After 39 games in seven seasons, 2015 was a make or break year for Robbie Tarrant.
Injuries had crippled his AFL career, and they weren’t your stock-standard niggles — four shoulder reconstructions, hip troubles, nerve damage and a rare tibial stress fracture limited the athletic key position player to one injury-free season.
Frustrations were, at times, impossible to escape for Tarrant but the last year of his contract would prove to be the defining one of his career, where he would repay North Melbourne for the faith they showed him during the long stints on the sidelines.
But despite his inability to get on the park, Tarrant had already proved his worth off the field.
“We could see the talent and knew what he could become but more important was the character of the guy,” North Melbourne’s Director of Coaching, Darren Crocker, told Aflplayers.com.au.
“Had he been a rat or a skunky sort of bloke who didn’t fit into the culture of the footy club, we wouldn’t have persevered. Even when Taz was on the sidelines, he was adding to the culture.
“He was probably at the crossroads at that period of time because you can only give players so long to become what we think they can become. Just because they’re a good bloke, you can’t keep them around if they’re not getting on the park.”
Perhaps more concerning was the cause of Tarrant’s injuries.
While some players break bones or rupture ligament because of incidental collisions, Tarrant’s shoulder issues stemmed from his body’s genetic makeup — something that could only be fixed with repeated surgery.
“Robbie’s got great strength but he’s been given hyper mobile shoulders,” North’s Senior Performance Consultant, Steve Saunders told Aflplayers.com.au.
“The cup can be deep for the ball of the shoulder to sit in and his was on the shallow side and his ligaments that hold it all together were a little more flexible, too.
“When you have really strong muscles and play contact sports, it isn’t a great combination because you’re able to produce large forces but aren’t inherently stable from a skeletal point of view, which is why surgeons do a standard reconstruction first before moving onto one called a Latarjet Procedure where they use a bit of bone to stabilise the joint.”
Tarrant had four shoulder reconstructions — two on each side — before his 21st birthday and an AFL debut, spending close to two full years on the sidelines.
Once the shoulder surgeries had healed, the then goal-kicking tall needed to strengthen the stabilising muscles in his shoulders.
Everything came together and North was confident Tarrant would take less time to develop than your usual key position player due to his athletic qualities.
He made his debut in 2010 and played seven more games the following year before a breakout period resulted in 29 games and 39 goals between 2012 and 2013 — his shoulders were no longer a problem.
But this continuity was interrupted when Tarrant received a knock to the leg, causing nerve damage and persistent pain throughout the remainder of 2013.
“One of the nerves on the outside of your leg sits close to the skin which is easily injured,” Saunders added.
“And on the back of that and enduring more load, he developed a stress reaction in a bone near the area, so the two injuries ran into one another.”
Classified as a tibial stress reaction, the injury is rare in location and type.
High up and towards the back of the shin bone, the fracture all but conquered Tarrant’s 2014 year, and meant North Melbourne were forced to find a solution to such an uncommon issue.
They found the right surgeon but the procedure had only been done a handful of times, mostly on ballet dancers and kickboxers.
After Tarrant underwent the invasive operation, Saunders believed the hard part was over.
“The key to the stress fracture was the surgical procedure, they insert an inflatable nail into the shin bone, which stiffens the bone like concrete.
“After you’ve had the appropriate rest period, rehabilitation is the easy part — we knew what we needed to do from there, slowly load the bone and the surrounding muscles and tendons over a three-month period.
“But it was a testing injury that had us all concerned. Robbie had doubts and we certainly had doubts so the key was finding the right surgeon and technique for him.”
They were testing times for Tarrant but he wasn’t out of the woods yet, a different type of challenge loomed.
Coming into that make-or-break year, the then 25-year-old was taken out of his comfortable forward spot and moved to defence.
He had been trialed as a stopper, in fact some of his earlier performances in the blue and white stripes were in the back half of the ground, but this move would be more permanent.
Tarrant initially took some convincing but he found the defensive goal square was more effective than the operating table.
“The injuries have enabled him to build a resilience that’s probably helped him with the transition down back,” Crocker added.
“There was apprehension as to whether he’ll ever be able to come back from all of that and he could’ve thrown his hands up years ago and given it away.
“So he was always going to cope with having goals kicked on him or being beaten by a forward one week because it could’ve been a lot different — at least he’s running around and doing something he set out to do from the start.”
On the verge of game 100, Tarrant couldn’t be more stable.
Physically, his body is as sound as it’s ever been and his transformation into one of the best key defenders in the competition culminated in a Syd Barker Medal in 2016.
He’s missed only three games since the start of 2015, including the last 39 in a row — the same amount he played in his first seven years — but that’s not to say injuries are completely out of the picture.
“We use the term constancy of load and it’s very important in keeping players durable, so once you’re strong and conditioned enough in a certain area and your modifiable risk factors have been changed and you’re in a robust zone, having constancy of load of those tissues, muscles, tendons, bones is still important,” Saunders explained.
“If players do nothing for six weeks and jump straight back into the same amount of load they were doing before without appropriate preparation, they can have recurrences but we’re very much at a maintenance level with Robbie.”
Tarrant’s elite level success through adversity has him held as an inspiration for teammates at North Melbourne.
He’s become a leader, although somewhat reluctantly, due to his journey. He’s now the club’s vice-captain and has been a shining light in an indifferent year for the Kangaroos.
“He’s so important to our footy club and the direction,” Crocker said.
“Off field, he’s grown into a leader and teammates want to follow him. Taz is a bloke who lets his actions do the talking for him but when he speaks you’ve got a room full of guys hanging on his every word because he’s a measured bloke who means what he’s saying.
“He’s not someone who speaks for the sake of speaking because he’s a leader, he waits for the right moments and has a greater impact on the group.”
The job doesn’t get any easier for the 28-year-old, with a raging Port Adelaide, spearheaded by Charlie Dixon, awaiting North Melbourne for Tarrant’s milestone on Saturday.
You can bet North’s defence won’t be crumbling from the weight of Adelaide Oval with their enduring journeyman on the last line.