Submitted by Peter Blucher.
Rory Thompson will finally escape from 1379 days of football isolation this weekend.
In the Covid world in which we now live, ‘isolation’ is the only word for the prolonged absence of the Gold Coast Suns key defender due to two knee reconstructions with complications.
A now 31-year-old Thompson, who was 27 when he played his 103rd game on 28 July 2018, will play his 104th game against Sydney at the SCG at 1.45pm on Saturday.
If there is a positive it is that his isolation has not been Covid-induced. Because if it had been, and he’d been denied regular time at the club and interaction with the players, he’d need teammates wearing name tags on Saturday just so he could call them by name.
Only eight players who played in Thompson’s last game will play with him on Saturday – co-captains Jarrod Witts and Touk Miller, former captain David Swallow, Brayden Fiorini, Nick Holman, Sean Lemmens, Will Powell and Lachie Weller.
Two other teammates from Round 19 2018 are still at the club – Jack Bowes, on the comeback trail from injury, and Alex Sexton, out of favor at the selection table.
Seven have retired or been de-listed – veteran pair Jarrod Harbrow and Michael Rischitelli plus Jacob Heron, Jesse Joyce, Kade Kolodjashnij, Jesse Lonergan ad Aaron Young.
And four are playing elsewhere – Jarryd Lyons (Brisbane), Steven May (Melbourne), Will Brodie (Fremantle) and Peter Wright (Essendon).
Lyons is the perfect measuring stick for Thompson’s agonisingly long wait – after he was dropped the following week he has played 77 games in a row after recalled in Round 21.
And while Thompson’s games tally has been stuck on 103 Lyons has gone from an unheralded 89-game Adelaide/Gold Coast player dropped and subsequently unwanted by the Suns to a 166-game Brisbane Lions star of the competition.
Eight others have played 50+ games in the same period – Swallow (68), Miller (67), Sexton (64), May (58), Powell (58), Weller (57), Bowes (55), Witts (53) and Holman (51).
No less than 28 players have debuted since Thompson, player #40 on an all-time Suns list of 133, last played. And seven of them have come and gone during his absence.
At least Coach Stuart Dew is still in charge. Having seen Thompson go down in his 17th game at the helm he’ll welcome him back in his 91st.
The football world will hold its collective breath for Thompson in his return. It’s been the sort of agonising absence that no player should have to endure.
And while Dew wouldn’t be so cruel as to assign him the task on Sydney champion Lance Franklin on Saturday afternoon it is a Franklin match-up for which Thompson is best remembered by many.
He’ll remember it well too – it was his 102nd game and the last game he finished. Gold Coast played Sydney at the SCG. And after being 29 points down at quarter-time they beat the home side by 24 points.
Weller had 23 possessions and kicked two goals to take three Brownlow Medal votes, while Young kicked four goals for two votes and captain May had 23 possessions and 14 marks (including a then record 10 intercept marks) for one vote.
Thompson had only four handballs in his possession count but won high acclaim after he kept Franklin goalless. A feat that has happened only twice during the Thompson lay-off.
It is an unquestioned highlight of a career in which Thompson, son of former Southport full forward and Hall of Famer Brett Thompson, was a member of the inaugural Suns playing list and the 12th player to 100 games for the club behind (in order) Harbrow, Rischitelli, Tom Lynch, Matt Shaw, Gary Ablett, Brandon Matera, May, Trent McKenzie, Sam Day, Swallow and Aaron Hall.
It is ironic that Thompson will begin what is almost a second AFL career against the Swans – he also debuted against Swans in Round 16 of the club’s first season in 2011.
They lost by 70 points at Carrara, with Swallow the only teammate from that game still at the Suns, while Charlie Dixon and McKenzie (Port) and Lynch and Dion Prestia (Richmond) still playing elsewhere.
In proof of just how long Thompson has been in the system for his 103 games, only two members of the Swans side in his debut will play against him on Saturday – co-captain Luke Parker and ex-captain Josh Kennedy.
And, confirming how much of a rebuild the club has had to mount under coach Dew, only three Suns players have topped 100 games while Thompson has been on the sideline – Sexton, Miller and Lemmens.
Swallow, Thompson and Day are the only members of the inaugural Suns list still playing with the club after Zac Smith retired at the end of last season.
While Thompson’s extra long lay-off will seem like a lifetime to him, he will not even hold the record among current players for time between games after his return on Saturday.
That mark has already fallen earlier this year to two players who made unlikely comebacks with West Coast when they were had to dip into their top-up player pool for the first time in the Round 2 clash with North Melbourne.
Angus Dewar, who had played 25 games with Hawthorn from 2014-16 when known as Angus Litherland, ended a break of five years and 256 days (2082 days). And Declan Mountford, who played 12 games with North in 2017, had been four years and 213 days (1674 days) off the scene.
Next on the list among current players is concussion victim Paddy McCartin, who was three years 255 days (1351 days) between his last game with St.Kilda in July 2018 and his comeback game this year with Sydney.
But even these breaks are insignificant in comparison to the all-time AFL record of 13 years 12 days (4760) days between games, which stands to the credit of Syd Barker almost 100 years ago. He played two games with Richmond as a 20-year-old in 1908 and then played the first of 57 games with Essendon from 1921-24 as a 33-year-old.
Barker, after whom the North Melbourne club championship award is named, was a North champion in the old VFA from 1909-21, sharing in premierships in 1910-14-15-18 with a team known as the ‘Invincibles’. He was captain of the premiership side in 1915-18 and through a record unbroken run of 58 games from 1914-19.
He later played three as captain-coach of North in their third season in the VFL in 1927.
Peter Blucher is a Consultant with Vivid Sport.