In 2012, Sydney Swans ruckman Mike Pyke became the first Canadian to win an AFL premiership, after a breakout game in the grand final.
Going into 2012, Pyke, having had 2011 wiped out by injury, was raring to go. But his season didn’t get off to the best start, with another injury setback to start the season.
“I had a really good pre-season, I think I played reasonably in the leadup – in the NAB Cup, but I didn’t get selected for round one which I was pretty upset about,” he said.
“And then, as fate would have it, in that first reserves game, I did my PCL.
“I was kind of hobbling for a few weeks until that came right, and I got an opportunity. I was quite frustrated because my form was quite good and then I had to play through an injury for the rest of the year, to get playing.”
The injury was an untimely setback for Pyke, and his chances of senior selection looked slim, as, in his words, he was ‘the fourth cab off the rank.’
Nevertheless, Pyke remained in a good mindset, knowing what he needed to do.
“There was Shane [Mumford], there was Mark Seaby at the time, and then Jesse White was the other guy who was playing that sort of tall forward role.
“[So] it was just thinking and trying to control what you can control. Worry about your form and the rest can take care of itself.
“In many ways, I was fortunate that Mark ended up injuring himself, which, kind of which gave me the shot, to get involved.”
Fate smiled on Pyke through an unfortunate injury to Seaby, allowing him to partner with Mumford in the ruck, as they had over the last few years.
Still relatively new to the sport, Pyke was always focusing on improving his game at this point.
“I was always conscious of, particularly being new to the sport, what to focus on, what the coaches wanted from me,” he said.
“That was pretty clear from that perspective. To be competitive at every stoppage, to limit the opposing ruckman’s influence on the game.
“And then as time went on, not just in those few key areas, but to start affecting the scoreboard, and being competitive.”
In round 10, Mumford returned to the side after an injury lay-off. Pyke would partner him in the ruck for the rest of the season, a relationship that Pyke saw as particularly successful.
“We shared a great partnership for a few years there. There were a number of times where one of us wouldn’t play particularly well due to injury, but when that happened, the other person would step up,” he said.
“On the days when we were both able to hit our stride, which ended up happening more often than not, we ended up hitting the scoreboard and winning the hitouts and the hitouts to advantage as well.
“We had a number of pretty big wins in our day versus some of the more high-profile ruck duos at the time.”
The second half of the season was very successful for the Swans. They would win nine games in succession to climb to the top of the ladder and it was this team success that Pyke was enjoying taking part in.
“To go to a successful club, with a strong culture, where you can enjoy your time, in the locker room and on the training ground, and also back that up with wins, that was really enjoyable,” he said.
“You probably don’t realise how important winning and team success is until your career is over when you are able to look back on what you were able to accomplish.
“From an individual perspective, a lot of those individual accolades players might get, throughout your sporting career, end up pailing in comparison to team success, which is so important to having a memorable career.”
Hardened steel or weakened tin?
Although Sydney would lose three of its last four games to finish the season, Pyke and the rest of the Swans remained confident about their 2012 credentials, with two of those losses by under ten points.
“I think we were, and all credit to the coaching staff, we were all clear on what our team KPI’s were, and how those last two losses looked from a KPI perspective, and we’d made a couple of mistakes in those losses, that were very solvable,” he said.
“To that end, we were very confident that the teams that we lost to, we could beat. The confidence that we had in the group was strong enough, to go to Adelaide in that first round of the finals and get that important away win.”
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Sydney had not defeated its preliminary final opponent, Collingwood, since 2005, and it had suffered its 11th loss in a row to the Pies just a month earlier.
But this time was different, and Pyke explained why.
“We were very confident with how we were playing at the time, and we were certainly hitting our stride at the right point,” he said.
“There was nothing specific that we needed to focus on, it was more that collectively doing our jobs, and everyone from player one to 22 was so clear on what that job was, that it made it easy to perform as a team.
“We really felt in that game against Collingwood, well I did, and I think other players did as well, that the week off we had, we just ran over them with energy, they just couldn’t keep up and that was very important.”
The grand final berth was important, but Pyke took the time to acknowledge the end of another drought, as they had won a premiership more recently than they’d beaten Collingwood.
“I think in the six years or whatever the length of that losing streak, or what have you, we’d won more premierships, we’d been in more grand finals than we’d beaten the Pies.
“That [the win] was really pleasing.”
Grand final day
A 26-point win for Sydney saw them into the Grand Final.
Like Collingwood, Sydney had played and lost to its grand final rival, Hawthorn, just a month earlier and on Grand Final day, the intensity was certainly up, as Pyke recalled.
“Grand finals are a step above in terms of intensity, and everyone is really going at 100+ percent, and the adrenaline from the crowd and the occasion, that’ll allow you to perform a bit and go that little bit harder,” he said.
“It was in line with what you’d expect a grand final to be, incredibly intense.”
A game of ebbs and flows was well in the balance at three-quarter time, before Hawthorn kicked the first two goals of the last quarter to open up a small buffer.
At that time Pyke was about to complete a rotation and come off the ground, but a sight put that plan to bed immediately.
“I was looking for an interchange five or ten minutes into the last quarter, and I was running toward the bench, and I saw Shane had the red vest on and I got sent back onto the ground,” he said.
“I was pretty buggered at the time and probably didn’t realise I was going to have to stay on for the rest of the game.
“But as I touched on before, the relationship that Shane and I had was a good one, sometimes Shane would perform really well, and I wouldn’t and vice versa.
“And that was one of those times where, I thought, I mean I was only 45, 46 games into my career, and when you’re that young to the game, you’re almost improving every game, and that was probably reasonably good timing in that regard.
“I felt confident enough to do the job.”
The sweet taste of victory
With less than a minute to go, Nick Malceski kicked the goal that sealed Sydney’s fifth premiership.
The feeling of victory, Pyke said, was unlike any feeling he’d felt before.
“It’s very hard to win grand finals in a national competition, and that was a pretty great feeling, and something that was incredible to share with teammates,” he said.
“How much it means to all the supporters, you know, when I look back that’s the most important thing because it’s a piece of history that you’re involved in, which is pretty special.”
Pyke had 16 disposals, six marks (including three contested) to go along with 29 hitouts on that day, arguably his best game to that point.
But Pyke is humble when discussing his performance, quick to highlight the rest of the team as well.
“From a circumstantial standpoint, I don’t think there’s a better time to stand up and play a strong game,” he said.
“That said, I think there were some other players who pulled out some incredible performances on the right day.
“You could look through the whole list, there’s some incredible efforts. I was just fortunate to be one of 22 guys to step up and play their part.”
A memorable day
With a premiership to his name, Pyke would go on to play over 100 games and become the Swans’ number one ruckman.
Before all that, on that day in 2012, Pyke became the first Canadian to win an AFL premiership.
But that fact does not resonate with Pyke much.
“Personally, looking back on it, I don’t often reflect that way, I see myself as more of one of the players on the list trying to get a gig. That’s overtime how I’ve viewed it.”
With another year of September action nearly completed, there’s no better time to reflect on the achievement, and Pyke is especially looking forward to this time next year as well.
“The reality is you end up becoming bound to, [not just] those 20-22 players on the field but also the whole playing list, the support staff, all the folk that don’t get medals but share it,” he said.
“It’s really great to have shared that piece of history with them. And that’s the great thing about team sport, you have someone to share this stuff with.
“I think more than anything, I’m looking forward to the ten-year reunion, which is next year, which is just going to be really special, to sit there and reminisce with those guys.”
A decision to try his hand at Australian Rules football turned out to be a good one, and Pyke will be a part of Sydney and Aussie Rules history forever.
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