By Peter Blucher.
Brendan Whitecross will step back into the AFL finals arena Friday night after an absence of 1085 days.
Whitecross took another step down a monumental comeback path Thursday night when selected in the Hawthorn side that begin its campaign for a fourth consecutive flag with a qualifying final against Geelong at the MCG.
There was nothing to suggest he wasn’t going to be picked after he’d been a more than solid contributor through the last seven rounds of the home-and-away season.
But such has been the hard luck story for the 25-year-old utility that he could have been excused for having a couple of sleepless nights during the extended break since Round 23.
And then, when staff writers on the AFL website forecast he would miss out to make way for the inclusion of Will Langford the sleepless may have given way for a nightmare.
But when coach Alastair Clarkson confirmed the side there was no Langford, and Billy Hartung and Mark Pittonet had made way for the automatic inclusion of Ben Stratton and Ben McEvoy.
In other Queensland selection news for week 1 of the Toyota AFL premiership finals:-
- Aliir Aliir will make his finals debut in just his 11th AFL game after he was named at fullback for the Sydney Swans ahead of their clash with the GWS Giants at ANZ Stadium Saturday afternoon.
- Kurt Tippett, named at full forward by Swans coach john Longmire, will play his 14th final to jump to outright eighth spot on the Queensland finals list, moving him one ahead of Max Hudghton and Mal Michael. Jason Akermanis, who holds the all-time Queensland games record at 325, also heads the finals list at 25. He’s followed by Jason Dunstall (21), David Hale (20), Marcus Ashcroft and Michael Voss (19), Nick Riewoldt (17) and Clark Keating (15).
- Zac Smith will make his finals debut for Geelong against Hawthorn in his 87th He was named first ruck to complete a season in which he has been selected for every game after moving from the Gold Coast. He didn’t play Round 18 when, due to wet conditions, he was withdrawn shortly before the start.
- Corey Wagner, with just four AFL games behind him in his first season at North Melbourne, was named as an emergency and will travel to Adelaide with the Roos for Saturday night’s elimination final against the Crows at Adelaide Oval.
While there are differing levels of excitement and satisfaction in the selection of Aliir, Tippett and Smith, and the recognition of Wagner, the inclusion of Whitecross is the big story of the week for Queenslanders who have marvelled at his perseverance through a heartbreak that would have broken a lesser young man.
In all probability the 25-year-old Kedron junior and Zillmere Eagles AFLQ product would be a triple AFL premiership player and a veteran of 150+ games but for injury.
Heading into the 2012 preliminary final he was an automatic pick in a Hawthorn side
But he blew out his knee in the qualifying final against Collingwood. And did it again in the 2013 preliminary against Geelong.
After sitting out the entire 2014 season he played Rounds 3-4-5-6 in 2015 but in reality he wasn’t really ready and spent the remainder of the season in the VFL.
In September last year he was a free agent and was targeted by several clubs before deciding he couldn’t leave the club that had drafted him back in 2007.
In a recent story in The Age journalist Peter Hanlon explained why and provided an insight into the Whitecross mindset. He wrote and quoted him thus:-
“Having the injuries I’ve had certainly has made me enjoy football a lot more. It’s less stressful now, having been through those situations. We play a professional sport, it’s very serious, we play for high stakes. But when you realise how quickly it can be taken away from you, it is just a sport. There’s more to life than footy,” said Whitecross.
“Not that I ever took football for granted, but until you’ve gone through an injury that I’ve been through and others have been through once let alone twice, I guess you really appreciate footy a lot more when you get back to playing. You know how quickly it can be taken away from you. Every situation you get put in you just want to do the best you can, just have a crack.”
Even the narrative of the wounded footballer, where every conversation seems to focus on the thing you’re trying to leave behind, has been accepted as part of the journey. “It gives people something to talk to me about. I can’t ignore it – it’s happened. It’s part of building my character as well.”
He hails Hawthorn not just for the obvious things that have led to repeated success, but for how it’s supported players over his time who have decided their future lay elsewhere. At the end of a frustrating 2015 spent largely in the VFL he almost became the latest departee. Talks were held with other clubs, a fresh start interstate appealed. Whitecross is so taken by wanderlust that his fledgling business is called Nomadic Lawn and Garden Services, yet when it came to football what ultimately felt right was staying put.
“I’ve been here that long now that my heart and my head were saying the Hawthorn footy club was going to be the best place for me to play my football. Whether it was going to be a regular gig or whether I was going to find myself in and out of the side, I just knew it was going to be best for my football.”
He knew he’d have to fight the next wave of Hawks for a spot and took until round 17 to play his first senior game in more than a year. Approaching another finals series he feels physically and mentally strong, and humbled by the many supporters who wish him well. “I think they’re all riding the bumps with me, they’ve been through the highs and the lows. They want success for me as much as I do. It’s pretty overwhelming.”
In the lead-up to the finals and Whitecross’ return from the wilderness Hawthorn captain Luke Hodge and coach Clarkson have each paid tribute to the man who wears No.11.
Hodge spoke particularly of Whitecross’ desperate late effort in the goalsquare that saved a near-certain Collingwood goal in their one-point Round 23 win that clinched the double-chance for the 2013-14-15 premiers.
