If you’d asked Josh Thomas and Lachie Keeffe about playing in the 2018 AFL finals three years ago they would have laughed in your face.
The then Collingwood pair had just accepted a two-year ban under the AFL’s Anti-Coping code after testing positive in February 2015 to clenbuterol.
It was reported at the time that the two young Queenslanders may have inadvertently taken a banned substance via a contaminated illicit drug.
At the time Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley said Thomas and Keeffe had made an uncharacteristic mistake but it would be “the making of them”.
“We’re looking forward to bringing these two boys back into the fold in 12 months time,” Buckley said.
“But we’d like to see this story end in a positive note because we don’t want this to define them in the end.
“They’re two great characters who have made a poor decision that has affected their professional lives.
“My heart bleeds for them for what they’re going through but I think it will be the making of them. It’s an opportunity for them to grow and to learn.
“I will be steadfast in supporting Lachie and Josh to the cows come home because I think this is an isolated event. It’s not a pattern of behaviour.”
With the 2018 AFL finals to start this week, Thomas, Keeffe and Buckley are set to get their wish.
Thomas, now 26, will play for Collingwood under Buckley in the qualifying final against West Coast in Perth on Saturday night.
It will be his 64th AFL game and his second final after he played in the elimination final in his first season in 2013.
Thomas is certain selection after playing every game this season and kicking 35 goals to rank 3rd at the Pies behind Will Hoskin-Elliott (39) and Jordan deGoey (36), and just ahead of NAB AFL Rising Star winner Jaiydn Stephenson (34).
So good and consistent has the former Redland teenager been the ranked equal 17th in the League, and kicked more goals than the leading goal-kicker at six clubs – Carlton, Essendon, Fremantle, Gold Coast, St.Kilda and Western Bulldogs.
Thomas is on a 31-game unbroken streak, having played the last nine games of the 2017 season after breaking back into the side.
Keeffe, 28, who moved to the GWS Giants over the off-season, will be in the selection mix for Saturday afternoon’s elimination final against the Sydney Swans at the SCG.
Keeffe has played seven games for his second AFL club, including the last three rounds of the home-and-away season.
The versatile big man, comfortable in attack and defence and capable of filling in in the ruck, will be part of a decision that is likely to swing on the availability of otherwise of several Giants starts, and the willingness of coach Leon Cameron to make big selection changes heading into a final.
Keeffe, originally from Gympie, has played 47 AFL games including the same elimination final as Thomas in 2013.
Theoretically, Thomas and Keeffe are among 10 Queenslanders in the finals mix. But only Thomas and Sydney’s Aliir are guaranteed selection.
After 12 months in the football wilderness Aliir has played the last 10 games with the Swans and is a certain inclusion for the derby against the Giants.
Ageless Giants veteran Sam Reid is another likely inclusion for the ‘Battle of the Bridge’ against the Swans.
Now 28, and having debuted in the AFL with the Bulldogs in 2008, Sunshine Coaster Reid has played a career-high 19 games this season but missed Round 20 and 22 through illness and injury.
Like Keeffe, his spot may well rest on who else is available.
Adam Oxley, from Redland, will be in the mix at Collingwood. He has played the last three games but could be squeezed out by the likely return of veteran defender Jeremy Howe.
Josh Smith also flies the Queensland flag at Collingwood but he hasn’t played at AFL level since Round 1.
At Geelong, Zac Smith and Wylie Buzza are in the senior training squad for the AFL finals after the Cats’ VFL side was eliminated from the finals, but both have only played three games at senior level this season.
Ruckman Smith, who has surrendered the No.1 ruck spot this season to Rhys Stanley, played Rounds 1-8-9 and forward Buzza played Rounds 11-12-17.
Even though Stanley has not played since Round 21 due to a calf problem Cats coach Chris Scott has preferred youngster Ryan Abbott in the ruck.
Smith’s only chance is if Scott prefers his experience against Melbourne’s All-Australian ruckman Max Gawn in the elimination final at the MCG Friday night rather than play Ryan Abbott in just his fourth game.
Also awaiting a close selection call will be Brendan Whitecross at Hawthorn ahead of their Thursday night qualifying final with Richmond at the MCG.
Whitecross had done well to reclaim his senior spot for Rounds 17-18-19-20 but a bout of pneumonia sidelined him in Round 21 and he hasn’t been able to get back into the side since.
In the Melbourne camp, Josh Wagner has been an emergency three times in recent weeks but having not played at AFL level since playing the first five games of the season a call-up is unlikely.