Feeling Greatness

I bore witness to Trent Cotchin’s debut. It was a filthy winter’s day at the ‘G that saw the Tiges struggling to contain a Geelong side building a head of steam for another premiership tilt. 2008 was a classic lost season for Richmond, poor results early fuelling the frustration at the status quo not being touched. Hype, as always, was piled upon the young kids that were snagged in the draft. Trent Cotchin, like Deledio before him, was handed the mantle of saviour.

The number one draft pick is the perfect storm. Within the simple act of being selected before all others in your draft class, you as a talented young footballer, are immediately singled out for greatness. Supporters yearn for success and by their simple act of belief they invest all their hoped for joy upon the shoulders of the next big thing. Some can handle that weight but most feel its burden for a career. I suspect there is no coincidence that only three ‘No.1’s’ have played in a premiership. Des Headland did it with Brisbane all the while wanting to be back in WA. Drew Banfield was in the Eagles side for their first victory and then spent an entire career being the perfect clubman. He shrugged the tag of first picked off and acted according to his own ability.

I suspect it is insightful that of the three, only one is destined to be remembered by the exalted title of ‘champion.’ Luke Hodge is every footy fan’s second favourite player. He’s a junkyard dog, scrapping and clawing, jostling for the pill under every pack that forms. He is relentless in pursuit of the ball, yet what makes him so enjoyable to watch is what happens when he gets the footy in his hands. Only the greats have the ability to make time stand to attention. When Hodge, all relentless, uncontrolled fury at the contest, puts the ball on that left boot it is as precise as a laser sight. In soccer’s vernacular his left peg is ‘cultured.’

It is the highest of praise to suggest that Cotch belongs at the same table of gritty ball winners with Hodge but his dedication to the contest is already impressive.

Back to that first age then…. The moment Cotchin came on the ground the air of expectation thickened. My memory is nowhere near precise. Certainly I can’t recall the exact location on the field that confirmed to me that he was going to make it, all I can do is narrow it down to somewhere between the flanks on the long expanse of wing down the members side of the oval. What I can confirm is that in one brief and frantic moment I saw the future.

Richmond were already well behind and the Cats were pressing for the kill. There within the maelstrom appeared the young man in a No.9 guernsey. He ran to the fall of the ball and in a perfectly fluid move, plucked it off the turf, turned and assessed his options. There was no flash. No fanfare. Nothing to immediately suggest great ability or talent….But that’s what made it stand out. Cotchin looked assured. He must have been nervous, his heart beating, mouth dry. There would have been no shame, given the drenched turf and soapy ball, to have bobbled it. But he didn’t. His hands were clean and his vision perfect. He got on with it with minimum fuss. He pushed a handball out to a loose man and the kick went inside fifty. The moment passed. But what it left with me was the sense that this was a player. Sometimes that’s as big as the sample size needs to be. Watch enough football and you eventually become an expert b proxy. There is a ‘feel’ for the game that once you have captured, imbues you with the ability to ‘know.’ It is not just a champion identifier either. It will work with lesser talent in a related fashion. For instance, I know Daniel Jackson is limited in his ability but his heart for the contest and his hard work around the ground makes me admire his resolve. You can spot a footballer who has the heart- who belongs at the top level.

Allan Jeans once said that his only regret with the way football is now played was that great players didn’t play on one another for a full game anymore. He simply loved watching champions duel. As a coach he looked forward to putting Dipper on Dougie and letting them fight to the death. It is a lament easily understood. Cotchin only lined up on the Suns No.9 occasionally in this game but each time he went with Ablett I felt a tinge of excitement.

Garry Ablett has the most superb balance. He bobs on the spot with such lightness of foot and glides onto the ball with a poise that makes the whole action appears one fluid motion. The old Jack Dyerism of not being were the ball ain’t doesn’t seem to apply to him. The ball follows him, a lost puppy in need of a home. I would love to watch that duel- Cotchin and Ablett fighting for supremacy. Standing at opposite sides of the path calling desperately to the lost puppy to prove which of them it preferred.

