Submitted by Peter Blucher.
It’s been a long AFL journey for Mabior Chol, with 22 games in six years, but finally he has become hot property in them AFL. He’s now officially a ‘wanted man’.
And while statistically his two-goal effort against Adelaide last Sunday was no standout, it was a performance highly regarded in the Richmond camp and could be remembered as the one in which the Sudanese-born utility stamped himself as a legitimately good AFL player.
Some of his ruck work against Crows’ reigning B&F winner Riley O’Brien was exceptional and complemented nicely his unquestioned athleticism and talents up forward.
Two big questions now remain as looks to add greater consistency to his talent. Is he going to play out his AFL career as a ruck/forward or a forward ruck? And what colors will he wear?
Long-serving Richmond football boss Neil Balme this week confirmed the club’s “love” for the 200cm 24-year-old who made his home in suburban Acacia Ridge in Brisbane from age eight after his family fled Sudan to escape the country’s civil war and lived for five years in Egypt on route to Australia.
But Balme admitted the club faced a battle to retain the former Yeronga South Brisbane and Aspley player, who has become something of a cult hero at Richmond but is an out-of-contract unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.
“We love him and of course we want to keep him but in the last three or four weeks we’ve seen a number of clubs scouting him – as they should be,” said Balme.
“He’s certainly played very well this year in the VFL and last week in the AFL, and he’s probably at that point of his career where he’s ready to produce his best on a consistent basis.
“He’s unbelievably athletic, he can win plenty of taps (in the ruck), he’s a quick and mobile forward, he kicks the ball well, he looks after himself and the guys love him,” Balme said.
Chol got his chance in the senior side last weekend when star key forward Tom Lynch was ruled out for six-eight weeks with a knee problem. He and fellow youngster Callum Coleman-Jones were included by coach Damien Hardwick and both delivered nicely.
But with Lynch and Jack Riewoldt entrenched as key forwards in the senior side, Toby Nankervis a lock as the No.1 ruckman and Ivan Soldo in rehabilitation following a knee reconstruction the question is ‘how many talls do the Tigers need?’
Certainly, with a dearth of young ruckmen in the AFL Chol and Coleman-Jones will be in demand with opposition clubs.
Balme said Chol was “probably” more a specialist ruckman who can also be an effective marking forward, while Coleman-Jones is the opposite. More of a first-choice forward who can ruck.
Whatever, an exciting time beckons for Chol, who has become a committed inspiration for the huge Sudanese population in Melbourne as an ambassador with The Growth Project, an organisation working to foster community in this area.
Covid-permitting, he regularly spends one night a week in suburban Collingwood with Sudanese youths trying to help their personal development and life direction.
As he has said previously, Chol was sick of seeing headlines about African gangs causing trouble around Melbourne.
“Something I’m really passionate about is giving back to my community and working with my community people,” Chol said. “What’s been happening in the media with all the South Sudanese kids doing the bad stuff, I’m just trying to be a great role model to them and someone they can look up to and trying to help set them up on the right pathway.
“They’re all wonderful kids, very humble and respectful. But I think sometimes when people see them on the street they think, ‘Oh, they might be trouble because of their skin colour’. I don’t think anyone should get discriminated because of the skin colour or where they come from. Everyone can think differently but at the end of the day we’re all the same.”
Chol’s own experience and the journey he has travelled with his parents and six younger siblings – four brothers and two sisters – has built a strong will to help make change.
While he has few concrete memories of his time in Egypt he will never forget the racism directed towards his family, once telling how a younger brother was nearly kidnapped.
“It was just on the street. We were out having fun and some random bloke came and just tried to take him. I rushed inside and called my mum. Lucky enough they came out really quick before anything happened.”
In his early days in Brisbane Chol played soccer and basketball, and was proficient at both.
But, like fellow Sudanese escapee Aliir Aliir, he has forged an AFL career via the junior ranks of Brisbane football after prompting from some mates in his first year at Yeronga High School in 2012.
Chol admitted he “didn’t even know the AFL existed” before his call-up to fill in as the ruckman in an undermanned school team. “They just saw the tallest bloke at school and picked me to play as a ruckman,” he recounts.
It all happened quickly thereafter. In his first season of football he played in the grand final of the schools competition at the Gabba, and in 2013 was part of a World XVIII team that played in the Australian Under 16 Championships.
