After not playing a game in 2016, developing big man Billy Longer has managed to string three strong performances together in 2017. He sat down with Aflplayers.com.au to discuss the setbacks he has faced and the Saints’ form since his return.
The feeling around the club must be pretty positive after Friday night. What did it mean to prove to the footy world that the Saints can match it with the likes of GWS?
It was proving to the footy world, but just as much about proving it to ourselves as well. We’re a team that are doing the right things and it shows that the hard work and effort that we’ve been putting in for a long period of time now is starting to show. It gives us a bit of confidence that if we play our brand that we can beat any team.
There’s been a fair bit of hype about the Saints after winning 12 games last year. Would you say the group is confident about the prospect of finals?
Yeah. For us, finals is something that we all want to achieve and enjoy together. For me personally, it’s one of the biggest drivers and motivators. Crunch games like the GWS one last Friday are re-assuring to us that if we’re at our best, and we’re giving Saints effort, then we’re definitely a team that can be in the finals.
Your own performance — you had 48 hit-outs against one of the premier big men — how did it feel to not only perform, but to finish strongly in the fourth quarter?
Shane Mumford is someone that I’ve really admired for a long time, and in many ways, based my game on. He’s a quality and aggressive player and that’s what I’m trying to aspire to be. It’s good to go up against a man that typifies the type of player that I want to become. I got a lot of confidence out of that game in proving that I could ruck for most of the night and perform at a high level, but at the same time I know that I have a lot of areas that I still need to improve on.
Is he intimidating to play on because of his physical nature? Or is that overblown?
I don’t know. I respect him a lot as a player and as a competitor, but I want to have just as much aggression and fierceness. It’s not something that intimidates me but it gets me more excited for the challenge.
You came across from the Lions during the 2013 trade period, how would you assess your time at the Saints? There’s been some highs and clearly some obvious lows like last season…
The Saints have been fantastic for me and my football. During the early period I was really comfortable with my football and I guess it took me a few setbacks with the shoulder re-construction and some head knocks to put in perspective where I was at and where I wanted to get to. For me, it’s about continually wanting to improve and take my chances. The whole time has been about learning as much as possible and getting better at every stage.
2015 was a positive season for you, playing in 18 games. Then, in 2016 you didn’t play a senior game. What happened?
At the end of 2015 I had a shoulder re-construction and that took me a while to get over. I had the surgery and for a long time I was struggling with my movement. It wasn’t until I had a cortisone injection a few months down the track that I was able to start moving it around. That was a really big setback. Mid last year I started to play some games in the VFL and was starting to get more comfortable with it all and I faced another setback with the head knocks I received and as a result, I missed about six weeks. It was really frustrating, but looking back, it wasn’t the worst thing to happen to me because it gave me a lot of time to reflect on what I had done so far, and what I need to do to get to where I want to be. It gave me plenty of hunger, that’s for sure.
Did you have serious concerns with the head injuries?
To be honest, I was pretty shocked and I definitely knew something wasn’t great. We had baseline tests and I was pretty down in a lot of the testing across the board — particularly with reaction times and things like balance and memory. It was definitely a stage where I was coming to terms and a little bit worried as to whether it was going to get better. I just needed a bit of a break with no contact to let everything heal and settle down and the Saints were great with taking the conservative approach and looking after me. Right now, I have no long-lasting effects, I can get knocks on my head and I’m recovering a lot faster than what I was last year.
You said that you reflected during your time away, did you set goals? Were you looking back at your own game and some things that you could do differently?
It was a bit of everything. I set goals that were both short and long term, and I was also reflecting on footy and getting back on the track in the best shape possible.
Did you begin pre-season earlier heading into 2017? What was your focus after a disrupted 2016?
I came back with the rest of the group. When we had the off-season program I made sure that I took things to a higher level, and then when we got back and trained as a team it was about being ready. I didn’t want to cut my break short because I see it as a really important time to get away. You shouldn’t cut into your holidays because you need that mental break to escape footy because it’s so intense for the whole season. Once I was back at training it was just about having the strongest pre-season possible.
What did you do during the break? How did you clear your head and get away from footy?
I love footy and it’s still a big part of my life, so I didn’t completely escape it but I went to Europe for a bit with a couple of my teammates and saw my brother. When I got back I still did my off-season running sessions with a few of the boys and hit the gym as much as I could. It was time away from the club, but it was also about getting into shape during the break.
At St Kilda there’s some real competition for the No. 1 ruck spot. You look at yourself and Tom Hickey, plus Jason Holmes and Lewis Pierce as well. All four players have played some senior footy in the last 12 months. What’s your relationship like as a group, and in particular with Tom Hickey? There’s such a good vibe at the club and I’m sure you’re all close, but ultimately you’re all playing for the one position…
I think we’ve all got a healthy relationship. I have a lot of time for all of the rucks and we’re all doing the right things. We’re all in good form which keeps us really healthy. If there’s guys putting pressure on in the VFL then it makes us all play on edge. At the same time, that competitive mentality hasn’t affected our relationship at all. You still want them to play well and have as a good of a game as possible, and if you’re not in the AFL team you want to be training harder and playing even better so that your best game is better than theirs. We all get along really well, and it’s fun to be battling out for the position.
Given the healthy relationship you all have, it must have been disappointing to see the injury to Tom Hickey at the weekend?
I’ve had a medial injury before so I know exactly what he’s going through and sympathise with him. Tom is really good with the rehab process and I’m sure he’ll be really diligent with his recovery and getting himself back in as short a time as possible so that he can knock down the door and put some pressure on me, which I can’t wait for.
What’s Billy Longer like away from football? Are you a footy head that watches it all the time, or the opposite?
I think I have a healthy mix of both. I still like watching the Friday night game, but at the same time, we’re at the club a lot during the week. When it’s acceptable, I like to put my feet up and watch something else.
What do you like to do away from the game? What takes up your time?
I like to spend a lot of time with my friends and family, but I’m not too exciting. I watch a lot of movies and fire up the PlayStation occasionally. Nothing too strenuous or out there.
Going back to 2016, was there ever a time that you doubted whether you could break back into the side and wouldn’t enjoy the form you’re experiencing now?
Whether it was going to happen or not, I wasn’t too sure. I want to leave no stone unturned this year and if not get back in the side, I wanted to at least convince myself that I’m not missing out on selection due to lack of effort. I wanted to make sure that I was doing everything I could just for me.
The club showed plenty of faith in you by signing you up at the end of last year…
It was great that they showed the faith, but I can’t be complacent. It doesn’t mean that I can wait it out to play good footy, I need to be showing that all of the time. I really welcomed the two-year deal and was thankful.
Looking ahead to the rest of the year, what are your individual goals?
I want to continue to improve on my aggression and my follow-up work around contests. I want to be a player that my teammates can rely on to block, shepherd and tackle when the other team has the ball.
Earlier in the year, the team were being beaten in centre clearances. You bring a more physical game, whereas Tom Hickey is more adept around the ground. Is that something Alan Richardson spoke to you about? Did he mention the clearances as an area of need and that you can get better field position with deeper entries?
The short answer is yes, but Tom is a great ruck in his own right, despite the fact that we are very different in how we play. I think that’s quite exciting and means that we can work in tandem at some stage down the line. Tom offers us some great work around the ground, and right now we have either Josh Bruce or Sam Gilbert helping in the ruck. Someone like Tom could be really good when I’m resting. The way we complement each other is a good thing. Hopefully down the track there’ll be space for two of us.
Thanks for your time and good luck for the rest of the season.