Memories of Cyril, a delightful footballer


About ten years ago I had the good fortune of witnessing Cyril Rioli’s first game. It was on a Sunday afternoon in the autumn of 2008, the collective glee of school holidays filling the air. My memory of the game itself has hazed considerably over the years, any sizeable recollections having been infringed by the passing of time. The Hawks I remember pummelled the hapless Dees by over 100 points, a performance to foreshadow what they were to present to the competition that year.


The jolt of Cyril’s dreaded announcement however shifted the match back into my focus this past week, his confirmation that an early retirement was the path he had chosen to take. Attempting to reform past games in your mind is a hard task. Mostly what is retrieved are fleeting moments of play, or an overriding emotion that slowly drifts back into your conscious. If you’re lucky, a game may preserve in a special corner of your memory, a flag that heralds a moment of significance that will forever be remembered.


For me, the joy of watching Cyril was the strongest and most lasting memory I have from that day. He was that flag. He seemed to gel instinctively with the hallowed turf of the MCG, a stage that would form the canvas for most of his footballing artistry. It is a rare sensation, and one that only presents for the most gifted of players, but with Cyril you felt his place in the game was assured as soon as he took his place in an AFL arena. His talent and wizardry were made clear from the outset, as he began casting his football spell that would enchant his audience for the next decade.


The announcement of his retirement drew an outpouring of emotion from the footballing public; a thank you of sorts to his immense contribution to the game, but also an overwhelming feeling of sadness that his brilliant career has concluded so soon, his 29th birthday having not yet been reached. Journalist Mark Robinson went as far as to describe the atmosphere following the event as death-like, that a sense of loss permeated throughout the sport. There was of course a certain degree of hyperbole in Robinson’s words, and many were quick to refute the remark as idiotic. But to his assertion I add this: no retirement has ever left me feeling as flat as Cyril’s, an emptiness that I have never before experienced with a departing player. One made worse by the slow burning realisation that we will never again see a chase down tackle on the Southern Stand wing from the no. 33, or witness his incredible touch or freakish moments of brilliance. A death had not taken place, but there is grief, and an irreplaceable hole that has now been left in footy.


There have been many reveries on his outstanding career since last week, footballing poets who have attempted the difficult task of encapsulating what Cyril was, and who he was. It forms as a difficult task to explain a player so capable of the inexplicable, to capture the nuances that made his performances so special. It lead many to the question of what his defining moment has been, what act spoke most to his unique influence on the game. The favourite it seems has been his effort of determination and will on the members’ wing of the MCG in the third quarter of the 2008 decider, wherein he bettered three experienced Cat’s on his lonesome, and contributed to the swinging tide of momentum that had begun to thrust the way of Hawthorn.


Another often forgotten instance in that famous quarter, and the recollection that first came to my mind when retracing Cyril’s career, was his beautiful front and square rove at the Punt Road end of the ground, a classic forward crumb where he perched and waited for the Matthew Scarlett fist over the outstretched Lance Franklin, before springing to life and swooping with a perfectly timed collect of the footy. An open goal awaited as he put the Hawks two scores up, a goal that sparked a famous winning run. It was one delightful memory, and there have been many more. But that split second of instinctive skill summed up Cyril to me. A player on another level to everyone else out there.


His career accrued many accolades, borne from both individual and team success. His four premierships place him among the greats of the modern game, as does his Norm Smith Medal in 2015, a performance that prompted his name to ring out around the MCG. At that point in time he sat on top of the football world, as did his club over a golden run.


He has largely been unsighted the last 18 months, a period that has left footy feeling colder. Injury, a consistent theme throughout his career, has reared its head, but so too has personal struggle, namely his father’s health scare that has placed football back into an appropriate perspective. He said last week that the heart attack suffered by his father contributed to his loss of hunger for the sport, and diminished the competitive drive needed to remain at the top level. Having also been situated in Melbourne since he was a teenager, the pull to return to his family and friends in the top end grew stronger, an obligation felt to be there for those he feels closest. Darwin and the Tiwi islands now beckon, his natural environment will finally have him back.


There is an aura created around an athlete when they choose to walk away from their sport before their time, and you sense that this will be the case with Cyril and his tale, a talent who in another life would have wowed us for so much longer. What he leaves behind is a highlight reel for the ages, and the appreciation of football lovers great and small. We’ll miss him.





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