Nankervis

 

 

Honest.

 

That’s the word I’d best use to describe Toby Nankervis. I was lucky enough to coach him, and be his teammate. The word fits like a glove.

 

Then, there are the other words. Determined. Grunt. Stubborn.

 

Toby killed it last Friday. Was, simply, the difference in a ding-dong, smash and crash game of pure pressure that would have made footy just 20 years ago seem like the stuff of Neanderthals. Each team played to structures, giving the other no room. Each team had two lines of backmen of a level of brilliance the game has never seen. Each team hit impossibly hard. No star was going to cut lose under such organised brutality. No forward kick a bag. No champion was going to stand above.

 

It was close to the best Preliminary Final I have ever seen.

 

Many fans will tell you those two games are the real Grand Final. The crowds are genuine, not corporates, huge passion, and the players play to suit. To enter history. By the time they get to the Granny, the game is rarely as good. One of them has almost always already fired every bullet they have.

 

That’s what so heartbreaking for the Port boys. On the whole, nobody will remember the losers of a Preliminary. No legends will be written about them.

 

Even if they made the Grand Final and got smashed, they will have made a Grand Final. They will have run through that banner, heard a crushed stadium all shouting inwards, at them, as if they were the world, as the first ball is bounced down.

 

They will have entered mythology.

 

Yet a Prelim? So many months and years of sacrifice and pain, only to finish so close…!

 

Martin Pike won four flags. He should be a Hall of Famer but for pretty-boy politics. He was in the best players in most of those games, yet, the story that lit him up the most when we talked, was when Sydney were spanking Brisbane in the 2003 Preliminary Final. Going into the three quarter time huddle, the Brisbane body language was destroyed. Pikey gathered them… and, according to Simon Black… LET RIP!

 

Chest and chins were lifted. Matthews walked into a huddle of paranha-hungry eyes.

 

Then Pike backed it up with a last quarter at centre half forward that turned the game.

 

Game won, a few minutes to go, Matthews dragged him, got him on the phone.

 

“Well done, rest up. You just got us into the Grand Final.”

 

The way Martin Pike spoke with such pride of that moment was something special. Just to be in the room with him as he retold it, my hairs stood on end.

 

Nick Davis won a Premiership medal, but his game a week earlier, is pure Aussie Rules folklore! Something beyond stats, medals and honour boards.

 

I wonder which memory he cherishes more?

 

Richmond versus Port was a deadlock of titans. It needed something more. More than Dusty or Ollie, Tom or Charlie, more than Hardwick and Hinkley. And Toby provided, by being Toby.

 

Nothing flash. No high leaps. No flash skills. Just grinding his opponent down. Just working back and back again, until in the hot spot, and daring the pack to knock him off the ball.

 

Watch his marks, he barely gets off the ground.

 

Nothing flash, just effort down low. Pushing, shoving, tackling, clearing paths, getting it, giving small handballs.

 

Work.

 

The AFL is all spit and polish. They say Toby Nankervis came from North Launceston, simply because their vision doesn’t get any smaller than Statewide.

 

Originally, though, he was from Lilydale – a dot town in NE Tasmanian nowhere. Clubrooms that look like a brick dunny house. An oval surrounded by paddocks and cows.

 

Dairy and logging. Four streets. One pub, one shop, one servo. There’s nothing to it.

 

Yet, in football terms, the place remarkable! It produced him, Melbourne’s Jay Lockhart, numerous Statewide premiership players, and countless Div 1 superstars.

 

Amongst those players, and the people of that ripper little town, as a rule of thumb, honesty’s the norm.

 

Down at Tassie Div 3 level, talent-wise, your juniors are a mixed bag. Rather than do drills or game practice that revolved around our best, I tried to invent drill after drill where how hard you worked was up to you. The least to the most could go as hard as they want, learn as much as they want. Kick to the jumper, not the player. Nobody had to wait on the other to go forward. On the track, nobody could cruise above their teammates because of their ability or build.

 

The one word I preached was character.

 

“You can fool the crowd, me, even your teammates, but you know. You can’t fool yourself.”

 

Toby gave every single drill everything! Every! Until he could barely walk, sometimes. Mate, he had the fire!

 

But, even then, his competitive nature was the thing that stood out. His leap wasn’t special, nor his pace. Just his application.

 

Soon, he followed his family from our Div 3 area to Georgetown. Broadmeadows by the Sea. A rough old place in a beautiful setting. And a team tough enough and skilled enough to win flag after flag.

 

Tall, young and skinny, playing against bodies as big as his, harder than his, it was the perfect foil.

