Josh Smith’s fairytale debut. By Peter Blucher.
Josh Smith could easily have been excused for reaching for a newspaper or switching on the television first thing this morning just to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. That he really had enjoyed the sort of AFL debut that AFL players dream of.
Yes Josh, it really did happen.
The 22-year-old Collingwood rookie, from Rockhampton via Toowoomba, Morningside and Redland, became the 157th Queenslander to play in the VFL/AFL.
He made his debut in front of a monster crowd of 85,082 at the MCG in the Anzac Day clash with Essendon, which sits behind only the AFL finals in blockbuster status.
And, having been presented with his jumper pre-match by subsequent Anzac Medallist Steele Sidebottom, Smith had 23 possessions and kicked a goal playing on the wing in a 69-point Pies win.
The Smith debut audience was the biggest among the 157-man Queensland AFL family, while his 23 possessions at 78% efficiency ranked equal fourth among Queenslanders, and his first-up winning margin ranked ninth on the all-time Queensland list.
Anzac Day 2016 will forever be remembered as the game in which, as coach Nathan Buckley so nicely put it, Collingwood debuted a Texan and a Queenslander.
It was the first time Collingwood or Essendon debuted two players in an Anzac Day game.
Grabbing the headlines in Melbourne was 211cm American Mason Cox, the former Oaklahoma State University basketballer and engineering graduate who surpassed Fremantle’s Aaron Sandilands to become the tallest player in AFL history.
With his family having flown out from the United States to see his debut in a game he had no understanding of two years ago, it wasn’t totally unexpected. Especially when Cox kicked the first goal of the match with his first kick.
The TV cameras focussed on his family for much of the day and he was in hot demand with the southern media immediately after Cox and Smith had shared the customary Gatorade shower with first-time Pies winner Jeremy Howe.
But sitting nearby during the match and enjoying the anonymity of it all was Gillian Smith, mother of the young Queenslander who had simply refused to give up despite being overlooked by every AFL club in four consecutive national drafts before getting his chance with the Pies in the rookie draft last November.
And looking down from above, just as proud, would have been Alan Smith, Josh’s late father. He had made a Victorian amateur football squad in his 20’s and also played district cricket, tennis and basketball.
It was Alan who got Josh into football as a six-year-old in Toowoomba after the family had moved from Rockhampton, where Josh was born, and, according to a Queensland Scorpions player profile in 2012, was the biggest influence on his career.
“He (his father) always had belief in me, and always helped me when I needed it,” Josh wrote.
In the same questionnaire the long-time Geelong supporter nominated Cats skipper Joel Selwood as his football hero and Brisbane champion Simon Black as his most admired player.
And, interestingly, when asked why an AFL club should draft him, Smith had replied: “Because I would have the highest work ethic and I would push myself to become an elite player.”
How right he was!
Despite an injury hiccup in the NAB Challenge, which ultimately delayed his AFL debut, the Downlands College graduate and Toowoomba University Football Club product has won the admiration of everyone at Collingwood for the way he has gone about it.
He was suitably rewarded with a place in Queensland football history on Monday.
Smith’s debut audience surpassed the 78,466 that saw Cairns product Peter Yagmoor, now at Redland, make his AFL debut as a late inclusion for Collingwood against Hawthorn at the MCG in Round 1 2012.
Gary Shaw’s debut for Collingwood in 1983 pulled a crowd of 72,274, while Ben Thompson and Brett Backwell shared a debut audience of 71,501 for Carlton in 1999, and Brendan Whitecross debuted in front of 69,564 for Hawthorn in 2009.
Other Queenslanders to debut in front of more than 50,000 people have been Mal Michael (Collingwood – 1997), Lachy Keeffe (Collingwood – 2011), Frank Dunell (Essendon – 1979), Tom Fields (Carlton – 2014), Adam Oxley (Collingwood – 2013) and Clint Bizzell (Geelong – 1996).
Smith’s 24 possessions on debut has been topped by only three Queenslanders – the Brisbane Bears trio of Darren Carlson (26), Michael Voss (26) and Steve McLuckie (25). It was matched by Hawthorn’s Stephen Lawrence.
Smith’s 69-point win on debut sits ninth on a Queensland list headed namesake Tony Smith on debut for Sydney in Round 17 1986, when the second-placed Swans beat second-bottom Melbourne by 117 points.
Warwick Capper kicked five goals for the Swans and, in one of the great trivia questions of all-time, Gerard Healy had a team-high 29 possessions and Rod Carter kicked the only goal and collected the only three-vote Brownlow Medal haul in his 203 games. He had 11 possessions.
Collingwood’s Keeffe (2011) and Essendon’s Trevor Spencer (1985) also enjoyed 100-point wins on debut, while others above Smith on this list are St.Kilda’s Sam Gilbert (92), Brisbane’s Danny Dickfos (87), Collingwood’s Oxley (83), Brisbane’s Brent Green (77) and Hawthorn’s Lawrence (77).
Smith was the unquestioned headline act among Queenslanders in Round 5.
But without the elevated rookie’s dream debut it could easily have been St.Kilda skipper Nick Riewoldt who took top billing.
Playing his 303rd game at 33, Riewoldt achieved a statistical double he had reached only twice previously despite a niggling leg problem that forced him off the ground for a period in the second half.
He had 25 possessions and kicked four goals as the Saints went down to the GWS Giants.
His 25/4 double matched his 26 possessions and four goals against Gold Coast in 2013, and his 30 possessions and four goals against Fremantle in 2014.
In other highlights for Queenslanders in Round 5 of the Toyota AFL premiership:-
- Lachie Weller had a career-best 18 possessions as Fremantle continued their winless season against Carlton.
- Daniel Merrett returned to his best form with 17 possessions and 10 1%ers in a solid effort in defence for the Brisbane Lions against the Western Bulldogs.
- Josh Wagner followed up his 23-possessions in his second AFL game with 19 more as Melbourne overcame Richmond to complete back-to-back wins for the first time since 2011.
And at the secondary level:-
- Richmond rookie Mabior Choi had 12 possessions and kicked four goals to rank as his side’s second-best player in the VFL.
- Collingwood’s White responded to his senior axing with a strong showing in the VFL. He had 24 possessions and was named his side’s second best.
- Essendon’s Sam Michael kept his name front of mind with the Essendon selectors with 16 possessions in the VFL.
- Brisbane’s Ben Keays did likewise with 19 possession and three goals in the NEAFL, while Archie Smith, on unofficial standby to make his AFL debut for the Lions last week if Stefan Martin had been ruled unfit, continued his solid form with 12 possessions and 26 hit-outs.
- Adelaide rookie Paul Hunter, in his eagerly-awaited SANFL debut after a frustrating injury lay-off, kicked two goals from eight possessions and four marks.
- And Fremantle rookie Matt Uebergang had 13 possessions and kicked a goal for Peel Thunder in the WAFL.