Collingwood midfielder Josh Thomas is set to end a 1038-day exile from the AFL on Sunday.
The former Redland junior, who has served a two-year ban after testing positive to a banned substance in March 2015, was last night named in the Magpies’ provisional squad for the Pies’ MCG clash with Hawthorn.
And while officially the 25-year-old still has to survive the final selection cut Friday night, and the Magpies refused to confirm his spot in the side on Thursday, Friday logic says he will play.
Collingwood officials would not have gone to the trouble of elevating Thomas from the rookie list and setting off a media frenzy in Melbourne if they were intending to leave him among the emergencies.
Thomas’ long-awaited return was the highlight of a big selection night for Queenslanders ahead of Round 15 of the Toyota AFL premiership.
Brothers Josh and Corey Wagner were also recalled by Melbourne and North Melbourne respectively, and Zac Smith won back his spot in the Geelong senior side.
But this weekend will be all about Thomas, the 178cm 77kg midfielder, who knocked back a guaranteed contract with the Gold Coast Suns to put himself into the 2009 AFL National Draft in the hope that he could play AFL football in Melbourne and was taken with selection #75.
After a series of foot injuries in his first three years with the Pies he debuted in 2013 and played 32 AFL games in 2013-14, winning the Magpies ‘Best First Year Player Award’ in 2013.
He showed genuine class. In just his 17th game against West Coast at the MCG in Round 22 2013 he had a career-high 35 possessions to join a pretty exclusive club of Queenslanders with a 30-possession game to their credit.
Among 169 Queenslanders to play at AFL level only 25 have had 30 or more possessions in a game.
Dayne Beams leads the list with 48 games of 30-plus, ahead of Michael Voss (24), Marcus Ashcroft (17), Dayne Zorko (16), Scott McIvor (12), David Armitage (12) and Jarrod Harbrow (10).
Others in the 30-Possession Club are Jason Akermanis (8, Gavin Crosisca (7),Joel Macdonald (5), Josh Drummond (3), Sam Gilbert (3), Hawthorn’s Stephen Lawrence (2), Adam Oxley (2), Nick Riewoldt (2), Lee Spurr (2), Josh Smith (2), Clint Bizzell (1), Steve McLuckie (1),Dean McRae (1), Craig Potter (1), Andrew Raines (1), Cheynee Stiller (1), Lachie Weller (1) and Thomas (1).
Thomas also had two games in 2014 in which he had 29 possessions and kicked three goals.
He averaged 18.3 possessions per game through his 32 games, kicked 19 goals, earned five Brownlow Medal vote, played against every opposition club in the AFL, and enjoyed a 21-11 win/loss record.
But it all turned horribly wrong in March 2014 when he and clubmate Lachie Keeffe, a 40-gamer originally from Gympie, tested posted to a banned substance and were suspended for two years.
They have not played in the AFL since Round 23 2014, when, on 29 August 2014, the Pies copped a 65-point hiding from Hawthorn at the MCG.
As a measure of just how long Thomas has been out of the system, he was Collingwood player #1104. In his last game Corey Gault debuted to become Collingwood player #118. And when Callum Brown debuted in Round 12 this year he became Collingwood player #1142.
Of the side that played in Thomas’ last game one third are no longer at the club, Sam Dwyer, Tony Armstrong and Gault have retired, Jarrod Witts has moved to Gold Coast, Marley Williams to North Melbourne, Paul Seedsman to Adelaide and Jack Frost to Brisbane.
Also gone from the 2014 playing list are Luke Ball, Dayne Beams, Nathan Brown, Matthew Clarke, Travis Cloke, Nathan Freeman, Ben Hudson, Patrick Karnezis,. Ben Kennedy, Heritier Lumumba, Quentin Lynch, Brent Macaffer, Jonathan Marsh, Kyle Martin, Nick Maxwell, Caolan Mooney, Dane Swan, Alan Toovey, fellow Queenslander Peter Yagmoor and Clinton Young.
That leaves only 15 survivors from the 2014 list of 45 – Queenslanders Adam Oxley and Jesse White, Jarryd Blair, Tim Broomhead, Jamie Elliott, Alex Fasolo, Tyson Goldsack, Heath Grundy, Tom Langdon, Scott Pendlebury, Jackson Ramsey, Ben Reid, Matt Scharenberg, Steele Sidebottom and Ben Sinclair.