 

As with most of my ex charges, I stayed in contact, to see where he was at, in sport and life, supported him how I could, went to the odd game when we had a bye.

 

I offered to push for him at the AFL level – as I’d done with others over the years – but he was also a jet fast bowler with national ambitions. Footy, he said, was simply his social release.

 

“Never replace something with nothing” He had his something. I didn’t argue.

 

Toby then progressed to the proud, immensely successful, extremely professional State League side, North Launceston, and, still a teenager, won a senior flag at centre half forward.

 

About five Lilydale players were in that side. Unbelievable! And rest of the district and I were there, cheering like baboons.

 

It’s funny. Many a 6 foot kid I tried to shoehorn into the AFL system was told; “Sorry, there are 1,000 blokes your build. You’re gunna have to want to kill to get into our squad.” Yet, when your 6 foot 5, the system pulls you in.

 

The timing was perfect. They came for Toby just as his Australian Cricket dream was hitting a wall.

 

“Don’t replace something with nothing.” Maybe it was that. Maybe it was the professional attitude of North, maybe it was simply his raw desire to compete, as his ability dragged him upwards, but he went and played Teal, smashed that, and was drafted by Sydney.

 

I visited once, while doing my footy book, there to talk to O’Loughlin, O’Keefe, Sheedy, Phil Davis, Barry Breen, Roos.

 

This was way better than any of that! Just three old mates, Tobe and Dean Towers, and me. Having a swim, talking life and footy.

 

I watched him train. He was pitted against one of three other ruckmen Sydney recruited in his two years there. What were they thinking!? Why recruit him at all?

 

Replaced by Tippet, replaced by this bloke or that. He was young. Ruckmen don’t begin to peek until their late 20s. That’s Aussie Rules Universal law.

 

That training session involved him and the other bloke wrestling on hands and knees in the sun, getting up to contesting a ball-up to two rovers, then jogging 30 metres and repeating, body-on-body, muscle on muscle, in the stinking heat, for what seemed hours. No breaks, no sucking in air.

 

Contest, contest, contest, contest, contest. These are the things you don’t see. How steel becomes a sword. It made me as jealous as all hell.

 

Toby still played the same way. No great leap, honest work. Out-jumped at centre bounces. But still young. They never had faith, and let him go.

 

Towers couldn’t believe it. He told me Toby’s teammates loved him for the work he did around the ball. The things flashy commentators and stats nuts will never, ever see. The way he broke packs up, putting his body on the line for the little guys.

 

Richmond saw it, though. He was Ivan Maric Mk II.

 

For the second time in his football life, Toby’s timing was perfect. Maric was a foot soldier, a worker, admired for that, and on the decline. It was the perfect swap. An upgrade on the same.

 

Two flags under his belt, the bloke his mates new as Big Rig, had become affectionately known as The Nank. Like Duck became The King, he had a public nickname. He was in.

 

But no given.

 

Tobe never really starred in either of the ’17 and ’19 flags. He did his job. People didn’t rate him. People are idiots! They failed to realise three things: his force of will, that his teammates adore. The fact he was still young. His knack for timing.

 

At the start of this screwed up season, he wasn’t even in the side, overtaken by Maric’s cousin, Ivan Soldo – much taller, and better at getting his hand to the ball.

 

Tobe got back into the team, though, and through the year. As it went on, I noticed his leap in the middle had improved out of sight, as he starts to reach his physical prime. That he was far better at affecting contests he wasn’t going to win. Getting a finger to it even when his opponent got in front.

 

In ruckwork that’s huge! Everything!

 

You’re never going to win every contest, but a clean tap to a running on-baller will destroy you.

 

Everything had improved, but Soldo was playing well, and Mabior Chol rising, his ground time seemed to be reduced.

 

Then, sliding doors.

 

Soldo went down with a knee in the first half of Round 17, and, instantly, it seemed to me, everything about the Big Rig changed.

 

If you’ve ever rucked, so much of it is rhythm and work ethic. It’s so hard to read the way an umpire throws the ball in or up, the way your opponent hustles, when you’re on and off the bench.

 

And, it’s impossible to wear them down.

 

In that second half, I saw the best I have seen from Nankervis. He was tough, relentless, brilliant. He spanked Geelong and set up his and Richmond’s finals.

 

Which, obviously, are a different game all together.

 

Finals are about pressure.

 

They’re about no room to move. They’re about busting your damn gut to get into your zones, to push that extra 50 metres just to fill gaps.

 

It’s become about kicking it long to packs, and being tough, and organised, within chaos.

 

Aussie Rules spins and evolves. Always has and will. And, as coaching gets more and more professional, it realigns in less and less time.

