Zac is back! And ready for a fairytale return to the AFL

Submitted by Peter Blucher.

Zac Smith will find himself in a totally bizarre situation as he ends a 658-day absence from the AFL tomorrow afternoon, having played much more with his opposition than he has his own teammates.

A 65-game Gold Coast player from 2011-15 before 60 games at Geelong from 2016-19, Smith will make a fairytale return with Gold Coast against Geelong in Geelong.

Remarkably, he has played as many games for the Suns as all but four of his Suns teammates this week but has only played with those same four, and yet he has played with all except four members of the opposition side.

It’s an extraordinary scenario for a player who kicked the club’s very first score in the AFL – a snapped behind from a ruck contest which “just missed” – and will become the first Suns player to leave and return to the club.

He will do in reverse what his still close friend and two-time teammate Gary Ablett did in going from Geelong to be a part of the Gold Coast start-up before returning home.

Also, Smith will be the only member of the Gold Coast side this week who has ever won at Kardinia Park, with the collective record of the other 21 players at the Cats’ homeground a daunting 0-36.

The only four Suns players with more games for the club than Smith are co-captain David Swallow (163), Alex Sexton (141), Tout Miller (125) and Sean Lemmens (101).

The numbers are distorted by the injury absence of Sam Day (139), Rory Thompson (103) and co-captain Jarrod Witts (82), plus the non-selection of games record-holder Jarrod Harbrow (191), but it is extraordinary that a player can be away from the club for four years and then not play at all in his first season back yet still find himself so far up the games list.

Since Smith’s last game for the Suns on 5 September 2015 – 2086 days ago tomorrow – the club has added 51 players to an all-time list that stood at 77 when he left.

No less than 21 have come and gone in his absence – Callum AhChee, Ryan Davis, Matt Rosa, Daniel Currie, Jarrad Grant, Mackenzie Willis, Jesse Joyce, Josh Schoenfeld, Michael Barlow, Pearce Hanley, Jarryd Lyons, Brad Scheer, Jack Scrimshaw, Max Spencer, Aaron Young, Brayden Crossley, Jacob Heron, Jacob Dawson, George Horlin-Smith, Anthony Miles and Corey Ellis.

Only seven players from Smith’s last year at the Suns are still there – Day, Harbrow, Lemmens, Miller, Sexton, Swallow and Thompson.

And yet 10 ex-Suns from the same period are now playing at opposition clubs – Charlie Dixon and Trent McKenzie (Port), Tom Lynch and Dion Prestia (Richmond), Steven May (Melbourne), Jaeger O’Meara (Hawthorn), Jack Martin and Adam Saad (Carlton), Peter Wright (Essendon) and Aaron Hall (North). Plus, there are two others who were earlier teammates of Smith at Gold Coast – Tom Hickey (Sydney) and Josh Caddy (Richmond).

Since his last game of football Smith, now 31, has had two birthdays, moved interstate and had a second child. And battled through the 2020 Covid campaign where his football was limited to inter-club scratch matches as Witts carried the Suns ruck division solo in shortened games.

Having missed the start of the 2021 season due to a PCL injury, Smith has played three games with the Suns Reserves side to earn his chance tomorrow after coach Stuart Dew had used fill-in ruckmen Caleb Graham and Chris Burgess since Witts went down with a season-ending ACL injury in Round 3.

Having worn jumper#2 in first stint at the Suns and jumper #9 at Geelong he will wear the #32 which was worn during his first stint at the club by Brandon Matera and then briefly by Crossley. Former Adelaide wingman Rory Atkins, who debuted with Gold Coast last week, is wearing #2 after Grant and Miles wore it in the interim.

Looking forward to the first game of his ‘new’ career, the 206cm ruckman will have in the back of his mind two alarming ‘first time’ memories. In his first game for Gold Coast against Geelong he lost by 150 points, and in his first game for Geelong against Gold Coast he lost by 120 points.

Again, it will be a big test for the Suns, coming off a mauling at the hands of the Brisbane Lions in the Q-Clash last week against a Geelong side looking to answer strong media criticism after they were lucky to get over the top of a dreadfully inaccurate StKilda last week.

Also, the Suns will be playing at a ground where they have never won against a home side that has won 38 of 43 games since mid-2015, and in their last outing at home in Round 6 obliterated West Coast by 97 points.

Smith, who enjoys as 12-4 career-record at “The Cattery”, will be accompanied by wife Aimee, daughter Eden, who will be three in August, and son Oscar (seven months), plus his parents as he returns to Geelong.

His return to football is a new chapter in what has been a wonderful advertisement for the AFL Queensland Rookie Search program.

Born in Biloela, he moved to Rockhampton aged 10. He played predominantly soccer, representing Queensland not as a goal-keeper, as might be expected, but as a field player.

It wasn’t until a group of mates at North Rockhampton High invited him to join the school team in October 2006 that he first played Australian football at 16.

But after then being part of the Rookie Search Program he joined the Glenmore Bulls U17 side, finishing runner-up in the B&F in his first season before joining Zillmere in the AFLQ in 2008.

He was only halfway into his first season with the Eagles when he was offered a foundation contract with the Suns whereby he would sit out of the 2008 draft and instead play with the Suns in the TAC Cup in 2009 and the VFL in 2010 before joining the AFL in 2011.

It wasn’t like he didn’t have options. He’d received letters of interest from Collingwood, Hawthorn, Geelong, North Melbourne and Port Adelaide, and had a visit from then Richmond recruiting boss Craig Cameron, who by chance is now the Suns list manager.

But with such little football behind him he chose the development path with the Suns and was the club’s fourth signing.

In Round 7 of his first season – his sixth match – he was a key figure as the Suns upset the Lions in the first Q-Clash. He had 22 disposals and 17 hit-outs to get the better of Brisbane ruck pair Matthew Leuenberger and Mitch Clark, and was rewarded with a Rising Star nomination.

At the end of the season he polled 21 votes in the Rising Star count to finish third behind only Essendon’s Dyson Heppell (44) and West Coast’s Luke Shuey (37). Heppell is now the Bombers captain and Shuey is the Eagles captain.

Fourth in the count was Gold Coast co-captain Swallow (18) ahead of West Coast’s Jack Darling (6), Sydney’s Sam Reid (5), West Coast’s Andrew Gaff (1), Suns teammate McKenzie (1), Geelong’s Daniel Menzel (1) and StKilda’s Jack Steven (1).

He played 20 games in his inaugural season, finishing 6th in the Suns B&F, and 16 games in his second season. But he battled injury in 2013-14-15, playing 8-10-11 games, and when offered a fresh start by Geelong he jumped at the chance.

In his first two years in the blue and white hoops he played 44 games, including five finals and two preliminary finals, and finished 10th and 8th in the B&F. But after injury again restricted him to three games in each of 2018 and 2019 he was traded back to the Gold Coast.

Despite not yet playing in his return to the club he has been a popular and important leadership figure among the young playing group.

Peter Blucher is a Consultant with Vivid Sport. 

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