That time has past though. We live in a footballing age where Garry can rack up fifty touches and all it achieves is a passionate debate about how effective they were and what they really meant. Disposals are now rated. It doesn’t matter if you kicked the footy thirty times, what needs to be known is how effective were those kicks? Did they advantage your team? Did you get them in the right part of the ground? Were they from a clearance? Did they penetrate the fifty? That should matter of course. The analytical pursuit of statistics that are meaningful actually help to prove why some players are champions and some are just good ordinary footballers.

Trent Cotchin’s kicked a goal with his first kick but all I recall is that one fleeting moment of assurance. Lenny Hayes has been a champion for my beloved Saints for a decade but his debut is also lost in the midst of my memory except for one brief moment. I am not along in remembering it either. Lenny was desperately trying to keep the ball from crossing the boundary on centre wing. He didn’t see Glen Archer coming the other way and thus got split right down the middle by a thunderous shirtfront. It wasn’t a moment as subtle as Cotch’s touch but the result was the same. Lenny picked himself up, took in some big ones and got after it again. That moment told its tale too. I knew just as surely that that boy Hayes was going to be something. I just had a feeling….


  1. Tom

    It’s been interesting to note how GC and GWS have handled the No. 1 selection in the past few years, seeing they had the first few selections so being No. 1 wasn’t as important. Melbourne also when it had selction 1 and 2 with Scully and Trengove, I imagine that they put a lot of thought into just who was announced as No. 1.

    With the benefit of having watched other No. 1’s either embrace or struggle with the pressure of the title, I wander what role psych testing, maturity, ability to represent the club and do media, played in Patton being No. 1 for example, instead of some of his other colleagues.

    Hodge took a while to settle, but is a gem. Most clubs would have taken Watts at No.1 in his year, didn’t turn out well. It’s a lottery.

    There are busts all the time in drafts, Michael Jordan was only pick 3 (from memory) in his NBA draft year, much touted No. 1 potential Ryan Leaf, in the NFL, who eventually went No. 2 in a toss of the coin with Peyton Manning, was a spectacular failure.

    Nice piece, agree with you on Cotchin


  2. Tom Grreenaway says

    Btw- Cotchin’s was No.2 in his draft class, I know but the fact that an entire book was written about him sent the pressure up a touch for all that class! I should have clarified that better- Sorry!

  3. People forget how much pressure Hodge was under in the first five years of his career when Judd was such a commanding presence. Hawks mucked up, Hodge no good, was the call. (Much like Tom Hawkins had to cope with until he reached the ripe old age of 23). Never in doubt now though. Always going to come through, says the media.

  4. I don’t remember much of Cotch’s début, to be perfectly honest. I think I may have spent a bit of time in the bar that day, by all accounts.

    I do, however, remember his first goal. It wasn’t spectacular. It wasn’t greeted with ‘the man has arrived’, or anything like that. It was a good, honest footballer with silky skills. A VERY good footballer. He simply looked like he belonged!

    Also saw Jonathan Patton’s début for GWS last year. Had heard the hype, but to see this teenager built like a Road Train come out was also quite impressive. No one knows definitively how ones career will pan out, but if he recovers well from this knee reco, he’ll be a force to be reckoned with. Imagine him alongside Buddy Franklin… I’m not convinced many sides could match-up effectively with that.

  5. Kath Presdee says

    Lachie Whitfield has been playing very well for GWS all year. He has played with more maturity than some of his team-mates and his skills and smarts are very surprising.

    I think he will grow into a genuine champion.

    It is interesting watching the Top 3 picks from Draft 2011. Two have had their development curtailed by serious injuries – Patton and Tyson but I agree with Kent W; watching Patton’s debut last year was awesome. While I don’t think Buddy is the answer to all our problems, a forward line with Buddy, Cameron and Patton is something that is scarily good.

    That said, I think some recent drafts might not have the real “No.1” pick due to the concessions that GWS had in terms of underage players and the mini-draft. Cameron, Shiel and Treloar (among others) weren’t in the 2011 draft. Jaegar O’Meara wasn’t in the 2012 draft. Would Patton and Whitfield have kept the No.1 spot in those years if the full slate had been available? An interesting puzzle.

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