By Peter Blucher

Connor Budarick has been in the AFL system 1,363 days, all for 28 games of AFL football. He’s had blocks of 393 days and 413 days without playing after not one but two knee reconstructions. He’s done it tougher than most.

Yet on Saturday he was as happy as anyone can be because finally he was back where he wants to be – in the AFL arena playing for the Gold Coast SUNS.

The now 22-year-old defender played his first game since 2 July last year, picking up 17 possessions and doing a solid job as the SUNS lost a thriller to Carlton at Heritage Bank Stadium.

It was a comeback that had an infuriating false-start when he played in the Suns VFL side on 18 June and strained a hamstring. He missed five weeks and had to start again, playing twice in the VFL before finally getting a chance at AFL level last weekend.

It was a special moment not just for Budarkick, but such is the regard in which he’s held at the club, it was a special moment for the entire group.

SUNS football boss Wayne Campbell described Budarick as “a pleasure to deal with”.

“He is unassuming until he gets onto the ground, and then he becomes the ultimate competitor. One knee reconstruction is a footballing tragedy and to have two in quick succession is unthinkable. He handled it with grit, determination and class, and no doubt we are a better team with Connor in it,” he said.

Budarick was the only Queenslander in the 2019 All-Australian Under-18 side and the only Queenslander drafted in 2019, taken by the SUNS with pick #16 in the rookie draft on 29 November 2019.

Four years on, despite all his setbacks, the now 22-year-old ranks 16th for games among the 23 members of the All-Australian side.

It’s a list headed by Gold Coast’s Noah Anderson (80), Fremantle’s Caleb Serong (79), GWS’ Lachy Ash (78), Fremantle’s Luke Jackson and Melbourne’s Trent Rivers (74).

Also ahead of Budarick are GWS’ Tom Green (63), Gold Coast’s Matt Rowell (61), Bulldogs’ Cody Weightman (58), Fremantle’s Hayden Young and Adelaide’s Harry Schoenberg (56), Gold Coast’s Sam Flanders (43), Geelong’s Sam deKoning, Fremantle’s Liam Henry and Sydney’s Dylan Stephens (42) and the All-Australian captain, Brisbane’s Deven Roberton (37).

But behind him are ex-Sun Jeremy Sharp (23), Carlton’s Brodie Kemp (20), Port Adelaide’s Jackson Mead (18), Adelaide retiree Fischer McAsey (10), Sydney’s Will Gould (4), de-listed Sydney pick Elijah Taylor (4) and West Coast draftee Mitch O’Neill, who never played a game.

Ironically, Budarick returned to football as an original SUNS player and announced this week that he will exit the game at the end of the season.

Sydney Swans ruckman Tom Hickey, a member of the SUNS’ inaugural AFL playing list in 2011, told Swans teammates of his pending retirement on Tuesday afternoon after 13 years at the highest level.

The 32-year-old veteran will notch up his 150th game milestone this weekend when the Swans take on Melbourne, having previously played for Gold Coast, St Kilda and the West Coast Eagles.

Hickey, set to out with a finals appearance, was the first AFL player to play for four different clubs based in four different states when he joined the Swans in 2021.

“I’m so grateful to have been on this incredible journey,” said Hickey. “When I first got drafted, I saw myself playing four years and trying to get one game. Here I am leaving 13 years later with almost 150 games, and hopefully a few more, under my belt.”

Swans Executive General Manager of Football, Charlie Gardiner, described “Hick” as the ultimate team player.

“Tom has been a wonderful addition to the football club since arriving here in Sydney at the start of 2021. He has played some excellent football and has been a key contributor to the team’s on-field performance over three seasons, regularly matching it with the best ruckman in the game,” Gardiner said.

“Tom has had a unique football journey that has taken him all over the country. To be on the brink of 150 AFL games and playing some of his best football in the later stages of his career, is testament to his resilience and hard work.

“He’s a terrific person, a highly valued teammate and just a great club man. It has been an absolute pleasure having Tom, Chloe and his three children a part of our club during what has been an eventful couple of seasons, and I know he will be doing everything in his power to finish off the year in the best possible way.”  

In retirement Hickey will move home to the Gold Coast with wife Chloe and their three children and take up a role with ARA Group, a Swans partner which provides essential services for buildings and infrastructure. 

Oddly, Hickey will be the 31st Queenslander to play 150 games on Saturday night – a few hours after Brisbane’s Eric Hipwood does likewise against St. Kilda at the Gabba in the 4.35pm game.

Unlike Hickey, 25-year-old Hipwood is a one-club player and but for a knee reconstruction in 2021 the 204cm forward has reached 150 games with barely a hiccup since his debut in Round 13 2016. He’s caught the Swans ruckman despite giving him six and a half years and 53 games’ head start.

Hipwood will reach 150 games, which qualifies him for automatic life membership at the Lions, at the peak of his power. He’s enjoyed the best season of his career in 2023, and was among the Lions best as they beat ladder leaders Collingwood in Melbourne last Friday night.

His three goals against the Pies took his season tally to 39 – a career-best.

Hipwood is one of five Queenslanders who will go into the final round of the 23-game home-and-away season without having missed a game. The others are Brisbane teammates Harris Andrews and Charlie Cameron, Adelaide’s Ben Keays and North Melbourne’s Bailey Scott.

With seven of the eight AFL finalists locked in, 10 Queenslanders are set to play in the finals -– Brisbane’s Hipwood, Andrews, Cameron, Dayne Zorko, Keidean Coleman, Jack Payne and Jaspa Fletcher, Sydney’s Hickey, Port Adelaide’s Charlie Dixon and Aliir Aliir.

Anxiously awaiting Round 24 this weekend are GWS’ Lachie Keeffe and Western Bulldogs’ Oskar Baker. One will make it, and one will miss.

Keeffe, in the twilight of his career at 33 but hoping to play again next year, will figure in the finals if GWS beat Carlton at Docklands on Saturday, or if Oskar’s Bulldogs lose to Geelong in Geelong on Saturday.

But if the Giants lose and the Dogs win then 25-year-old Baker, in his first season at the ‘Kennel’ after starting his career at Melbourne, will be in line for his AFL finals debut.

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