Andrew Gaff has enjoyed one of his best seasons in 2018 amid constant speculation about his future. The 26-year-old ball-magnet spoke with AFLPlayers.com.au about his performance in 2018, West Coast’s strong position, what he is like away from the field and where he is at with his important decision.
Heading into 2018, I’m sure internally you had some positive thoughts, but externally there was some negativity surrounding the Eagles. How have you assessed the year to date, and are you surprised at all?
A lot of it was the unknown going into this year. With Matt Priddis and Sam Mitchell retiring, and many young boys coming into the club, it is the unknown of how those boys are going to go, whether they’re going to step in as ready-made players like they have been, but also, who are the guys that are going to step up in Priddis and Mitchell’s absence? We’ve seen Jack Redden take his game to a new level, Mark Hutchings does his bit every week, and all the new guys coming in have complemented that. The new stadium has increased excitement levels, too, which gave us some extra enthusiasm at a time where a lot of media had written us off. I think a few people tipped us to finish last.
How have you enjoyed the new stadium, and what were your first impressions like?
We only got to train on there two or three times before Round 1, so that wasn’t ideal. The first time we were on there was our first intra-club which was a perfect day, but everyone was sweating so much it was like playing in the wet. We were wondering if that was going to be a feature of playing at Optus and maybe in the first few rounds when it’s a bit hotter it was almost like playing in the wet. That first game against Sydney was a complete blur, really. I was as nervous as I have been before any other game, and you’re always nervous before going into a new season, but with the added spectacle of the new stadium and everyone watching, I’m sure we were all a little bit nervous. When you play a quality team like Sydney it’s always tough. I feel we have now built it into a bit of a fortress and it’s helped us be able to play on bigger grounds like the MCG and Etihad because we’re playing on similar dimensions now each week. It took us a few weeks to find our feet at the new stadium, but I feel like we’re as good as any team in the comp playing at our home ground.
Going back to what you said leading into your first game at Optus, what are you like before games? Are you the nervous type?
I’m anxious, I guess. The great thing about footy is the unpredictability of it, and that is in a good way and a bad way. I feel like I’d be normal in saying that all guys are nervous before Round 1 — it’s a new year and nothing you’ve done in previous years matters. I’m not someone that is overly loud when I’m nervous, I guess it’s more of an internal anxiousness. I am pretty good the night before, it’s more when I arrive at the ground and see everyone and then do the warm-up, that’s when start to get a bit nervous, but if you’re nervous it shows that you care.
When you have played your two games at the MCG against Carlton and West Coast, how noticeable has the difference been since playing on a ground like Optus Stadium, because of the issues you’ve had with the MCG in the past?
Yeah, I think there’s been a big difference. As well as we played at Subiaco, we weren’t able to do similar things at the MCG, and when you’re training at Optus, you know what you can and can’t do. When you step out on the MCG, it’s very similar and you have that confidence that what you have been training and the way you’ve been playing at Optus can work anywhere in the country, especially at the ‘G. A lot of people give us a bit of stick about not being able to play well there, but we can only do what we’ve done so far this year there and we’re two from two, albeit not overly convincing against Carlton, but we couldn’t have done too much more against Collingwood. It gives the young players some confidence that we can win anywhere and on the big stage.
After the 10 wins in a row, a few injuries crept in and you endured a run of three consecutive losses, but since then you’ve steadied. I imagine you guys didn’t get too frustrated or down during that period, but describe what the feeling was like during those weeks and how you have managed to bounce back in the last couple?
It was a tough period and it seems like all teams at some stage this year have gone through a two or three-week patch where they’ve struggled a bit, and ours was down to a lack of personnel without Josh and JD. But we also lost our way a bit in terms of competitiveness and we didn’t play four quarters of football. We were good against Sydney in Sydney but didn’t convert, we had one bad quarter against Essendon and then that last quarter against Adelaide where we lost our way and couldn’t stop the tide. We felt like we were playing well enough, we just couldn’t stop momentum which is becoming a tougher thing to do in the AFL these days. We’ve found a way to stop that in the last few weeks, but no doubt we’re going to get challenged at some stage throughout the year.
You were a part of the 2015 squad that made the Grand Final… are you one to draw comparisons? Is this a better team?
It’s very hard to say. We’re probably not as experienced compared to 2015, but we’ve got that youth and enthusiasm that perhaps we didn’t have then. The younger players like Rioli, Waterman and Venables are working their backsides off to earn a spot each week, whereas perhaps in 2015 we had players who were a little more settled, which isn’t necessarily a better thing. We have good buy-in from everyone at the moment, we’re not relying on individual brilliance to get it done, we know if we don’t bring our absolute best, we’re not the greatest side in the competition at all.
