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Jones’ journey to 200 AFL games: part one

Nathan Jones interview: part one Nathan Jones reflects on his career ahead of his 200th AFL game

MATT Burgan catches up with captain Nathan Jones in the lead-up to his 200th AFL match. Jones reflects on his early days with Melbourne, becoming a three-time best and fairest winner and being the leader of the competition’s oldest football club in the first of a two-part series to celebrate his milestone …

Matt Burgan: Nathan thanks for your time. Can you believe you’re about to play your 200th game?

Nathan Jones:
I’ve been pretty lucky to be honest. I’ve only missed four or five games since I debuted. It’s a pretty big milestone and it hasn’t really sunk in yet at this stage. My family and friends have probably acknowledged it more than me but more importantly, I’m just looking forward to getting out there and playing this week. It’s a pretty big game again for the club and hopefully we can respond and get a good result.

MB: You’re such a Melbourne favourite. It’s a shame your milestone is not at the MCG. But what a milestone it’d be if you were part of a team that overcame Fremantle in the west.

NJ: We haven’t had too much success over there in the past nine or 10 years, so it’s a huge challenge for us, but it’s come at an ideal time. We’ve been struggling a bit on field for the last three weeks, so it will be a good chance for the players to get away and get together and to try and galvanise to play the team who are on the top of the ladder. They’ll be sharpening themselves up for a big finals campaign and for us, we’ve got a lot to gain from the last two rounds, so that starts this weekend with a huge challenge against Freo.

MB: Oscar McDonald will become the 1320th player to represent Melbourne, when he makes his AFL debut this round. Yet only 24 people have played 200 games or more for the club. You’re about to become the 25th. How do you consider that?

NJ: One thing I love about the footy club is its rich history. Having been here through a period that hasn’t been so successful in terms of on field performance, you hear a lot about the past. So for me, I’m excited about the future and controlling what we can control now. I think that those stats and where I sit amongst them is something that I will probably acknowledge at a later date. I want to be one of those players who is remembered for getting the team back to where it should be – that’s our greatest challenge. That’s the reason why I rock up here every day and put the jumper on every weekend to chase down that result and that feeling.

MB: I’ll take you back for a moment. You played in the 2005 TAC Cup Grand Final for Dandenong Stingrays and notched up 36 disposals on the MCG. You lost, but what a performance at such a young age. How do you remember those days before you got drafted by Melbourne only a few months later?

NJ: I was only 17 at the time and I think the draft age may have changed a touch, so I snuck in and was just old enough to get picked up. It was a pretty busy year for me, completing year 12 and playing school footy for Peninsula, where I went to high school and also playing for the Stingrays who had a really successful year. I played in the Grand Final, which topped the year off. I’ve got some great mates from that team and unfortunately we couldn’t get the job done on the day but the opportunity – which they don’t do anymore – to play in curtain-raiser on the MCG on Grand Final day as a 17-year-old player is a moment that I will never forget. It was before the West Coast and Sydney Grand Final – the one where Leo Barry took that mark, so that’s always been a memory that I’ll never forget and I was grateful for that opportunity. Gippsland Power beat us that day and their team was pretty star-studded: Scott Pendlebury, Dale Thomas, Tyson Goldsack and a few others. I think out of the Dandenong boys, I might have been the only one who got picked up out of that team in terms of drafts, but we were really close and a lot of us came from the same area on the Peninsula. Unfortunately we couldn’t get it done on the day but I loved my time playing for the Stingrays. I’ve got mates for life from all the teams I played in and I keep in close contact with those guys.

MB: Almost a year later, you played on the MCG against St Kilda in Melbourne’s most recent finals win. Does that seem like a long time ago and what are your memories from that?

NJ: It seems like so long ago. I was pretty raw when I got the chance – I debuted round 17 that year. I spent a fair bit of time down at the Sandy Zebras who we were aligned with at the time and debuted in Adem Yze’s 250th game. We played the Doggies at the MCG and it was awesome to get a taste of it that year. We played in some pretty crucial games. We drew against Geelong and that game was pretty surreal. Then we played in a final. I think I started in the first centre bounce and I got the first kick of the game, which I will never forget. I was lined up on Robert Harvey. I was a mad Saints supporter when I was growing up and he was my idol, so they were moments where you pinch yourself. Since then, you mature and make your way into the side and playing AFL footy starts to come naturally. At the time, I was probably overawed and embroiled in the whole highlight of my making my debut and how quickly that shot into playing finals and playing in a successful team. Now when I reflect on that, I see how lucky I was. We haven’t had a huge amount of success since that period in time where I was young and inexperienced, so it drives me to get back there. Having been around a fair while now and being really confident in my own game, I just really want to get back there and experience it again.