 

The game, just three years ago, was still preaching, and relied on, maintaining possession. Wear a tackle if you have to, go backwards, just don’t turn it over, ever! Even holding the ball is better than shooting blind.

 

But now, with backlines and zones so solid, the opposite is true. Kick to a contest! By hell, we’ll have the numbers! No easy out backs, no chips to the side!

 

We have the corridor covered. We have it all covered.

 

We go long. We make them go long. We take them on, we slap it on, we soccer, we roll.

 

Damn, this instalment of the game was made for a tough bastard like Toby Nankervis!

 

Last Friday his opponent was bigger, leapt higher, in the first half he slid past Toby several times. But a game’s four quarter’s long. Half way through the third, things were shifting in the ruck, and in that, around the ground. Toby had worn him down. He was too strong, too determined. Too fiercely after the ball once it hit the ground.

 

Ten tackles by a man that big and strong. Ten! Bumps, crunches. More and more hit outs. Not one flash thing about it. Then those two marks.

 

Character.

 

Dropping back like that, and actually marking it, while all others jumped and fell and sored and crashed around him, that was old school. Everything about it. It made people who yearn for the past cry.

 

Only his ruck technique was modern. Hugely so. He’s learnt, he’s improved. He’s only what? 26-27? Only now entering his prime.

 

That quarter, Friday night 16.10.20, it was Pike, was Davis. Was a foundation. A doorway to an opportunity. 3 in 4 years. A potential dynasty.

 

Will it be remembered in years to come? Not any more than the Port Power team of 2020. Probably by Tiger nuts, not by the average punter.

 

Definitely by his teammates. He’s just that sort of player. No matter where he goes, they’ll not underestimate him, and what he does for them. Even if the public does.

 

Toby won’t forget it. Neither will I.

 

If you ask for honesty, you have to have it yourself. Toby Nankervis has entered another world from the bush footy I roam. Has passed through enough coaches to make a bloke’s head spin. Lived three lives, with more to come. I doubt one thing I told him had a lasting impact, and that’s fine.

 

He was a kid I coached and liked enough to be a friend, and follow.

 

Last time we talked, a beer and Melbourne were mentioned. But life speeds up. When I’ve been in FNQ, he’s been in Tassie, when he’s been in Tassie, I’ve been in the Otways, when I’ve been near Melbourne, he’s been in a Queensland bubble. That chat was two or three years ago.

 

But, oath, I still back for him! For the honest payers, the hard workers. The guts. For the unseen deeds.

 

For the footballer and the man.

 

And always will.

 

 

A young Toby Nankervis (on the right). Pic courtesy of Matt Zurbo.

 

 

 

For more from Old Dog, click HERE.

 

 

Read more from the Preliminary Final weekend HERE

 

 

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Comments

  1. Yep, great stuff Old Dog.
    Just loved this read. Cheers.

  2. Paddy Grindlay says

    Great read mate. Nank the Tank indeed.

    That last mark was something else. My other favourite Toby moment from this year was against the Crows. Brad Crouch was getting into his skipper. Toby wasn’t having it, and put him into the turf. 50 metre penalty, but the message was clear.

    Thanks for this.

  3. Kerry Stubbs says

    Brilliant read and about a fantastic young man. Thank you Go Tigers

  4. Super read Matt! Those with an eye for the tough stuff noticed what he was doing the other night and many had him BOG. Both Toby & Cotchin were outstanding in the last quarter. The game was exhilarating, mesmerising! The moment when things shifted for Toby this season was in the game against West Coast. A centre bounce early in the game against Nic Nat and Toby rushed him, taking his space, inhibiting the leap. Toby got him, as in out smarted him, got in his head. Nic Nat was flummoxed. Toby got going up and down the ground despite the fact he’d missed many games and was lacking fitness. Hopefully he can earn himself another premiers medal on Saturday night – it would be just reward!

  5. Brilliant Matt. So much to admire in this.

    Was a magnificent prelim. I reckon the 2016 GWS/ Dogs prelim was right up there too.

  6. Malby Dangles says

    This is a great article and ‘humanises’ a player whom I don’t support due to the fact he’s not a Carlton guy. Hats off to him, he was sensational in that last quarter. I thought around the ground Port were maybe even a smidge better than the Tigers near the end, but Nankervis was unstoppable in the ruck. Almost every ruck contest the Tigers got the ball in their advantage one way or the other. A final quarter great performance, almost (dare I say it) up there with Kouta in the 1999 prelim (almost!!)
    I love how fulfilling it must be for you to know Nankervis and have coached him! Wow that’s awesome!! He seems to embody many of your values, Matt (I am paying you and Nankervis a compliment). In a way he embodies the values of Damien Hardwick and the Tigers players in general as well – tough, hardworking, but still very very good.