How would you assess your own form?
I’ve been happy with my consistency, which has been a positive, and I think that has been right across the board with our midfield group. Luke Shuey missed quite a few games with a hammy earlier in the year, but Jack Redden has probably had his best year, Elliott Yeo has stepped into the midfield and done quite well, Mark Hutchings always performs his role. That level of performance makes it hard for opposition teams to scout and to think about. With my game, it has been nice to get on the end of a couple and hit the scoreboard, which is something I haven’t done as much as I would have liked in previous years. It’s a hard thing to say at the start of the year that you want to kick more goals, like how do you do that? It’s a tough thing to actually find a process to do that. It’s more about making the most of the opportunities that come, and sometimes you only get one opportunity to hit the scoreboard. Luckily, I have been able to nail those occasions.
I know you’ve spoken about how well Josh Kelly and Dustin Martin handled last season amid scrutiny, how have you managed to play so well while the outside noise surrounding your future has been loud?
I’m pretty focused on day-to-day when I’m at training and on game day, I’m fully committed. I think I’ve done well compartmentalising things, and there’s definitely times during the week when you think about that contract side more and when you wake up a couple of times during the night you think about it a bit, but once I’m at work I’m fully committed to working hard and being in that zone. I definitely admire Josh Kelly and Dustin Martin, who had one of the best individual years of all time with everyone talking about his contract each week.
When I reached out to you to have the chat, I appreciated you getting back and being willing to talk during a time where there is a lot of media attention, because a lot of people may go to ground in a similar situation. Have you made a conscious effort to accept it for what it is?
Yeah. I guess it’s a good problem to have, I suppose. There are plenty of bad things going on in the world at the moment, and I just kick a football around for 100 minutes every weekend. Sometimes it seems like a bigger deal than it is, but when you don’t speak for six weeks it brings about more speculation. I’m appreciative of the job I have each weekend, and this is just something that’s a part of it.
Do you sympathise with Tom Lynch?
Yeah, I do. He is talked about every couple of days and you feel for him and you feel for the club when every media conference is about Tom. It will be interesting to see how it all pans out, but it’s tough for him at the moment being injured and not being able to do too much about it. I think he has handled a difficult situation as best as he could.
We see you play each week, but a lot of people down here wouldn’t know what Andrew Gaff is like off the field. What are you interested in?
I study commerce in WA, and do that mainly in the first semester, which allows me to do a couple of units. I find it to be a really good distraction from football, you get to meet different people and talk to them about different things, which is refreshing. At the moment, I love my golf, and I’m a member at a private course over here. It’s a good time to think and reflect about what is going on around you, and I think it’s more about the scenery, as opposed to hitting the ball around. I was lucky enough to play at St Andrews in Scotland at the end of year, and it’s one of the oldest courses in the world. I rocked up in shorts when it was raining and until the 17th hole. It was one of the great experiences I’ve had overseas. I’m a pretty competitive person, whether it’s golf, footy or table tennis. We play table tennis every day at the club and its bloody frustrating when you are not playing well. Since I was a kid I’ve been a competitive person, and in some ways it’s a big strength, but in others it isn’t because I might be too focussed and need to take a step back and think about other things outside that.
Good segue, because I recall speaking with you in the off-season and you mentioned your interest in the media and trying to expose yourself into that field, are you still scratching the surface with that?
I love my sport, and I feel like I know my sport as much as anyone out there. Whether it’s writing, whether it’s speaking on a panel and talking about all of these different sports, I’d love to do something in that regard. But I have my university work and I’m majoring in marketing, so it’s about intertwining everything, and at this stage of my career, it’s something I need to start pursuing and looking at avenues to tap into those ideas. Football doesn’t last forever, and now is the time to look into it.
How have you viewed some of the noise around rule changes? Or has the discussion taken a while to filter out to Perth?
(Laughs) It has taken a while but it has finally got out to Perth. I understand the AFL wanting to open the game up a little bit, I think that is a good thing for the game, but I’m not sure about trialling it during this season. It compromises the Coleman Medal probably more so than the Brownlow, because the best player is going to be the best player no matter how the game is played, but if it is open more, and you play in a bottom-eight side trialling it who is thereabouts for the Coleman and kicks eight goals because of the space, that is something to think about. I’m not too sure about zones, I think it messes with the history of the game.
With your decision, have you categorically made a call on when you will make the decision? Will you wait for the end of the season?
No, I’m open to making a decision before the end of the year, if that happens. It’s not something that I’ve ruled out to the end of the year. My manager and I are talking through it all the time and we’ll continue to do that until a decision is made.
No worries. Thanks for that, Andrew, and good luck.
No worries at all. Thanks Simon.