From Boy to Man – This Is Not The Matt Rowell You Remember

The winter of 2020 is not one that will conjure positive memories for many.

We all know where the world was at that point in time, with a virus responsible for lockdowns, job losses, business closures, and almost the loss of our beloved AFL season.

One game into the year, the league was forced to shut the doors and kept them closed for almost two months. Really, despite the game being less than it was both before and after, we were pretty lucky to get a season, at all.

Once the games recommenced, a young bull in Gold Coast colours gave many the good news story they were craving. Matt Rowell arrived in the AFL and took the game by storm. And everyone had something to cheer for and get behind.

Following a standard debut game in March that saw Rowell record 19 disposals, he ripped off three straight games upon the season’s resumption that left the footy world pondering whether he was going to be the next big thing in the game. Everyone knew who Matt Rowell was, and everyone saw just how good he could be.

Averaging 22 disposals and two goals per game in those three weeks (not forgetting the games were 20% shorter), Rowell chalked up nine Brownlow votes and looked set to aid the Suns as they made their way up the ladder. His hot form was a large part of the Gold Coast run that saw them sit 3-1 after four rounds.

And then the great leveller struck. Injury does not discriminate based on potential.

At Kardinia Park, Rowell lasted just 11 minutes of the Suns’ Round Five clash against the Cats before crashing to the ground in a tackle, clutching his shoulder. It ended his promising season and set him on a path over the next 12 months that would see his star fall a little, as the AFL Media machine moved onto the next big story.

A knee injury in the 2021 season opener had many questioning whether Rowell would end up being a case of “what if…” when people looked back at his career. He sat out 12 weeks before returning to the team. However, he was not the same player we saw at the beginning of his career, managing to hit 20 disposals just once in the ensuing 11 games to round out the year.

It was a far cry from the young star that captured the league’s imagination just a year before, but many were now pondering whether we’d already seen the best of Matt Rowell, and whether this was going to be another case of Gold Coast having the worst luck a footy club could have.

2021 was a season of redemption for Rowell. Shrugging the injury bug that had bitten so hard over his first two years, he was able to play every game – that, in itself, was a win. And with a full season under his belt, the worries of injury and whether or not he was bound to become one of those players with all the talent and none of the luck were dispelled.

Whilst not dominant, he was playing a role for the team that saw him divide his time between winning the footy and ensuring his opponent did not. What’s that, you say? Don’t they all do that? Oh, sweet summer child – no… no, they don’t.

Many midfielders are left to run their own race in the middle of the ground every week, often not worrying too much about their direct opponent. That’s what teammates are for!

Rowell is not of that ilk.

With a defensive focus, Rowel became a tackling machine, His vice-like grip saw players foolish enough to attempt to take him on thrown to the deck. He averaged an incredible 9.3 tackles per game last season, firmly establishing him as one of the most physical forces in the league. Pleasingly, his clearance numbers followed suit, jumping from 3.67 in 2021 to 6.0 in 2022.

And most importantly of all, his body held up.

He was now ready to make the leap most expected him to.

What we have seen from Matt Rowell in 2023 would be making Stuart Dew smile as though he just discovered his missus’ secret stash of pies. Not only is he maintaining the excellent standards he set in 2022 when it comes to tackling (he has had ten or more tackles in a game on four occasions, including one 17-tackle outing against West Coast), but his clearance work has elevated again, with 8.0 per game seeing him ranked third overall in in the league.

Of course, that goes with his number-one ranking for tackles.

And his number-five ranking for contested possessions.

The league may have moved onto different stories over the past couple of seasons, but to not have dog-eared the book of the Matt Rowell Story in order to return to it seems a little negligent.

When Rowell came into the league, this is the version of him people were predicting we would see. A bull, crashing in at the footy, winning the ball, and punishing anyone who dared best him in a contest. With his mate, Noah Anderson forging his own brand of midfield excellence, the Suns have now got their stars, or superstars depending on how much attention you pay, in place.

The building blocks, so long unstable and at risk of toppling over, are now solid and ready to build on.

Jack Lukosius is morphing into the player the Suns hoped he’d be. Ben King is back from injury and kicking snags, Charlie Ballard leads the league in intercept marks, and Noah Anderson continues his climb toward the upper echelon of AFL mids.

People, this team is not the Gold Coast you’re used to. No,… this Suns team has become a damn hard team to beat, and a damn good team to watch. They’re just about ready to make their move. You can almost sense it.

As we sit back and watch the remainder of the week’s results unfold, the story about Matt Rowell remains about him eating grass. I get it – it’s quirky, and it appeals to the public with the attention spans of goldfish, but the footy lovers, the purists, you and I see something else unfolding with his game.

His 2023 form should not be glossed over as he makes headlines for another reason. His footy is doing the talking, only many are not bothering to talk about it.

There are many who still picture Matt Rowell as the kid who broke into the league and spent the next couple of years sitting on the sidelines with a notebook. It was cute – but if you still see him that way, boy, are you ever missing out!

Last night, Rowell went to work in the slippery Darwin conditions and worked over the vaunted Western Bulldogs midfield. With 29 disposals, 22 contested touches, 16 clearances, and eight score involvements, he was a key factor in the Suns knocking the Dogs over and staying in touch with the top eight.

With the right players around him and a clean bill of health, Matt Rowell is no longer the boy everyone barracked for to do well. He may well be the man who propels this Gold Coast team past your own and into contention.

You likely won’t be cheering him when they do.

You loved Matt Rowell as the loser because you never really thought he’d win.

Now, the script is flipping.

Matt Rowell, Noah Anderson, Ben King, Jack Lukosius… those high picks are demonstrating just why they were so valuable.

And it might be about time everyone else started taking notice.



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