  7. Fantastic insight into one of the key Tigers who does his job without fanfare

    pure grunt and diligence

    that’s Nank

  8. Old Dog,

    I’d like to offer you the position of Coach for Life of the Footy Almanac footy team.

    Loved this piece for its many elements.

    Wonderful description, insight and all from a foundation which is love and respect for people and the game.

    Cheers
    JTH

  9. Sensational Old dog geez his last quarter was inspirational funny how sometimes that the 1 ruckman runs over the top of the pairing ( you’re article is proving to be popular on a couple of Richmond Facebook pages mate ) thank you

  10. That’s it, Old Dog.
    There’s nothing else.

    Many thanks for showing us & for reminding me.
    That’s it.
    Love it.

  11. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Why would you read the “papers” when you can read this? Great stuff Matt.

  12. Thanks to all. G the Nank! Got Tiges!

  13. Superb Matt.
    May Nank produce a performance to match on Saturday.

  14. He’s a wonderful Tiger. I’m sure your early influence is still running through Toby. Work – you live to see it rewarded.

  15. *love* to see it rewarded

  16. He may not get many plaudits in the media, but then the media these days is a farce, the footy media the biggest farce of all – just clickbait drivel.

    But I’m sure his team mates know exactly how much he puts in and how much it matters.

    The Tiger Army certainly knows how valuable Nank is, we love what he does and are rapt he has signed on for 2 more years.

    Hope he gets a third flag on Saturday, all that crap about Danger deserving this and what a good send off for the little mercenary, Nank deserves it more than both of them put together.

  17. Brendan Williams says

    Thanks for the great story

  18. Brilliant read. Thank you for the insight into Toby. I love him and his contribution to my beloved Tigers (54 year member!). Hope we win so he gets his third premiership medal

  19. John Butler says

    Go the big blokes! They’ll never win another Brownlow, but who cares?

    Try winning without a couple of big fellas clearing paths.

    Onya Matt.

  20. Ahh… wonderful flashes of football knowledge and essences of human nature and not afraid of emotion. People respond to emotion. Thanks for this, Matt. I reckon if the Cats get done it won’t feel so bad now… having been reminded of the long stories behind each player who’s given his all on the day. And remembering Triumph and Disaster are imposters. (Am I hedging my bets here?)
    That said… I hope Stanley makes him look like 2nd rate and we win by eight goals.
    ajc

  21. Haha, good one ajc! Wish we could meet at a pb and bet a beer on it!

  22. What a ripper Matt. Absolute ripper.

    I had a hint that Nankervis was this sort of bloke – old school. Those marks in the last quarter were taken because he understands the game. Right to the bone. You’ve nailed it.

    Great yarn

  23. Mathilde de H says

    How my Swans erred when they preferenced Tippett, the fragile dinosaur.

    Turning steel into a sword indeed! I get the feeling you know that too, Matt, not least on the page.

    Merci.

  24. Mathilde de H, I miss you! I hope you’re writing up storms.

  25. Loved this Old Dog, just brilliant and grounded reading material in the swirling period between PF and GF.

  26. Really enjoyed the read, Matt. How often do we see a player develop to full potential once going to another Club? In retrospect, wish he was still with us!

  27. Great read Matt. Love the back stories within – people, place and mood.

  28. Great read Matt and a wonderful story .
    Too true about prelims being the best games of the year and of recent times last Friday night was up there with the Dogs/ GWS prelim in 2016 . I thought he was magnificent albeit I was keen for Port to win .
    I can assure you as a Dogs supporter Nanks is rated highly by out West . Always plays well against us and is exactly what we need in our team . He was good again last night in a very good GF albeit the number 4 for the Tiges had them all covered again .

  29. Matt Zurbo says

    Yeah, Hayden, I would not be too gutted if I came second to Dusty in a Grand Final. Haha. Doggies are lon the rise, I reckon.

  30. Chandrasekhar Manjunath Varayali says

    Hi Matt, This is awesome read. Your article on Toby has everything a real footy fan looks for. I am an Indian Australian love Tigers. I have been following tigers for 10 long years when i migrated to Australia.
    I believe in hard workers and Toby is the Man. No fuse just goes about this work without any fanfare. Richmond as a team typifies that workman like team. No wonder, Richmond wins premiership without fanfare.
    Please keep writing great articles.

  31. Chandrasekhar,

    ((Phew, I can barely spell my own name!) You should write about your experiences as a new Australian Tiger! I bet it would be great reading!

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