He said that it wasn’t spotlighted outside of the club, it definitely certainly was pointed out inside their four walls of the proud club.
“I think externally it gets overlooked but not internally,” Hodge told AFL 360.
“Yep, Fitzy (Jack Fitzpatrick) kicked a goal (that won the game) and a lot of the media hype was about Fitzy’s goal but internally you go back and look at things that your teammates did like desperate acts. His (Whitecross’) teammates definitely noticed the desperate act inside 50.”
Clarkson, too, spoke glowingly of Whitecross, who re-signed with the Hawks at the end of 2015 despite appearing to be on the outer of the best 22, and is now set to extend his career to 2017.
“We’ve stuck with him, but he has stuck with us too,” the coach said on AFL 360.
“He had an opportunity at the end of last year, he was a free agent and he’s a free agent at the end of this year too, to explore as a Queensland boy. He could have quite easily said, listen, it hasn’t worked out quite well for me here and it’s time to move on.”
The four-time premiership coach explained he had attempted to “create and indoctrinate” a culture at Hawthorn which made players invest in what the Hawks were selling.
“Try to invest in something and be there for the long haul. It doesn’t always work out that way,” Clarkson explained. “When they’re at our footy club, we embrace them, we try to get them to invest in the team and the program and hopefully as a result of that they get a benefit.
“It’s a benefit that for someone like a Whitey, getting an opportunity to lift the cup would galvanise him as a genuine Hawthorn player — which is probably measured by premiership success given the history of our club. He more than most players who’ve been through the doors of our footy club deserves to lift that cup at some point.”
But in a story in The Age today, written by Daniel Cherny even Whitecross admits he was “bitter” late last year as he missed what could have been a third consecutive premiership.
“Last year there were probably stages towards the end of the year where I got a bit bitter and a bit shitty on – not the club – but the situation I was in,” he said.
“I got to the end of the year and I was out of contract. I wasn’t sure where I was sitting with Hawthorn. I had interviews with Brisbane and GWS. And I had a really good chat at the end of the season with Clarko and a couple of the other coaches.
“It was a really honest conversation. It was leaning towards, ‘we really know you’ve been up against it the last few years [and] we completely understand if you want to go and seek other opportunities to seek a fresh start and kick off your career again’.
“At the time that was pretty positive for me, to get the nod of approval from the club that I could go and do that. There was a part of me that thought ‘maybe it is best I get a fresh start’.”
But even with no guarantees of AFL games in 2016, Whitecross stayed. As he prepares on Friday night to make his finals return – coincidentally against the Cats – he knows he made a good call.
“There was always a big part of me – both in my heart and my head – that felt if I could just stick it out here it would probably be better for my footy. It might be a hard road to get back to playing AFL footy and to play regular senior footy, but I knew that it would be the right decision.
“I was one of the last blokes to get re-signed, but I’m glad I stuck it out and I fought through that to get back to where I am now. I think I made the right decision.”
On reflection, Whitecross admitted he was ill-prepared when he returned to the playing field early last year.
“The realisation is I probably wasn’t ready. As much as you want to be ready when your chance comes, I think my body was just that little bit underdone. The confidence in my body wasn’t there. Having a full year of VFL footy in a sense last year, a good pre-season and playing some good consistent footy at VFL level this year, I think really held me in good stead to be able to jump back into the AFL side and then perform as well as I have.”
Having chosen to stay, Whitecross again narrowed his gaze on working his way back into the AFL team. Injury was no longer an issue this year, but Hawthorn’s deep midfield and array of clever small forwards meant spots would not be easy to claim.
“The frustrating thing for me was, without pumping myself up too much, I was probably in better form than some of the blokes that had been selected ahead of me at the start of the season. But the thing that went against me was the positions that those players were playing.
“The positions that were becoming available at AFL level weren’t suited for me. I really had to bide my time.”
But Whitecross said not once did he regret his decision to stay. “I knew my time would come, it was just a matter of when.”
The support of Hawks football chief Chris Fagan was vital. “He’s always been a bloke that’s been in my corner when things have been up against me. He’s probably one bloke I owe a bit to, because of the trust he’s instilled in me and the fight he’s put up for me at times.”
Eventually an opening arose – as Whitecross travelled to Sydney for the Thursday night blockbuster against the Swans in round 17. He’s played every game since.
With one moment he repaid the faith. The moment Hodge spoke so glowingly of deep into the final quarter of the round 23 match against Collingwood, when he dived on a loose ball to stop a soccer from Magpie Ben Crocker to prevent a goal. In a one-point result that secured the double chance for Hawthorn, it was a moment to savour.
“On the field you just sense moments in games,” Whitecross said. “I was deep on the line and knew whether it was a point or a goal, if they scored it was going to be a really tough spot for us to fight back from there.
“It was a few minutes before that that I knew I was that close to playing finals footy. That fire just sort of ignited in my belly. I was just trying to do whatever it took.”
How he’ll play his eighth AFL final in what will be his fifth finals campaign. And as much as Queenslanders might hope Hawthorn cannot win another flag to better the Lions’ hat-trick there would be a very strong reason to wish otherwise if it meant a premiership medal for Whitecross.