Oh, brother: Kick back now knowing you changed the footy landscape

Originally published in The Age, written by Brandon Jack.

Growing up we had a lightpost across the road and it copped a battering. Every afternoon I’d hear this loud, dull thud. It was relentless. I’d wander outside and there I’d see Kieren with ball in hand.
Still possessing a round-the-corner kick that hadn’t broken away from its rugby league heritage, he would boot the ball time and again at the post.

Yesterday, after 255 games with the Sydney Swans, Kieren announced his retirement from the AFL. In 2001 you’d probably have laughed if I told you that the five-foot-two halfback, wearing Steve Menzies-inspired headgear, would one day captain the Swans. To jump codes was considered treasonous, and borderline stupid, because in the early 2000s, if you played Aussie Rules in Sydney you in a minority.

Now, seeing thousands pour into the SCG on weekends wearing red and white, it’s clear how things have changed. I feel like it’s not an overstatement to say that Kieren’s decision changed the NSW sporting landscape.

Kieren wasn’t the brightest spark at school, but with football he found something to dedicate himself to. He studied the game intensely. Even at under-16s level he would keep notebooks of opponents he was playing against and study the players he wanted to be like. His drive led him to prove a lot of people wrong. “He’s too small.” “He can’t kick.” “He doesn’t understand the game.’’

Since he was rookie-listed to the Swans in 2005, I’ve spent more hours than anyone watching the 48 and 15 run around in the red and white. The 48 was a bit scrappier. He played in the back pocket at Manuka Oval on Saturday mornings and spent more time on the ground grabbing his opponents by the scruff of the neck than he did getting a kick.

Watching the 48 led me to believe that to play AFL was to follow one person around all day and make sure they didn’t get the footy – I thought that “tagging” was just something everyone did. But the 48 worked hard, doing hours of extra kicking with his coach Brett Alison and honing his craft following Brent Harvey and Jason Akermanis in pre-season games.

The work that the 48 did helped him to become the 15, and the 15 became one of the best players in the competition. The 15 won a grand final, a Bob Skilton Medal, was named All-Australian, and captained his team. All footy players have their strengths; the part of their game that gets them picked each week. To see Kieren’s, go back to the 2012 grand final when he kicks that goal late in the fourth quarter. With just over eight minutes left, and the Swans down by a goal, the ball spills out in the forward line. “Jack . . . running onto it . . . this is really big . . . it’s a dead-set massive moment!”

When you watch it, go to the stoppage beforehand on the wing. Kieren was at the stoppage.
He ran past three or four Hawthorn players to kick the goal. To get to that footy is called ‘gut running’ and, Kieren was known as one of the best two-way gut runners in football.

Call me biased, but the fact that a Sydney rugby league boy with a rugby league name has played 255 AFL games and captained the Swans is remarkable. He’s shown that it’s possible for kids in NSW who haven’t grown up playing the game to have an impact in the AFL. If you don’t want to pass the Steeden, you can kick the Sherrin. That’s the impact of Kieren.

Brandon Jack, the younger brother of Kieren, is a Sydney writer and former Sydney Swan.

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