless, to put others first, as well as his leadership qualities;
“I think I’m a better person for knowing Zane and having conversations with him about footy and life.
“He challenged me, he made me better, made me think about things differently.”
Across October and November of 2019, Kirkwood rode from Perth to Adelaide as he stood up and told the footballing world of his issues with anxiety and mental illness, covering nearly 3000km and inspiring many on the journey.
“(That was) really brave of him to actually stand up and put his hand up and do that,” Trapp said.
“That was something that Zane wanted to do to help others, he knew what he had been through and the tough times that he had.
“It has a great benefit to our group and then across the SANFL as well.
“Then for him to go and do his ride and raise money was an amazing effort.”
Mattner recalls one of his first interactions with the champion when after he came in as coach at the end of 2015, and his concern associated.
“The first pre-season that I took over, he rang me early and said that he’d booked a trip to America and I was like a bit nervous, thinking ‘you’re captain and you’re going away for six weeks’,” Mattner said.
“But he went away, came back and won the 2km time trial and won the Magarey.
“So I think those sort of things speak highly about who he is.”
As well as the premierships and Magarey Medals, the Whyalla product has also represented the state four times, including winning the Fos Williams Medal on three occasions and has won the P.T Morton Medal as Sturt’s best and fairest four times.
“With what he’s been able to achieve on the field, he’ll probably go down as one of the greatest footballers ever to play SANFL footy,” Mattner said.
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A player like Kirkwood departing will always leave sizeable gap, but the Sturt mentor insists the club is always developing to cover an on-field loss such as this adequately.
“We’ve got an external person running a program with some of our younger players in terms of an emerging leaders group,” Mattner said.
“It was something that we identified at the end of last year, that we need to develop the next group of leaders at the footy club.”
However, it’s all the other things that Kirkwood does that can’t be as easily replaced.
“He’s always the first person who will talk to anyone, the supporters and he’s great with the kids as well,” Trapp said.
“One of the big things about Zane is he’s absolutely selfless, always thinking of others.”
And whilst that may be the case, this weekend it will be his teammates who will aim to send him off the way he deserves.
“I’m sure the boys will do everything they can to get a win for him in his last game,” Trapp said.
The door at 39 Oxford Terrace will always be open for the champion as well, but should feel no pressure for a heavy involvement straight away.
“If he wants to take some time away, and really refresh and move on then that’s fine as well, he deserves anything that he wants to do,” Trapp said.
“We’d love to have him, but I don’t want to pressure him to feeling like he has to be here.”
And it shouldn’t matter, because as Trapp says:
“He’s obviously got all his footy highlights, but just the person he is, he certainly leaves a lasting legacy at the footy club.
“He has just been so influential in his time here, he’ll go down as a legend of the club.”