By Peter Blucher
Former Morningside and Redland star Josh Smith is one step from a dream AFL debut for Collingwood on one of the biggest stages in the game … the Anzac Day blockbuster against Essendon at the MCG on Monday.
Smith was elevated from the rookie list to the senior list on Thursday and included in the Magpies’25-man squad for what will be a crunch game in front of 80,000-plus.
He is bracketed among seven players chasing four interchange spots as coach Nathan Buckley weighs up his side’s poor start to the season and a couple of injury concerns.
Ordinarily a club will only promote a rookie if they intend to play him, but given it is a Monday game and squad selection had to be made four days out it would be folly to assume that will automatically be the case in this instance.
Smith was included as Jesse White, a late inclusion for Collingwood’s poor loss to Melbourne last week, was omitted on a Round 5 selection night largely uneventful for Queenslanders.
Essendon’s Courtney Dempsey, who played his first game of the season last week in the Reserves after a lengthy suspension, has been included in the Bombers’ extended squad for the Anzac Day clash.
Brisbane’s Liam Dawson, a late inclusion last week for the Q-Clash win over the Gold Coast Suns, held his spot for Saturday’s Etihad Stadium clash with the Western Bulldogs.
And Brendon Whitecross, in strong early season form in the VFL, was named as an emergency for Hawthorn’s Friday night MCG clash with the Adelaide Crows.
But Smith is the big story of Round 5 ahead of a match which, excluding the 2003-04-05 games when the MCG was under construction in preparation for the 2006 Commonwealth Games, has pulled an average crowd of 87,400.
And regardless of whether he plays this week or not, the fact that he is even in the selection mix is a huge vote of confidence from coach Buckley and testimony to the total professionalism and application of the 22-year-old utility.
Claimed by Collingwood in the rookie draft last November after he was overlooked by each AFL club in the national draft four years in a row, Smith impressed so much over the summer that he played in the club’s first NAB Challenge game against Geelong.
He was outstanding early in that game, looking right at home at the level, until an ankle injury curtailed what was a very real push for an unlikely Round 1 debut.
Frustrated by the untimely set-back, he continued to impress coach Buckley with his training effort and performance in the VFL since his return.
So impressive has he been, and such is his football knowledge and fanaticism, that one wag at Collingwood suggested if he didn’t make it as a player the club would hire him as a coach.
But Smith is hell bent on making it as a player. And after his list elevation he has a minimum eight weeks of selection eligibility to break into the senior side.
It would be the culmination of a journey which began in the junior ranks at Toowoomba and saw him leave home to follow his football dream at Morningside.
A State U18 representative in 2011-12, he played seniors at the Panthers in 2012-13 and won the Rising Star Award for the NEAFL Northern Conference in ’13.
When Morningside were excluded from the one-division NEAFL in 2014 he switched to Redland and in 2015 was among the very best players in the competition.
Averaging 30 possessions a game, he represented the NEAFL against Tasmania in June and was a member of the NEAFL Team of the Year before scoring a runaway win in the Redland B&F.
He polled votes in each of the club’s 18 games, including maximum votes six times, and won by 132 votes from NEAFL Rising Star and Fremantle rookie draftee Matt Uebergang. He also won the Redland Players’ Player Award.
Incredibly, Smith is one of six Redland players from 2015 now on the lists of AFL clubs. The others are Uebergang, Matt Keays (Brisbane), Wylie Buzza (Geelong), Paul Hunter (Adelaide) and Sam Michael (Essendon).
And already locked into the Collingwood side for the monster Monday clash after good recent form in a struggling Pies side is yet another Redland product, Adam Oxley.
Collingwood list management boss Derek Hine is a huge Smith fan.
In the Smith profile on the Pies website, Hine says: “He has been in a really consistent vein of form for a couple of years now. He is a mature aged boy, he’s an elite endurance runner, was in the NEAFL Team of the Year, is a manic trainer, was the Redland best-and-fairest this year and is a quality young man.
“If you’re looking for the profile of that rookie athlete who will come in and leave no stone unturned, he ticks all of those boxes. It was really evident to us early on when we spoke to Josh that he will be a boy that will come in and really enhance our program with his professionalism and the way he goes about it.
“We’re really excited about giving him the opportunity because we know when Josh comes into the system that he will give it everything that he has got and that’s what the Rookie Draft is there for.”
If he gets the final selection nod Smith will join a list of 10 Queenslanders who have played in the Anzac Day clash since its inception in 1995, including Mal Michael, who played for both clubs either side of his triple premiership stint with the Lions.
Collingwood defender Gavin Crosisca and Essendon forward Che Cockatoo-Collins played in the famous first Anzac Day game which was drawn and ensured the traditional blockbuster became a permanent fixture on the AFL calendar.
Others in order have been Michael (1998), Dempsey and Dayne Beams (2009), Lachy Keeffe (2012), Ben Hudson (2013), Josh Thomas and White (2014) and Oxley (2015).
Anzac Day appearances by Queenslanders have been:-
5 – Dayne Beams (Coll) – 2009-10-11-12-14
5 – Gavin Crosisa (Coll) – 1995-96-97-98-99
5 – Courtenay Dempsey (Ess) – 2009-10-13-14-15
4 – Che Cockatoo-Collins (Ess) – 1995-96-97-98
3 – Mal Michael (Coll/Ess) – 1998 (Coll), 2007-08 (Ess)
2 – Lachy Keeffe (Coll) – 2012-14
2 – Jesse White (Coll) – 2014-15
1 – Ben Hudson (Coll) – 2013
1 – Josh Thomas (Coll) – 2014
1 – Adam Oxley (Coll) – 2015
Beams, now at Brisbane, holds the record for most possessions by a Queenslander in an Anzac Day game. He had 32 possessions in 2012 and 2014.
Cockatoo-Collins holds the record for most goals by a Queenslander in an Anzac Day game – he kicked three in 1995.
It is a match which invariably throws up some special football stories. Like in 2001 when 17-year-old Mark McGough, playing just his second senior game for Collingwood, won the Anzac Day Medal.
McGough, who played only 49 games in total for Collingwood and St.Kilda, is part of Anzac Day folklore.
So too are 10 players who made his AFL debut in an Anzac Day match between Collingwood and Essendon – Jason Wild (Coll-1995), Scott Lucas (Ess-1996),Matthew Banks (Ess-1997),Dean Solomon (Ess-1998), Craig Jacotine (Coll-1999), Cameron Cloke (Coll-2004), Travis Cloke (Coll-2006), Sharrod Wellingham (Coll-2008), Brent Macaffer(Coll-2009) and Kirk Ugle (Coll-2012).
Already Collingwood’s 208cm American-born ruckman/forward Mason Cox is guaranteed to be Anzac Day debutant No.11 after he was named at full forward in the Pies team this week.
There are plenty in Queensland hoping Smith will extend that club membership to an even dozen and write his own fairytale on Monday.