MB: In your second year, you finished runner-up in the best and fairest – an outstanding achievement for a young player. How do you look back on 2007?

NJ: My second year was a bit of a whirlwind again. I still remember after that Freo game – the second final where we got pumped over there – I came back and had played enough games in the VFL, so I was lucky to play in a VFL premiership as well so I got to experience the best of both worlds in my first year. I still remember having my end of season meeting with ‘Danners’ (Neale Daniher) and he demanded that I come back fitter and that I lose weight. He said that I needed to come back and win the three-km time-trial to give myself the best opportunity to play the following year. I still remember that was all I focused on and I think that really set me up in terms of being able to have such a successful second year of footy. From there, I was lucky in what was a pretty tumultuous year. Danners ended up resigning half way through the year and Mark Riley took over as caretaker coach. It was probably from when he took over that he really thrust me into playing in the midfield more often. That’s where I was really able to find my feet for the last 10 games of that season. So to finish runner-up in the best and fairest to a player like James McDonald – who that year was All-Australian and the captain of the club – was a real career-defining season.

MB: Although you continued to play just about every game, it wasn’t easy for you – personally and certainly for the club – over the next few years. What do you make of this period?

NJ: I was really disappointed in my progression over the next few years. We had a new coach and I never really regained my confidence and belief in myself. I battled through and didn’t know my spot or position. I don’t think it was until the year before my first best and fairest that I started to really work it out again. From there, I’ve been able to be pretty consistent. This has been due to working everything out, finding my feet and self-confidence … to become a good player. The challenge now for me, as someone who is more senior, is to pass on that experience to our younger group. We need to develop those players as quickly as we can because I want to experience again what I did in my seventh and eighth game. Hopefully that’s sooner rather than later that we can get back there.

MB: In 2012, you won your first best and fairest for the club. And by the end of 2014 you were a three-time Keith ‘Bluey’ Truscott Memorial Trophy winner, having won your third straight. Only five other Melbourne players have won three or more club champion awards – how do you reflect on that?

NJ: For me, I probably don’t reflect on it as much. After those years, I’ve reflected on the year that I’ve had and how I want to get better the following year. There are bigger challenges out there for me and I probably don’t appreciate – at the moment – those individual awards. I’m more driven to get some team success. Although I’m only 27 years old, I think about how quickly it can go. Ten years has already gone and I just want to make the most of that. We have a pretty young, and up and coming list, and there’s a lot more challenges for me to try and continue to improve – both as a player and a leader. If that results in individual awards, that’s all well and good but more importantly, we’re chasing finals appearances and the opportunities to finish top four and hopefully one day play in a premiership. That’s why I come to training and that’s why I play the game. I tip all of my energy into that so the individual accolades that come along the way, that’s something that I’ll reflect on when my career finishes.

MB: In 2014, you were named co-captain for the first time with Jack Grimes, who had been in the co-captaincy position since 2012. What was that like?

NJ: I loved my time with Grimsey. We found ourselves together in the position last year. How he felt individually [at the end of last season, by standing down], I supported his decision 100 per cent. At the time, I didn’t want him to step down from my personal point of view because I felt that we helped each other a lot and I recognised the responsibility that we shared would be far greater if it was just me on my own. I felt that us both being pretty young in the role, that it would be better that way, but in the end, with his confidence and backing and with the decision he made for his own career, I was lucky enough to get voted in by the players and coaching staff and board. That took me back really and I was really proud.

MB: And that takes me to this year. My observation is that you’ve grown significantly as a person since having the captaincy by yourself. But you live it – so what’s it like being sole captain of the competition’s oldest football club?

NJ: This season has been a huge learning curve for me. My form has been reasonable but it’s more just dealing with the whole picture of life really. It’s my first season having a young daughter and being dad full time and dealing with that off field. When you leave footy and go home to your wife who is looking after your daughter all day, it never ends for people with a family out there. As a professional athlete, you find yourself being really selfish and I was a 100 per cent like that, particularly when I was younger – in terms of how I prepared for games so I could give myself the best opportunity to play well. Having a family takes you out of your comfort zone so that’s been a big adjustment. Then being the captain, there’s greater responsibility in terms of media and appearances. As captain, your most important role is with your teammates and coaches, and driving the message for the coaches and trying to perform as best as you can on the field. Everything that comes along with that role has been a huge adjustment for me, but I’ve loved every moment of it. There’s been times where I’ve been disappointed but I think it’s really tested me and I think I’ll be better for it. I want to be leading the club back to where it should be. I think we’re on the right path and we have a lot of hard work ahead of us. I’ve still got some significant improvement to make in my game to round myself off as a player and to drive the standards and behaviours of the group, and lead the club in the right direction.