He was a member of the Brisbane Lions Academy in 2014-15 and in ’15 represented Queensland at the Under 18 Championships and played for the Allies in a curtain-raiser to the AFL Grand Final at the MCG.
He starred at the AFL Combine, winning the standing vertical jump (334cm), ranking second in the running vertical jump (357cm) and fourth in the relative vertical jump which measures the distance from his feet to the ground. His was 90cm.
To complete an extraordinary athletic profile, he ranked second in the repeat 30m sprints just behind his future Richmond teammate Daniel Rioli.
Overlooked in the 2015 AFL National Draft, Chol was taken by Richmond with selection #30 in the Rookie Draft that followed. Interestingly, taken ahead of him in the same rookie draft were Sydney’s Tom Papley (#14) and Essendon’s Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti (#22) and after him were Port Adelaide’s Dan Houston (#45) and Gold Coast’s ex-Adelaide draftee Hugh Greenwood (#48).
After spending most of his first year at Richmond in the Reserves he made his AFL debut in Round 23 2016 against Sydney at the SCG. He was the AFL’s fourth Sudanese player behind North Melbourne’s Majak Daw, Aliir and Brisbane’s Reuben William.
Wearing the #41 made famous at Richmond by Nathan Foley (154 games) and Scott Turner (144 games), he had a day to forget. He had two disposals as the Tigers were belted by 113 points, making him the 14th Queensland football product to lose by 100-plus on debut.
Others? Two players copped a triple-figure loss in their only AFL game – Essendon’s John Williams went down by 108 points at the hands of StKilda at Docklands in the last round of 2008, and Marc Lock was on the wrong end of a 119-point scoreline in the Gold Coast Suns’ first game against Carlton at the Gabba in 2011.
Charlie Dixon, Zac Smith, Alik Magin and rugby league convert Karmichael Hunt also debuted in the first Gold Coast game.
And the rest? More good trivia.
Tony Lynn was the first in the Brisbane Bears’ 140-loss to Essendon at the MCG in Round 9 1988, and was followed by Simon Luhrs in the Bears’ Round 19 1991 loss by 101 points to Geelong at Kardinia Park, Stephen Wearne’s 107-point loss for Melbourne against the Western Bulldogs (then Footscray) in Round 13 1992.
Identical twins David and Donald Cockatoo-Collins shared this dubious distinction with Melbourne when, at 17, they debuted in a 127-point loss to Geelong at the MCG in Round 1 1996. A week later came Mark West’s 131-point debut with the Bulldogs against North Melbourne.
Richmond’s Luke McGuane followed in 2006 when his Richmond side lost by 118 to Sydney, and after Williams in 2008 and the Gold Coast group in 2011 there was only one more before Chol – Jono Freeman’s 105-point loss to Adelaide with the Lions at the Gabba in Round 20 2014.
But it didn’t deter Chol, who in 2017 he was a member of Richmond’s losing VFL grand final side before he played in the now forgotten AFLX competition and the VFL in 2018.
But in the end of the 2018 season he was delisted. It was all part of the now common list juggling undertaken regularly by AFL clubs, and, true to their word, the Tigers took him back via selection #45 in the rookie draft of December 2018.
If opposition clubs knew then what they know now they will rue the opportunity they had to pinch the talented youngster. Still, it is only because he was delisted that he is an unregistered free agent after just six years in the system.
In 2019, after a wait of 1020 days, Chol played his second game against Adelaide at the Adelaide Oval. He had eight possessions, a goal and 13 hit-outs in a 33-point loss.
After a Round 14 bye he grabbed a place in Queensland football history in Round 15. In his first game in Melbourne, he had 16 possessions, nine marks, three goals and seven hit-outs in a 33-point Docklands win over StKilda. And one Brownlow Medal vote.
Among 185 Queensland AFL players he ranks second on the list of ‘fewest games to his first vote’ list.
Who was quicker? It is a golden trivia question. Not Jason Dunstall, Michael Voss or Jason Akermanis. Not Nick Riewoldt, Marcus Ashcroft or Dayne Zorko. Or anyone you’re likely to pick.
It was Brett Backwell, son of dual QAFL Grogan Medallist Owen Backwell who played 18 games with Carlton from 1999-2001. In his second game against Collingwood in Round 2 at the MCG in front of 70,506 people Backwell earned one vote for 14 possessions and one goal.
The top 10? It’s an unlikely list.
