Sport AFL Better than ever: The miracle of Saint Nick
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Better than ever: The miracle of Saint Nick

Nick Riewoldt
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Nick Riewoldt and I, we’ve been through a lot.

After the collarbone, the bumps, the tunnelling, the ‘cultural problems’ (read: abhorrent behaviour by his clubmates), the slow exodus of his peers, the knee, the knee again, and of course the Grand Finals, this Saints supporter wouldn’t have begrudged Saint Nick if he’d eased up on the throttle and settled into a role as full-time Spiritual LeaderTM, a ghost of a footballer drifting around on one good knee, being vaguely inspirational.

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Young Riewoldt. Photo: Getty

Anyone that’s seen him in action, though, knows that Riewoldt’s throttle has always been jammed in the ‘full’ setting.

Along with Gary Ablett, he has been the best player in the competition this year, with only a subdued performance in the Saints’ Round 4 thrashing by Adelaide blotting his copybook.

On Saturday against Essendon, he was simply outstanding, blowing up Michael Hurley on the lead, taking vital contested grabs, and working tirelessly to provide options for his young teammates. To top it all off, his goalkicking, for so long an Achilles heel, was clinical, bringing a return of 5.1.

Where Matthew Pavlich can resemble a cyborg, and Jonathan Brown resembles an oak tree, Riewoldt is all too fallible, a heart-on-sleeve Greek tragedy masquerading as a footballer.

So why are we acting like this is some new phenomenon? Has Riewoldt’s standing suffered from the routine nature of his excellence? As a St Kilda fan, I’ve seen this guy week in, week out for over a decade, racking up the disposals of an unaccountable half-back, the mileage of a Mo Farah, and of course the dominant aerial presence of an elite key forward.

I’m grateful for having seen an all-time great plying his trade, but in all honesty, his consistency can sometimes get vaguely tedious – it’s like eating sirloin for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Well, I guess I’d forgotten how much I like sirloin. Perhaps it’s only now, with a dodgy knee, past 30, and still holding down the most physically demanding position on the field, that I’m appreciating how remarkable his footballing feats really are, simply because at this age, and in this team, they simply cannot be taken for granted.

He has been one of the competition’s dominant forwards for most of his 14 seasons, but no-one has ever accused him of making it look easy. When he finally pouches a chest mark after one of those long, Homeric leads of his, he looks absolutely spent.

When he goes up for a soaring contested mark, you fear that he’ll be snapped in half like a Teutonic twig – countless times, he’s come perilously close.

Where Matthew Pavlich can resemble a cyborg, and Jonathan Brown resembles an oak tree, Riewoldt is all too fallible, a heart-on-sleeve Greek tragedy masquerading as a footballer.

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Old Riewoldt. Photo: Getty

Since Fraser Gehrig’s retirement, he’s had to carry a huge workload as the go-to attacking target, not to mention the weight of expectation that all clubs, and especially a star-crossed club like St Kilda, tend to bestow upon their champion. He’s even had to deal with Kosi’s dodgy spatial awareness, too.

His ability to work through pain and exhaustion has helped to redefine the AFL’s definition of competitive courage, though, and perhaps that’s what has been so heartening about his performances this season: the Saints are well into a bottom-up rebuild, and he continues to play every game like it’s his last.

His numbers and his influence have been impressive as usual, but his leadership, which has always been strong, has risen to another level.

When he finally pouches a chest mark after one of those long, Homeric leads of his, he looks absolutely spent.

In a young side with a lot of dash but without much composure and know-how, he has thrown himself into the task of providing an example.

Watch him anticipate a hurried clearing kick by a nervous teammate and make it look intentional. Watch him leave Rhys Stanley one out to have a crack at this key forward caper, before choosing the right moment to charge back and show him exactly how it’s done. As a captain, he has been both a shepherd and a benchmark, exactly the figure that a young side needs.

It’ll be a sad day when he finally donates that knee of his to science, but we’ve been grateful to have him – maybe not as grateful as we should have been.