Aspiring young AFL players will do pretty much anything to get a chance at the elite level. But Leigh Ryswyk inadvertently went over and above in his quest for a second crack after his first was cruelled by injury. He was involved in a stick-up. A robbery. Welcome to South Australia they said!
Ryswyk had been a Brisbane Lions rookie in 2004-05 and had played just one AFL game in his second season. Having decided the SANFL was his best pathway back to the AFL, he joined North Adelaide in 2006 and found himself working in a drive-through bottleshop at the Northern Tavern, on the corner of Main North Road and Regency Street, Sefton Park.
Not long into the season, he was working on duty by himself about 10.30pm one night when a man drove up, wound down his car window, put a gun in his face, handed him a bag and said ‘fill it up or I’ll put a bullet in you’.
With no training in such matters, the 21-year-old wisely did as he was told. He gave the would-be robber what was in the till, which wasn’t much given a regular clearance policy, and was unharmed as the robber hurried away.
“I was in a state of shock,” he recalled. “I’d never considered anything like that could happen and to be honest I struggled for a few weeks afterwards. I was really fatigued. When you think back on it you realise how nasty it could have been.”
Happily, there were no lasting ill-effects. He went on to play 13 years and 230 games with the North Adelaide Roosters, former club of South Australian football legends Ken Farmer and Barrie Robran, brothers Darren and Andrew Jarman, foundation Brisbane Bear Matthew Campbell and AFL stars like Shane Edwards, Josh Francou, Ben Hart, Nick Holland, Ben Holland, Sean Wellman, Jared Rivers and Phil Davis, and current stars Jack Viney, George Hewett, Connor Rozee, Will Hayward, Jack Graham and Ryan Burton.
He played four times for South Australia and qualified for Life Membership of the SANFL and North Adelaide. All after being a Queensland representative at Under-15, Under-16, Under-18 and Open level, playing two years of senior football at Southport and two years with the Lions.
Born in Geelong to Dutch grandparents, he moved to the Gold Coast with his family at age six. He dabbled with football with the Under-8s at Labrador but not until he was 11 did he get serious at Southport. By 17 he was a senior QAFL player and after a standout 2003 with the Sharks and the Queensland Under-18 side was one of only two Queenslanders invited to the AFL Draft Camp. The other was Mt. Gravatt’s Jake Furfaro.
He’d had a good camp, impressing with his top-level speed and athleticism, but admits, “Realistically I had no idea how it all worked or what to expect.” When Andrew Raines was the only Queenslander taken in the National Draft, going to Richmond at #76, he got on with working for AFL Queensland at their Gold Coast office with Troy Clarke and Fiona McLarty.
Not until he got a phone message from the Lions after the Rookie Draft a couple of days later did he learn that he’d been picked up by the 2001-02-03 premiers.
He was one of six Queenslanders taken in the Rookie Draft. Ryswyk joined the Lions with Furfaro, Morningside’s Matt Pardew and the Northern Eagles’ Josh Drummond and Jeremy Stiller, and Morningside’s Paul Shelton, released by the Lions after one year, went to Hawthorn.
Earning all of $25,000, the standard rookie wage at the time, Ryswyk lived with parents John and Debbie and siblings Kristy, Chantelle and Ross in the family home at Worongary. For the first 12 months he relied on Lions star Shaun Hart, who also lived on the Gold Coast, for a ride to training.
“Shaun was so good to me, he couldn’t have done any more. He’d pick me up early so we could beat the traffic and before going to the club we’d have breakfast at McDonald’s near the Gabba. An egg and cheese McMuffin as Shaun called it. No Bacon – got to watch those skinfolds,” Ryswyk recounted.
“I learned so much from him, his dedication, work ethic, professionalism and his family-first attitude. I just found him so easy to talk to. Seriously one of the best people I know.”
He played with the Sun Coast Lions in the QAFL in 2004, and represented Queensland against the ACT in Canberra, when he kicked three goals in a Maroons win. He was elevated to the senior list in 2005 before injury hit not once but twice.
In Round 3 coach Leigh Matthews told him he was ‘in the mix’ at selection, but later that week he walked off the training track only to be handed a moon boot by club doctor Paul McConnell. X-rays had shown a hot spot in his foot. He was out for four weeks.
In Round 11 he got the same mid-week message from Matthews, and debuted as the 14th-placed Lions took on eighth-placed Fremantle in front of 34,143 people at Subiaco.
He proudly wore #32, having been offered that number by Hart when he retired after being ko’d in an accidental collision in the 2004 preliminary final against Geelong. But truth be known anything was going to better than the #45 he’d been assigned as the last player onto the list in 2004. So last that his locker wasn’t even numbered. There was only 1-44 so he wrote it on himself in texter.
On debut the 20-year-old played in the forward pocket and was picked up by a 19-year-old David Mundy in his sixth game. He did some nice things, hitting up Jonathan Brown for a goal, as the Lions won by 39 points. Daniel Bradshaw and Ash McGrath kicked three and Luke Power and Brown took the votes. But late in the game Ryswyk felt a twang in his quad. He was sidelined for eight weeks. While Mundy went on to play another 370 games, Ryswyk’s AFL dream was sadly done.
He was an emergency for the last game of the year but not long after he was delisted. Moving on quickly after calls from Norwood and North Adelaide he picked North on the strength of a call from coach Andrew Jarman, and despite his frightening drive-through episode he had a wonderful career.
He played for SA in 2014-15-16-17 – against WA at Glenelg, against the NEAFL at West Adelaide when he kicked six goals, against Victoria at Port Melbourne, and against WA at Lethlean Oval in Perth.
Throughout his time at North Adelaide he wore #32 in tribute to Hart, but sadly the premiership flag he chased for so long eluded him. Cruelly so in his last season in 2018, when he snapped a rib cartilage in the second last home-and-away game. Thinking he was done, he confirmed his intention to retire at the end of the season.
So what happened? By grand final week, when the North seniors and reserves both qualified for the grand final against Norwood, he was ready to play. Of course not in the seniors on virtually no training but in the reserves. Jacob Surjan agreed to let him play if he got through final training, and he did. Thankfully, the premiership flag came that day in the reserves as they beat Norwood and after the seniors won too he shared with the full playing group a long celebration walk around Adelaide Oval to close out his SANFL career.
“The after-match presentations back at Prospect Oval will forever be in my memory as ‘Rizza’ was chanted at the top of the supporters lungs. I had no words and felt so much love. A third of my life was spent at that club and that night will forever be special to me.”
Still he wasn’t done with football. He joined the Barossa District Bulldogs, based just an 18-minute drive from his Gawler home, and played in the Barossa Football League. A dual best and fairest winner he’s still going strong despite playing mainly as a forward these days.
At 38 he’s getting close to the end as children Hayden (11) and Paige (8) take priority. “Who knows if it will be this year or not to hang up the boots, but I’ve had a very supportive family down here in South Australia and back home which has allowed me to achieve what I have and without all of them I wouldn’t be here. The kids are growing up so fast so spending time with them as much as possible is so important to me now,” he said.
Still a Geelong supporter, Ryswyk said he was “blown away” when told of his Hall of Fame selection by AFLQ chairman Dean Warren. “I said ‘are you sure? Am I even eligible for this?’ I’ve never been the best player but I work really hard and have always just tried to play my role for the team.” He did it very well.