By Peter Blucher
If there’s a better time to win a spot in the top side of an AFL club contending for a premiership it is late in the season. Like Round 19.
Or at least that’s what Zac Smith at Geelong will be hoping.
After a frustrating 18 months at the ‘Cattery’, Smith is set to be given a golden opportunity to cement a place in the ladder-leading Geelong side in the run to the business end of the season.
Although named among an extended interchange bench for Sunday’s game against Sydney at the SCG and still to face the final selection cut, coach Chris Scott has given every indication the 29-year-old ruckman will play his second game of the year against Sydney at the SCG on Sunday.
So strong was Scott’s messaging to the media on Thursday that the AFL website reported Smith will play ahead of Rhys Stanley, the regular first-choice ruckman this season.
Interestingly, Esava Ratugolea was named in the first ruck, with Smith and Stanley among the bench squad as the as the Cats, after 11 wins in the first 12 rounds, look to bounce back from a less flattering loss-win-loss-win-loss record in the last five outings.
Significantly, it will be just his fifth game since his outstanding first two years in blue and white hoops in 2016-17 after he was targeted by Geelong and lured from the Gold Coast Suns.
A member of the Suns very first AFL side who kicked their first score with a behind eight minutes into their first game in 2011, he had played 65 games in five years with the expansion club despite a knee reconstruction and major ankle surgery.
He slotted straight into a Geelong side which played in a preliminary final in each of his first two years, playing 23 games in 2016 and 21 games in 2017, and finishing 10th and 8th in the club best & fairest.
He battled a back problem all of last year and played just eight VFL games in addition to his three AFL games, but has been largely injury-free this year.
In a VFL season which started two weeks after the AFL he has played 10 games, had two byes, twice missed as a travelling or carryover emergency, and missed just once through a minor strain.
He has been part of an intriguing five-way Geelong ruck rotation this year, with Stanley playing 15 games, Ratugolea 12, Darcy Fort three, Ryan Abbott one and Smith one.
Even Mark Blicavs, among the contenders for an All-Australian selection in defence, has been tried in the ruck.
Significantly, of these six players only Smith is not contracted for next year.
It won’t have escaped the notice of coach Scott that Stanley has been soundly beaten in the ruck recently.
The Cats won have the clearances only once in the past five weeks – against Hawthorn last week – and even then Hawthorn ruckman Ben McEvoy dominated the ruck hit-outs and was rated the second best player in the game in the AFL Coach’s Association Player of the Year Award.
Likewise, Scott admitted he had not forgotten that Geelong dominated clearances 44-31 in Smith’s only game this year, when he had a respectable 11 disposals, 33 hit-outs, two tackles and three clearances.
And who was that against? Sydney!
Said Scott as he prepared to head to the Harbour City: “Their (Swans) brand has been built around contest and stoppage work and that was one of the best stoppage games (Round 11) we’ve had for the year.
“(We had) big scores from stoppage numbers, I think it’s unfair to say it was because of one player but it doesn’t hurt Zac that he was playing in the ruck that day.
In other Queensland AFL selection news ahead of Round 19, Harris Andrews will miss the Lions’ visit to Launceston to play Hawthorn on Saturday through suspension.
Port Adelaide’s Charlie Dixon, coming off an horrific lack of preparation following a badly broken leg, has been given a chance to regain lost confidence in the SANFL.