By Peter Blucher. In the week leading up to the Brisbane Lions’ Round 4 NEAFL clash with Aspley in late April coach Shane Woewodin told Matthew Hammelmann he was going to be playing defence.
He was none too happy. After all, he’d never played in defence in his life. From his Under 8s days at the Carindale Cougars, and later in the junior ranks at Morningside, he was key forward/ruckman.
And now, perhaps at a make-or-break time in his AFL career, he was being thrust into a defensive unit under siege.
The Lions Reserves had lost the first three rounds of the season to the Sydney Swans, Redland and the Gold Coast Suns by 122 points, 67 points and 108 points, scoring just 110 points while conceding 407.
“At first I was pretty disappointed,” said Hammelmann, who was told he was being pushed back to accommodate the move of teammate Eric Hipwood the opposite way from defence to attack.
“But I stuck at it, and thankfully I improved each week. Now I couldn’t be happier.”
Indeed, whatever the motivations of the Lions coaching staff at the time, it might turn out to be a masterstroke.
It certainly seemed like that to Hammelmann on Tuesday when, without any advance warning, he was elevated from the Lions Rookie List and catapulted straight into the AFL side for the Round 14 clash with Richmond at the MCG on Saturday.
Hammelmann, a life-long Lions supporter, was told of his elevation by coach Justin Leppitsch in a team meeting ahead of training Tuesday morning.
Leppitsch told him he’d been rewarded for a string of good performances in the Reserves, and would be set for one of the big Richmond forwards this week.
“It’s reward for effort … that’s what we like to see and like to do. You (Hammelmann) have been attacking the footy and playing some really good footy down there lately and it’ll be a big week for you this week,” the coach told him in front of the playing group.
Hammelmann, quietly spoken but well-regarded among his peers, clinched his senior call-up with 26 possessions and 16 marks in the Lions’ one-point NEAFL win over Redland on Saturday.
Adapting well to the different demands of playing in defence, he’s averaged 18.3 possessions and 8.7 marks over the last six weeks while showing good judgment with the ball in the air and using it well coming out of the back half.
Ironically, his initially reluctant change in roles was the second time in 10 months that what seemed like a bad thing turned out to be a good thing for the 198cm 20-year-old.
In the penultimate NEAFL game of 2015 Hammelmann suffered a broken tibia. He spent the bulk of his off-season with his foot in a moon boot and was denied the normal end-of-season letdown that he might otherwise have enjoyed.
“It worked out to be the best thing for me,” he said reflectively. “I had to be in the club a lot for treatment so I spent a lot of time in the gym doing upper body weights. I got a lot bigger and stronger and that has helped me tremendously this year.”
Indeed, having joined the Lions in November 2014 at 86kg, he will make his AFL debut in June 2016 at 97kg. Importantly, he has the physical capacity and confidence now to match it with the bigger bodies at the elite level.
Hammelmann will be the 297th player for the Brisbane Football Club and just the sixth to wear jumper No.40 behind Peter Davidson (7 games), Steve McLuckie (20), Shane Clayton (5), Will Hamill (3) and Niall McKeever (22).
He will be the seventh Queenslander to make his AFL debut this season behind Brothers Josh (Melbourne) and Corey (North Melbourne) Wagner, Collingwood’s Josh Smith, Sydney’s Aliir Aliir and Brisbane pair Hipwood and Ben Keays.
Like Hipwood and Keays, Hammelmann is a product of the Lions Academy, having spent five years in the club’s development program from the age of 13.
He represented Queensland in football at U15, U16 and U18 level, and was claimed by the Lions as a zone priority selection in the 2015 rookie draft after having impressed with his athletic testing at the Draft Combine.
But it wasn’t always clear-cut that football would be his sport of choice. He is a member of a talented cricketing family, with father Andrew having played for Queensland as a fast bowler, and uncle Harley having been a standout grade player.
Hammelmann Jnr, too, was a fast bowler, playing in a Brisbane Grammar School First XI alongside rising Queensland Bulls batsman Matt Renshaw, and in a Met East representative side with the equally talented and promising Sam Heazlett.
“I had to make a choice when I finished school. I guess I’d done a bit better in football, which swayed me that way, and there was more of a clear-cut pathway to the top level in football too,” he said.
Having graduated from Grammar at the end of 2013 Hammelmann was 12 months into a Business and Exercise Science degree at QUT when drafted by the Lions. Since then he’s continued his studies part-time.
He kicked 23 goals in 17 games in the Lions Reserves in 2015, and after a standout intra-club performance made his senior debut in the NAB Challenge against the Suns on a windswept Burpengary Oval in February, kicking a goal with his only kick in limited game time.
It’s been a big June for the well-spoken youngster – he moved out of the family home a week ago and now shares a house at Murrarie with Lions teammates Jono Freeman, Josh Watts and Liam Dawson.
His timing couldn’t be better – he’ll debut in the prestigious Lions Hall of Fame game on the hallowed turf of the MCG, with the club’s sold out Hall of Fame dinner to follow in Melbourne on Saturday night.
Eight people from the Brisbane Lions ‘family’, which incorporates merger partners Fitzroy, will be inducted to a Hall of Fame that is headed by legends Kevin Murray, Haydn Bunton and Michael Voss.