Long wait nearly over for Comeback Quartet

By Peter Blucher

Thirty-four Queenslanders listed with AFL clubs will eagerly await the start of the 2022 Toyota AFL Premiership, but none more than four who are unlikely to play in Round 1.

Gold Coast’s Connor Budarick and Rory Thompson and GWS’ Lachie Keeffe and Braydon Preuss are the ‘Comeback Quartet’. Four of the great comeback stories of the year.

When the 2022 season starts tonight with the Grand Final replay between Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs it will be a combined 2547 days since they last played. And between them they have played 209 games in 31 years in the AFL.

THE COMEBACK QUARTET – AFL GAMES YEAR BY YEAR

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

2018

2019

2020

2021

Total

Budarick

15

two

17

Keeffe

5

9

8

18

0

8

10

13

8

79

preuss

0

0

8

0

7

3

0

18

Thompson

8

5

21

19

12

14

7

17

0

0

0

103

Thompson, a Gold Coast local and original Suns signing who turned 31 last Saturday, is the ‘president’ of the group, having not played since 28 July 2018 – 1327 days. Despite his protracted layoff due to knee reconstructions the 103-game fullback is 12th on the club’s all-time games.

Preuss, in his second year with the Giants but still to play an official game for the club, is 555 days between games. And the last time the 26-year-old ruckman played on 7 September 2020 he wore a different jumper to that which he will wear next.

A rugby league player in Townsville until the age of 16 and a product of the Gold Coast Academy, he has played 18 games in seven years in the AFL – eight at North Melbourne (2015-18) and 10 at Melbourne (2019-20) – but missed 2021 with shoulder problems.

Budarick, 21 next month, is the youngest of the foursome and the draft sensational to hard lock story. A star graduate of the Suns Academy and a rookie pick in 2019, he played more games in 2020 than any 2019 draftee except Suns teammate Noah Anderson.

But it all turned sour in Round 2 last year when he did his knee. And despite 353 days out of action since a reconstruction the 17-game small defender has still played as many games as the #1 pick in his draft, Matt Rowell.

Keeffe, a one-time Gympie soccer player who will be 32 next month and 312 days since he played his 79th game, is the oldest of the group and has hardened a rollercoaster ride through what is now 14 years in the AFL.

Suspended for 2015-16 for taking a banned substance when playing at Collingwood, he had rebuilt his career nicely at GWS before a heart-breaking mishap in the closing seconds of a Round 5 game last year. His second knee reconstruction after he did the same knee in 2012.

Thompson and Budarick will definitely not play at AFL level in Round 1, when the Suns visit Perth to take on the West Coast Eagles on Sunday evening. According to List Manager Craig Cameron, both are likely to play in a VFL practice match.

“With Rory it’s just a matter of conditioning now – nothing to do with his knee,” said Cameron, noting he had received a ‘standing ovation’ from teammates as he ran on to play half a game against Geelong last Monday week.

Budarick will make his first reappearance this week having “not missed a beat” in rehabilitation and will have plenty of credits in the selection bank after an outstanding beginning to his AFL career.

“He’s a tough fierce competitor. He hates to lose and has a real edge to the way he goes about things,” Cameron said of Budarick, who was drafted by the Suns with pick #14 in the 2020 Rookie Draft (held in November 2019).

He was the 74th first-time draftee in the 2019 Draft but was one of just eight from the entire Class of 2019 to debut in Round 1 2020. The others were Suns teammates Anderson and Rowell, Melbourne’s Kysaish Pickett, GWS’ Tom Green, Port’s Mitch Georgiades, Adelaide’s Fischer McAsey and Brisbane’s Deven Robertson.

In the GWS camp, Preuss, set to replace the retired Shane Mumford as the No1 ruckman, would have almost certainly played in Round 1 but for a one-match suspension incurred in the AAMI Community Series when he was charged with rough on Collingwood counterpart Brodie Grundy.

When finally he does debut for his third club 26-year-old Preuss will deliver a belated return on a trade in which GWS gave up pick #33 in the 2020 Draft.

Keeffe is the selection hope of the ‘Comeback Quarter’ after having his first comeback taste of AFL football in the pre-season against Collingwood.

If included the tall utility will add a new chapter to a career which began when he was drafted by Collingwood with rookie pick #69 in the 2008 after being recruited as a ‘non-registered player’, having not played football in three years prior.

Keeffe is one of 19 players from his draft year still playing. Former Collingwood teammate Steele Sidebottom, with 264 games, has played most, and, surprisingly, one player has played fewer than Keeffe. Mitch Brown, now at Melbourne after stints at Geelong and Essendon, has played 76.

One New Queenslander

There is only one Queenslander new to AFL ranks this year – Suns rookie Bodhi Uwland. A powerful defender/midfielder from Broadbeach, he was impressive in the NAB League and the VFL last season before stress fractures in his back cut short his season and was named 2021 Suns Academy player of the year despite his injury.

Missing from last year are Gold Coast pair Jarrod Harbrow and Zac Smith (retired), Collingwood’s Josh Thomas (retired), GWS’ Sam Reid (retired), Brisbane’s Archie Smith (retired) and Connor Ballenden (delisted) and StKilda ruckman Paul Hunter ( delisted).

Mabior Chol, originally drafted by Richmond with rookie pick #30 in 2015 and a 31-game Tiger from 2016-21, has traded his black and gold jumper for a red and yellow strip of the Gold Coast.

No less than 22 of the 34 Queenslanders listed with AFL clubs this year are with the two Queensland clubs. Richmond have three, Adelaide, GWS and Port Adelaide two each, and Melbourne, North Melbourne and Sydney one.

In major off-season news, Dayne Zorko will captain the Lions for a fifth consecutive year, leaving only Michael Voss (10 years), Jonathan Brown (seven years) and Roger Merrett (seven years) in the job longer.

Ben Keays, Queensland U18 captain in 2015 before he was delisted by Brisbane four years and 30 games into his AFL career, he has been elevated to the Adelaide leadership group after finishing second in their B&F last year.

Untried Gold Coast rookie will make a late start to the season, having been fined $5000 and suspended for two matches for betting on AFL matches last year.

And in an early blow for the Lions, defender Keidean Coleman will be sidelined for two months following a hamstring injury.

The full list of Queenslanders is:-

adelaide (2): Elliot Himmelberg, Ben Keays
Brisbane: (10) Harris Andrews, Charlie Cameron, Blake Coleman, Keidean Coleman, Tom Fullarton, Eric Hipwood, Connor McFadyen, Carter Michael, Jack Payne, Dayne Zorko.
Gold Coast (12): Jack Bowes, Connor Budarick, Matt Conroy, Alex Davies, Caleb Graham, Patrick Murtagh, Rhys Nicholls, Alex Sexton, Rory Thompson, Bodhi Uwland, Lachie Weller.
GWS (2): Lachie Keeffe, Braydon Preuss.
Melbourne (1): Oskar Baker
North Melb (1): Bailey Scott.
port adelaide (2): Aliir Aliir, Charlie Dixon.
Richmond (1): Noah Cumberland, Will Martyn, Ryan Samson.
sydney (1): Tom Hickey.

Peter Blucher is a Consultant with Vivid Sport.

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