This article was published on 1 September, 2016.
Thirty-three minutes into the final quarter of the 2010 WAFL Grand Final, a young Stephen Coniglio swiftly gathered a 50/50 ball at half forward.
At the tender age of 16, Coniglio evaded an opponent before swooping a handball to a teammate in the middle of the ground and the ball was pumped forward. The result was Andrew Krakouer’s fourth goal to put Swan Districts in front with only a couple of minutes remaining and securing the club’s first premiership in 20 years.
While Krakouer was the standout on the day, collecting 34 disposals, Coniglio kicked four majors of his own when most teammates failed in front of the big sticks.
And it was his 17th and final touch of the match that sticks in the head of then teammate and former West Coast premiership player, Ashley Hansen.
“I’ve only watched that Grand Final once but I can remember that handball and his image pops into my head. It was a reflection of his creativity and vision to use the ball and I think that’s what made his game standout so much. Not only could he win the contested ball, which is a great attribute for a young player, he was also creative when he got it,” Hansen told Aflplayers.com.au.
“He was efficient in a Grand Final where usually the disposal count is low because of the high pressure and your contested game is valuable. He certainly played beyond his years.”
Coniglio was already highly regarded as a future draft pick when he took to the field that day, but was still a year away from being drafted. As the final siren sounded and teammates celebrated a Grand Final victory against the minor premiers, Coniglio became the second-youngest premiership player in WAFL history.
He was developing an impressive CV for recruiters, and teammates were astounded by his attitude not only towards football, but also when dealing with other people.
“He was only a young boy when I met him and he was playing alongside some pretty strong personalities at Swan Districts, but his professional attitude, humble nature and how respectful he was to people around him in treating everyone equally, those underlying values are really strong,” Hansen added.
“He was very respectful of his teammates and of the club. He had great passion for Swan Districts and was really invested in the club when you could argue that he didn’t have to be. He was very humble at what he had achieved up to that point.”
Giants teammate and close friend Jonathan Patton first came across Coniglio in the 2011 national under-18s championships and immediately noticed the rising star’s genuine nature.
“I met him when I was going to the draft around the age of 18. He was a really nice guy and you could tell he was always going to be a leader. He was one of the guys that everyone just warmed to,” Patton said.
“He’s someone that just cares. He cares for everyone, not just a couple of players or friends, but he genuinely cares for the club and for each player.
“He’s very good with names, especially all the sponsors and the corporate and those sorts of people, which just shows how much he cares and how genuine he is.”
“I remember he took a mark about 50m out on the boundary and he just went back and put it through the goals at post height” – Jon Patton on Coniglio
Coniglio’s on-field impact has been important for the Giants in 2016. As they continue their assault on the premiership in the club’s fifth year, the 22-year-old has been GWS’ most consistent performer.
Barring a few niggles here and there, Coniglio is injury-free and his season is reflective of a consistent run, averaging 28 disposals for the first time in his career and becoming one of the league’s leading players for tackles, clearances and contested possessions.
His stunning form has seen him claim selection in the 22Under22 and All-Australian squads, and seen him develop into an elite inside midfielder.
But Patton remembers a player who also had the silky skills to match it with his work in congestion.
“I remember he took a mark about 50m out on the boundary and he just went back and put it through the goals at post height. That’s when I realised why he was rated so highly.
“Nowadays, you know every week what you’re going to get from him. He’s brought his game to such a consistent level now that you know what he’s going to do every week and that’s what you want to strive to as a player – that reliability.”
Coinciding with his on-field form, the WA native has also grown away from the field in a leadership role.
He was promoted to the leadership group before the start of the season and captained the club in its first pre-season match in February.
A leader of the football club is something Coniglio aspires to be and it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest he might take up the role on a full-time basis eventually.
“He does a lot of reading and he reads a lot of books. He’s worked a fair bit with Simon Katich in the past through a connection in WA. So doing a lot of reading and having Simon as a mentor has helped him a fair bit,” Patton said.
“He reads different types of books about leadership and ways to get the most out of yourself and best prepare.
“I think he could captain the club one day. If he was to move into something like that, I’m sure everyone would have his back as well.”
But there’s an element of Coniglio’s leadership that was already evident from a young age.
“It’s not surprising he’s been touted as a future leader because I’m sure he’s matured into a great young man with great work ethic and a professional attitude for what is required to have success,” Hansen said.
“Although I don’t know their inner sanctum, it wouldn’t surprise me if he captained the club one day.”
After leading from the front on Grand Final day in 2010, Coniglio will be there when things heat up for the Giants in September 2016.