Game Changer - The Lasting Impact of Nick Riewoldt

Picture yourself as an AFL defender. You’re tall, muscular and hard to move when you’re determined to hold your ground. You’re good – one of the best in the game. You’ve been holding down key positions for years and held some of the great forwards goalless. You’re a gorilla and, as a famous coach once said, you have gorillas to play on gorillas. But the young forward you’re matched up on is no gorilla. He’s quick, and he’s agile. He’s a 6’ 4” athletic freak with hands like a vice, and he can run… which he does. And he doesn’t stop.

The youngster runs the you from the goal square up to the wing at three quarter pace – a 90 metre trek. You stick with him, covering him off as an outlet. But the younger man turns, and you’re forced to double back and chase him, sprinting the 80 metres back, deep inside forward 50. Your chest heaves as you start sucking in the big breaths. Only a second or two pass before you turn around again and chase your man on a hard forty metre lead. You’re thanking your lucky stars that his teammates didn’t kick to him this time. Your lungs are burning. You’re spent.

But Nick Riewoldt isn’t spent. He turns back and sprints deep inside 50 again, and you’re forced to exert all you have to stay with him. You do, but your opponent knows he has you where he wants you. He hears your heavy breathing. He feels you sag off him just a little. He knows he will now find the space he needs.

Riewoldt heads off again, just as quickly as he was on that first lead, and takes a chest mark ten metres in front of you on the half forward flank. There is next to nothing you can do as Riewoldt launches at the incoming ball and clutches it to his chest. You double over, gasping for air as Riewoldt kicks the ball deep into his forward line. St Kilda goals, and Nick Riewoldt runs back to position, leaving you with little more than a tired, aching body, and a great view of the number 12 disappearing into the distance.

This is the dilemma both AFL defenders and opposition coaches faced in 2004 and beyond. Riewoldt’s aerobic ability forced them to make changes, not only to his direct match up, but to their entire defensive set up and into the midfield. It wasn’t just the second efforts that blew up his opponents; it was the fourth, fifth and sixth consecutive efforts that got Riewoldt the space to take a record-breaking amount of marks. In short, he worked hard, and everyone had to either keep up, or give up.  

In 2017, Nick Riewoldt almost received the kind of send-off befitting a man who’d given so much to the game. Chaired off by teammates at the Docklands Arena following his final home game against the Kangaroos, and then again after his Saints fell to the eventual premiers in the final round; he left the game in a different state to when he started.

The accolades will continue to flow for him long after the 2017 season has faded into memory. He is now the all-time leader in marks in VFL/AFL history, surpassing the great Footscray and North Melbourne ruckman, Gary Dempsey in Round 15, 2017. Whenever a conversation about the greatest marks in the history of the game is conducted, Riewoldt must be in consideration. Numbers simply do not lie.

If you are talking highlights, Riewoldt has the ultimate moment to point to. On June 6th, 2004 at the Sydney Cricket Ground, he took one of the greatest and most courageous marks in football history. Running with the flight of the ball, he recklessly launched himself into oncoming players, ricocheting and tumbling as bodies collided. Nick held the mark, and further enhanced his reputation of fearlessness in the process. It’s been 13 years since that car-crash of a mark, and every time I watch it, I cringe. There is no danger to me, and like a book I’ve already read, I know how it will end, yet I still cannot help but get the feeling when watching it play out that someone is going to get hurt.

Things did not start brilliantly for the former Saints captain. After being drafted number one overall in 2000, Riewoldt was sidelined for most of his first season, only playing 6 games. Incredibly, it was fellow draftee, Justin Koschitzke, the number 2 overall pick in the same draft, who received all the attention early on and was hailed as the future champion of the game. Kosi played 20 games for the Saints that year, and won the 2001Rising Star Award. Riewoldt managed around 10 disposals per game, and finished with a total of 2 goals. Hardly the beginning he’d envisioned.

Riewoldt’s progress after his rookie season was rapid. He played all 22 games in 2002, picking up where Koschitzke left off the year before by securing the Rising Star Award himself.  He elevated his game again and topped 30 goals in 2003. It was 2004, however, that he really put the competition on notice.

Riewoldt won the Leigh Matthews Medal in 2004, a season in which he broke the record for total marks. He took 256 marks for the season, at an average of 10.24 per game. He also kicked 67 goals to firmly cement him as the Saints’ go-to forward. But the marks and goals told only part of the story - it was his workrate that impressed the most. 

If you look at the way forwards have evolved, all of them take a leaf from Riewoldt’s game. With the recent retirement of Travis Cloke, there are no stay-at-home forwards these days. Over the last few years even Cloke was forced to change the way he played and add other dimensions to his game, to varying levels of success. Riewoldt paved the way for this. His willingness to run, and run, and run caused nightmares for defences. Some argued that oppositions should just let him go; let him take marks on the wing where he couldn’t do any scoreboard damage. But he did do damage. The Saints would run forward in a wave, and Riewoldt would ride it, crashing down onto the defence and swamping them. 

There is no greater testament to the impact Riewoldt had on the game itself than just how effective Matthew Richardson became in the 2008 season with Richmond. Moving up the ground, and using his aerobic capacity, Richo adopted the Riewoldt-role for the Tigers. He ran into defence and ran back with the flight of the ball. He made long, searching leads and then repeated the effort several times. He left the forward 50 more than he ever had. He became Riewoldt in an older, stronger frame.  As a result, he had career highs in both marks and disposals en route to finishing third overall in that year’s Brownlow Medal count. At this point, Richardson was nearing the end of his career – he would go on to play only another 6 games in 2009 before hanging the boots up. Although he’d kicked more goals in other seasons, that was the season that Richardson really played to his potential. That was the year that he played like Nick Riewoldt. 

The young forwards in the competition now; Jeremy Cameron, Taylor Walker, and Tom Lynch all work up the ground. Maybe nowhere near the level of Nick Riewoldt, but due to how hard he worked, the bar for them was high before they even started. Players like Lance Franklin and Jarryd Roughead play all over the ground, using their stamina and their ability to make multiple contests. As a result, they have a greater effect on the overall game. The days of parking someone in the forward 50 for an afternoon are long gone.

Lockett, Dunstall and Ablett – we remember their time in the league as a golden age for forwards. It was a time where your main forward kicked a lot of goals and that was all they were there to do. Dunstall’s tackling was a little different to the others, but most of that was inside 50. Rarely did they venture out. The main defensive tactic employed seemed to be to “drop someone in the hole” in front of them. Those people usually became the reason for Plugger spending a few weeks suspended. Riewoldt broke the mould of the 90s forward. He ushered in a new style, and it’s a style that is still in fashion.

The next time you see your key forward crashing into a pack on the wing and taking a mark, or out-sprinting his opponent on the way back to goal, picture Nick Riewoldt. That is what he brought to the game. Others may be great players, and they have added a thing or two to their game. Very few change the game. Nick Riewoldt is one of those select few.