From the NRL Cradle to AFL Premiership Glory

Australian Football celebrates its 140th anniversary in NSW this year after the founding of the NSW Football Association in Sydney in 1880.

Neil Cordy profiles the nomination of Kieren Jack to the AFL NSW Hall of Fame.

If Tony Lockett was the first Swans player to draw the admiration of Sydney’s rugby league fans it was Kieren Jack who cemented Plugger’s inroads into NRL heartland.

League followers loved Lockett’s aggression, intimidation and goal scoring talent and Jack turned them on to the game’s skill, speed and courage.

Rugby League fans first knew Kieren as Garry Jack’s son, the Balmain, NSW and Kangaroos champion full back.

Initially Kieren and his brothers Rhys and Brandon (also a Swans player) headed down the same path playing Rugby League but when Plugger booted the Swans into the 1996 grand final Kieren’s head was turned.

“It was the 96’ Swans team which first caught my interest when I was about nine”, Jack said.

“I wasn’t playing Aussie Rules but having a successful team in Sydney, that was the first thing that attracted me to the game. It was Sydney’s team and we were going to follow them.”

His early interest turned into something more substantial when he reached grade five at West Pennant Hills Public School.

“The Paul Kelly Cup started that year and we were one of the first teams to play,” Jack said.

“I think there were only 50 or 60 teams, now there’s a couple of thousand competing.

“It was a simple competition and very smart, it got kids involved in footy who otherwise wouldn’t be.

“We had a mixed bag of players, there were only a couple of Aussie Rules players, the rest were mostly Rugby Union, Rugby League and Soccer players.

“We made the grand final on the SCG and won it. The following year I signed up for our local team Westbrook in the junior comp. Our school played in the Paul Kelly Cup again the next year, this time with about 150 teams and we won the grand final again.”

The same year he was picked to represent NSW Primary Schools and the balance between League and Rules started to swing.

“That was when I fell in love with footy,” Jack said.

“I continued to play League and AFL until I was 15 and then made my choice, and it was a pretty easy decision to be honest. I loved AFL, the atmosphere, the skills and the fitness. The size issue wasn’t a big factor but it was part of the decision especially when other kids were growing much faster. I didn’t want to keep getting smacked around, footy had more space to run.”

Soon Kieren was off to high school at Oakhill College in Castle Hill and changing football clubs as well.

“Pennant Hills was the breeding ground to go onto senior football,” Jack said.

“It had produced so many AFL players over the years; Lenny Hayes, Mark and Jarrad McVeigh, Stephan Carey & Nick Potter. It was a great club environment and full of amazing people.”

Just when things were progressing nicely Kieren’s ambitions hit a snag, he missed out on state selection for the under 15s. It was a body blow.

“All of my hopes and dreams simply were sucked right out of me,” Jack said.

“I asked for some feedback about why I missed out and that was when I was told I was too small to play to play the game. I was told footy was moving in a different direction and that you needed to be a certain athletic size to play it and the small players were getting weeded out.”

It was the first real setback Kieren had faced but he soon discovered resources he didn’t realise he had.

“I used that setback to drive me,” Jack said.

“I’d run every day and when I hit that pain barrier I’d say to myself I’m not too small and I can do this. I wasn’t going to let anybody tell me I couldn’t make it.”

Kieren’s teens were a pivotal period of time in his career as he battled between ambition and self-doubt. During this time his coaches played a critical role.

“There were three who stood out,” Jack said.

“Greg Barnes coached me in grade six for the Paul Kelly Cup and up until the age of 15 at Pennant Hills. He gave me enormous support and confidence to back myself. Mick Clift had a big influence at the Redbacks, he took me under his wing and was always talking to me. He was very good with people.”

“Then there was Rod Carter after that at State level. I remember coming off the bench in the under 16s, I did a couple of good things and then he threw me into the middle. He could see things in me others couldn’t and he was huge. He backed me and told me what I needed to do to get better.”

2005 and given the number 48, it was an early indication he was still a long way from senior football. He played the 2006 season in the reserves and made his debut in round six the following year. After starting out as a tagger he began to win his own ball and had a breakout season in 2010 winning the Bob Skilton Medal.

Two years later he kicked two vital goals in the grand final including the one which drew them level with Hawthorn in the last quarter.

In 2013 he was promoted to co-captain alongside fellow Pennant Hills player Jarrad McVeigh. Remarkably he played the entire season with virtually no training after being struck down by glandular fever before Christmas. His amazing effort earned him All Australian honours.

His last game was in round 23 last year against St Kilda. Appropriately it was at the SCG where he had played 22 years earlier in the Paul Kelly Cup.

“It’s gone really quickly,” Jack said.

“It brings a smile to my face when I walk past a field with the four posts up. “I couldn’t find footy posts growing up, I would run around parks and kick at light posts, soccer goals and rugby league posts that’s all I had.

“The success and growth of the footy in Sydney and this state is something that makes me really happy.”

The Daily Telegraph’s award-winning photographer Phil Hillard took this image at the SCG, Jack was just 11 years old and leading West Pennant Hills Public School to victory in the Paul Kelly Cup.

At the same ground 22 years later, Jack kicked a famous goal as Sydney defeated St Kilda in what was his final ever game of AFL.

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