By Peter Blucher
Zac Smith has put himself right back into the frame for an ongoing position in a Geelong side that at the mid-season point is favorite for the 2019 AFL premiership.
After more than 12 months off the AFL scene the 29-year-old Queensland ruckman was a late inclusion in the Geelong side that beat Sydney by 22 points on Saturday.
Coming in for Rhys Stanley, Smith gave the Cats a healthy domination in the ruck against Sydney’s Callum Sinclair with 11 disposals (six contested), 33 hit-outs and four clearances as he continues to rebuild after a 2018 season heavily disrupted by a back problem.
The former Gold Coast Suns ruckman played just three AFL games and eight VFL games (in four blocks) last year due to ongoing back problems, but after a disrupted summer he finally found himself injury-free in February.
He had played six games in a row in the VFL this season, broken only by a week out as a senior emergency and a bye, and in May he reached something like the form that saw him finish 8th and 10th in the 2016-17 Geelong best & fairest awards.
If Stanley is fit he would expect to go back into the side after an impressive start to the season, but Smith has certainly done himself no harm in what is a rare glut of ruck talent in a Geelong side that sits two games clear at the top of the ladder.
Coach Chris Scott has now played five different ruckmen in 11 games – Stanley (9 times), Esava Ratugolea (9), Darcy Fort (2), Ryan Abbott (1) and Smith (1) – as he searches for the best combination.
It is a perplexing issue for Scott, who, while Smith has been regaining form, fitness and confidence in the Reserves, has preferred While Stanley, who is widely considered a ruckman who can play forward.
In contrast, Smith and Abbott are more specialist first ruckmen, and Ratugolea and Fort are more forwards who can pinch hit in the ruck. Finding the best mix will be front of mind for Scott as they head into the second half of the year.
Smith is in his fourth year at Geelong after five years and 65 games at the Suns.
Oddly, having returned on a weekend in which his Lions namesake Archie Smith played his first AFL game in 671 days, Zac Smith now find himself with two extended absences out of football.
He was 378 days between his 112th game and his 113th game on Saturday, and was precisely 365 days between his 44th in 2013 and 55th game in 2014 due to a knee reconstruction.
Just as Zac Smith made an impressive comeback to AFL football after a long absence, so, too, did Archie Smith.
Included in a Brisbane side which included a season-high six Queenslanders when Oscar McInerney missed the Gabba clash with Hawthorn to attend a funeral, Smith had nine possessions and 23 hit-outs in a solid contribution in the home side’s big comeback win.
Harris Andrews was the standout Queenslander in the Lions-Hawks clash, dominating at centre half back with 20 possessions, nine marks and 14 one-percenters as Brisbane held Hawthorn to five goals after quarter-time.
Andrews has reached the mid-way point of the season with 103 one-percenters (from nine games) an is well within striking distance of Daniel Merrett’s 2007 club home-and-away record of 182.
Captain Dayne Zorko, who had 18 possessions and a timely fourth quarter goal against Hawthorn, also figures prominently in AFL statistics at mid-season.
He leads the League in tackles and inside 50s, and is third for goal assists behind Geelong’s Tom Hawkins, GWS’ Harry Himmelberg, and level with Melbourne’s Jake Melksham and GWS’ Brent Daniels.
Zorko’s tackle count of 80 puts Jack Redden’s 2011 club record of 166 in his sights. And the skipper’s 75 inside 50s has him eyeing off Jason Akermanis’ 2004 home-and-away club record of 153.
Ben Keays, in his first game since Round 12 2018, had 12 disposals and five tackles against the Hawks.
Gold Coast’s Jack Bowes, who had been enjoying a brilliant start to the 2019 season, suffered a nasty quad strain early in their loss to the GWS Giants in what shapes as another hefty blow for coach Stuart Dew.
Oscar Baker continued his eye-catching early form at Melbourne with 21 disposals in their last-gasp loss to Adelaide. This came after Baker had 10 disposals in his first game and 16 in his second.