2 – Brett Backwell (Carlton)
3 – Mabior Chol (Richmond)
4 – Darren Carlson (Brisbane Bears)
5 – Stephen Lawrence (Hawthorn)
6 – Jason Dunstall (Hawthorn)
6 – Steven Handley (Geelong)
6 – Zac Smith (Gold Coast)
7 – Matthew Simpson (Brisbane Bears)
8 – Che Cockatoo-Collins (Essendon)
8 – Daniel Merrett (Brisbane Lions)
In 2019 Chol was a member of Richmond’s VFL premiership side after nine senior games in the back end of the season, and in 2020 he played 11 AFL games including his finals debut in a 15-point qualifying final loss to Brisbane at the Gabba. He was an emergency for the three ensuing finals, including grand final.
And the bleached strip through his hair?
It goes all the way back to 2019 when he was playing under ex-Lions triple premiership player Craig McRae in the Reserves.
McRae was a fan. “He loves the bling earrings and the colour. I just thought to myself, it’s an example of ‘Marbs’ being comfortable in his own self. There’s nothing better than when an athlete, or anyone, feels really comfortable in themselves.”
But as much as Richmond people have tried to suggest it was a spin-off from the gold sash on the Richmond jumper, Chol had previously revealed otherwise.
“Everyone is saying Richmond or Collingwood (colours inspired it) but I don’t know. The boys were asking me, “When are you going to dye your hair and I said maybe one day” and pre-season came and I did it.
“My mum was happy with it and the boys were too so I think I will keep rocking with it for the rest of the year. There was no inspiration, I am just loving dyeing my hair and having a bit of swagger with it so that’s about it.”
Two years on it’s still a distinctive tag for Chol as he continues his intriguing AFL journey.
In other Queensland news from Round 11:-
North Melbourne’s Bailey Scott found himself in the centre of a mini media furore after a brilliant shutdown job on St.Kilda’s Bradley Hill, holding him to a just six possessions in his 179th game – his lowest number since his debut. Scott, in his 24th game, had 14 possessions and was lauded by North coach David Noble despite his side’s 20-point loss, but was criticised by Saints coach Brett Ratten, who said of the 20-year-old Gold Coast Suns Academy product “ … (he) didn’t even want to try and touch the ball really, and just made it a sole focus with that”. Scott received the first vote of his career in the AFL Coach’s Association Player of the Year award. Fair to assume it was Noble not Ratten who voted for him.
Lions skipper Dayne Zorko became the 10th Queenslander to kick 200 AFL goals when he kicked two and bagged 35 possessions in last Saturday’s Gabba win over the GWS Giants. He joins an illustrious group of Jason Dunstall (1254), Nick Riewoldt (718), Jason Akermanis (421), Kurt Tippett (325), Charlie Dixon (264), Michael Voss (245), David Hale (217), Che Cockatoo-Collins (215) and Charlie Cameron (212). Zorko split the coaches votes with teammate Mitch Robinson, with each player receiving nine. Cameron’s lively team-first contribution of 13 possessions and a goal earned him three votes.
Adelaide’s Ben Keays continued his good run, picking up 31 possessions (11 contested), 11 clearances and nine tackles in their 28-point loss to Richmond. It was his fifth 30-possession game in the last seven weeks.
Charlie Dixon was rated second best by the coaches behind teammate Ollie Wines in Port Adelaide’s 46-point win over Fremantle. The powerhouse key forward found himself in the ruck at the first bounce in a move by coach Ken Hinkley to get him into the game early, and finished with a season-high 18 possessions (14 contested), three goals and four contested marks.
MID-SEASON REPORT CARD
Sydney ruckman Tom Hickey and Zorko head the Queensland standings in the Coach’s Award at the halfway mark of the season with 28 votes apiece. Hickey, who has missed two games with a troubling knee problem, has polled six times and Zorko four times. Then comes Keays (22), Harris Andrews (18), Cameron (16) and Eric Hipwood (15).
Keays heads the mid-season possession count among Queenslanders with 318 from Zorko (274) and Gold Coast pair Jack Bowes (221) and Lachie Weller (204).
Hipwood heads the goal-kicking with 22 from Cameron (20) and Port’s Charlie Dixon (18).
Eight Queenslanders have played every game – Zorko, Cameron, Hipwood, Andrews, Weller, Keays, Dixon and his Port teammate Aliir. Collingwood’s Josh Thomas and Gold Coast’s Alex Sexton have played 10 games.
Peter Blucher is Consultant with Vivid Sport.