And only 10 of them are in the 25-man squad in which Thomas is named for the crunch game against Hawthorn on Sunday – captain and 250-gamer Pendlebury, Sidebottom, Goldsack, Langdon, Elliott, Fasolo, Grundy, Reid, Broomhead and Ramsey.
Fourteen members of the 2017 Collingwood list are new to the club since Thomas’ last game – Jeremy Howe, Lyndon Dunn, Jack Crisp, Brayden Maynard, Tom Phillips, Mason Cox, Jordan deGoey, Darcy Moore, Will Hoskin-Elliott, Taylor Adams, Adam Treloar, Matt Scharenberg, Callum Brown and Levi Greenwood.
Also new to the club since then and not in the senior side this week are former Redland player Josh Smith, Travis Varcoe, Daniel Wells, Chris Mayne, Ben Crocker, James Aish, Josh Daicos, Henry Schade, Ruperb Wills and the untried Brayden Sier, Sam McLarty, Mitch McCarty, Max Lynch and Kayle Kirby.
Smith, a close friend of Thomas, will miss this weekend altogether with a hamstring.
The significance of Thomas’ pending return and the exceedingly tough journey he and Keeffe have travelled just to get a second chance was not lost on Collingwood players, coaches and officials on Thursday afternoon.
When the club family gathered as they do at 2.30pm each Thursday for coach Nathan Buckley to announce the side an enormous cheer went up when Thomas was included.
As Football Manager Geoff Walsh, who himself left Collingwood and returned during the Thomas/Keeffe exile, told the club website Thursday night that Thomas selection was “great reward for him”.
“He has done a good job getting back after some good form in the VFL,” Walsh said.
Thomas, taken back with Keeffe as a rookie this year, will return to AFL football after averaging 23.3 disposals in seven games in the VFL this year, including 28-30-31 in consecutive games against Sandringham, Werribee and Box Hill recently.
He leads the VFL team in clearances and ranks fourth in disposals despite not playing every game.
In further good news for the Queensland AFL family, Corey Wagner has been pitch-forked straight into the North Melbourne side to play Gold Coast at Metricon Stadium on Saturday after only three quarters of football since his only AFL game of the season on 6 May.
The former Aspley star and Brisbane Lions Academy player lasted only two minutes before he badly injured his ankle, and was nursed through his comeback game with Werribee in the VFL last week after a brilliant opening.
The 20-year-old small forward/midfielder will play his 5th AFL game against the Suns and his first in Queensland.
Older brother Josh will play his fifth game of the year and his 19th overall for Melbourne against Sydney tonight.
He has played three games in the VFL this season after an injury-disrupted preparation, and was the travelling emergency last weekend, when the Demons beat West Coast in Perth on the last kick.
The fourth Queenslander to win a senior recall for Round 15 was Geelong ruckman Zac Smith, who will play against the GWS Giants in Sydney Saturday night. He didn’t play at all last weekend due to illness.
Also in line for his first game of the season is Brisbane Lions forward Jono Freeman.
Coming off 11 goals in his last three games this month, Freeman was named on an extended interchange squads for his side’s clash with Essendon at Etihad Stadium on Sunday.
Archie Smith, too, is in the bench squad after showing good form in the AFL over the last three weeks.
Sam Gilbert, too, must survive the final selection cut to play his 193rd game for St.Kilda against Fremantle in Perth on Sunday,
The news was not so good for Suns Queenslander Jesse Joyce – his run of 24 consecutive AFL games from debut ended when he was omitted for their clash with North.
Joyce and fellow Queenslander Jack Bowes are emergencies for the Suns, while Josh Williams, a Townsville junior and Suns Academy product, is a North emergency for the second time.
Wylie Buzza, knocking on the door of a senior opportunity at Geelong, is a third-time emergency for the Cats,
Also, Aliir Aliir will return from injury in the Sydney Swans reserves this weekend, but Kurt Tippett will miss a further two weeks with ankle trouble.
By Peter Blucher