On Monday, we learned that season 2017 would be the last for another modern-day giant of the game. Since bursting onto the scene in 2001, he trained smarter and harder than any other player to ensure that his body would withstand the slings and arrows of top flight footy. In the end though, even Nick Riewoldt was powerless to overcome the ravages of 17 years in the AFL.
That is not to say that he came to the decision to walk away from the game easily. In the face of the maelstrom of noise urging him to step aside, Riewoldt’s first instinct was to fight. “Don’t be weak, don’t be weak,” he urged himself while remembering, “You’ve got yourself out of so many positions of adversity.”
Resilient champion, modern-day giant
This response would have surprised no one, least of all close friend and former coach Grant Thomas. The former Saints mentor told Jake Niall of Fox Sports he thought stubbornness was a defining feature of the Saints Great, linked intrinsically with his famed competitiveness. He suggested that Riewoldt was relentless in his efforts to better himself and was an “incredible sponge for knowledge and information” in this quest.
This insatiable appetite to be better is perhaps the reason Geelong Fullback Matthew Scarlett nominated Riewoldt as “easily” the best opponent he encountered. That, and a desire to work harder than any other player on the paddock. With a tank similar in size to any midfielder Riewoldt, in part, changed the role of Centre Half Forward. His ability to outmark an opponent only matched by his capacity to outrun them too.
This unmatched ability to run was apparent the minute he reported to Moorabbin for pre-season training ahead of the 2001 season. Malcolm Blight, St Kilda’s coach and anointed saviour back in 2001, instantly saw what the football world would marvel at for the rest of the superstar’s long career.
“He had a really good tank. He could just run — which was probably the trademark of his game,’’ Blight told Fox Footy this week. With this unmatched endurance for a key tall, it was not surprising that Riewoldt would not be content to be a stay at home forward. As a result, the skinny kid from the Gold Coast would spend the next 17 years leading opposition defenders on a merry dance all the way to the AFL Hall of Fame.
Number One pick, A-class legend
Drafted at Number One in the 2000 Draft, it was with a heavy sense of expectation that Riewoldt arrived at St Kilda. The success-starved Saints had just collected their 26th Wooden Spoon and had gone on a heavy off-season recruiting spree that brought stars Aaron Hammil and Fraser Gehrig, among others, to the club.
This influx of talent along with the $1 million acquisition of Malcolm Blight to mentor the club, meant that hopes were high that the club would turn their fortunes around quickly. For many, this might have been an unbearable burden, but Blight never had these fears in relation to Riewoldt as he recalled this week, “Number 1 (pick) wasn’t going to be an issue for him”. In fact, it seemed almost from Day 1, that his broad shoulders were made to bear the load of Saints fans’ hopes.
Mature beyond his years, it was no surprise that at only 22-year-old was appointed Captain of the club; it would be a role in which he thrived. By the time he relinquished the position to Jarryn Geary this season, he had led the club in more games than any other and was second only to Stephen Kernahan across all clubs.
His first game in the role was a baptism by fire. It was against the Lions at the Gabba, in the opening game of the season. It would prove a memorable night for all the wrong reasons, with an incident involving an injured Riewoldt seeing the AFL move to modify the laws of the game around a player’s duty of care towards injured opponents.
A broken collarbone was the first of a number of obstacles Riewoldt would be required to overcome in his time in the role. One of the great leaders in the competition, it was apparent that his teammates all walked taller with their Champion forward leading them into battle.
Elusive premiership keeps him hungry
Twice Riewoldt led his team to within touching distance of the games’ ultimate prize, only for a Matty Scarlett toe-poke in 2009, and a wicked bounce away from Stephen Milne in 2010, to cruelly deny him and his team the opportunity to end the Saints long premiership drought.
Barring a fairy-tale conclusion to the 2017 season, these heart-breaking moments will be to blame for the one space on the resume of one of the modern game’s most decorated players. For many this would be a cause of sleepless nights, thankfully for Riewoldt, he is content that there was little more that he, or his teammates, could have done.
“The reason I’m content is going through those experiences what more could we have done? Personally, could I have trained any harder? Could I have pushed anymore? Could I have prepared any better? The answer is no within those.
“Until they start giving away premiership medals I’m content knowing that we gave it an absolute crack and ultimately fell short.
“We did our part, we took the emotional risk and I certainly took the emotional risk to be great. And wins, losses, mistakes are all part of your football career and I can cop that we gave it everything that we could and fell just short.”
Even legends have to call time
Having spent his entire career leaving no stone unturned in his preparation, and running past the point of exhaustion each and every week in the pursuit of victory, his contentment is one that has been well and truly earned. It was in this extreme level of effort and commitment he also won the belief, love, and admiration of those who bleed red, black and white.
Even as late as three weeks ago against Richmond, in a best on ground performance, he gave these fans a reason to believe he would be able to again find enough to go around again in2018. Unfortunately, as superhuman as his endurance was it was not limitless and his exertions have left just enough fuel in the tank to get him through four, or perhaps a fairytale-like eight more games.
The consummate professional, Riewoldt’s press conference to announce his retirement was an upbeat affair. The composed and happy champ seemingly content in his decision and was only brought to the brink of tears when the assembled press broke into a spontaneous round of applause at the completion of his announcement.
After the joy he has brought Saints fans and the greater football community in his time in the game, it was a befitting send-off.
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