In the last five weeks, the Cats have turned their season around, and one of their key contributors has been Tom Stewart. The mature-aged recruit talks to AFLPlayers.com.au about how his game has evolved, the club’s turn around in form, and his leadership aspirations.
In the first two weeks, you conceded 30 goals combined, but now you’re tough to score against. What has changed?
I think initially we were in an unfortunate position due to the injuries we had and the relatively new back six that we were playing. It took some time for us as a group to come together and work out how each other plays and how we can best defend as a collective in the back half, but also around the ground. There were a few things we tinkered with in terms of our team defence and I think we’re really valuing that aspect and it’s a step in the right direction.
What are some of the tweaks you made? Are there obvious adjustments in the way you’re setting up now than previously?
Without going too much into the specifics of our game style, we seem to be a bit more proactive behind the ball, so when the ball moves, we try and move with it and play a team defence rather than sitting back and waiting for the ball to get in our half. We’re trying to turn the ball over in our midfield/forward area and lock the ball in our half, because the way the game is played these days it’s just as much of a territory game as it is a possession game, so the more we can play it in our half the better.
Having Harry Taylor back helped, but prior to that, we’ve seen a youngster like Jack Henry take positive strides. How much has he improved in the last five weeks?
Absolutely. But even in the past 12 months, I think a lot of people around the footy club will attest that Jack was pretty raw last year, and probably took a little bit of time to find his feet, especially early days. The way he’s come in and played a role for us is fantastic, and while it’s never good to have injuries, it has benefitted the collective to see the likes of Jack and Jade Kolodjashnij and Jed Bews, all of whom are probably unheralded defenders, but they’ve all stepped up. It’s been a blessing in disguise to expose AFL football to some players who perhaps wouldn’t have played this early in their career.
Another move that Chris Scott made in the Saints game in Round 4 was shifting Mark Blicavs to defence, which has paid dividends considering his ability to get to contests and help out…
Yeah, absolutely. We all know that he is a freakish athlete, so the way he can cover ground behind the ball allows our set ups and the way we want to work because he’s the initial one to move and then we follow suit off him. The deal he signed during the week signifies how much we value him, and the move to put him down back has been fantastic to see him show his wares down there.
You spoke about the team defence and that if there’s no pressure in the midfield, it probably doesn’t matter who is defending back there if the ball is coming in quickly, so do you look at a team like Richmond who continue to bring that pressure across the whole ground as something to emulate?
You always look at the reigning premiers and the way they did it, and not so much emulate it, but how you can implement it with the players at your disposal in your stocks. Like I said earlier, it’s that forward footy and trying to play it in your half, and more often than not if you’re successful at that you’re going to create scores. If not, you will at least put pressure on the opposition and make them defend for longer, so if they are in attack they don’t have as much energy to attack well, and then we’re set up behind the ball for that. So as much as you do look at the reigning premiers and how they play, we’ve just tinkered with what we think works and the last five weeks have shown that, bar a couple of quarters against Sydney.
When you talk about tweaking the game plan on the fly a little bit, how is that executed?
Well, you spend your whole summer working on things that you want to implement throughout the year, but it’s more about the cohesion we’ve found and how things have been a little bit more settled. I’m not sure how many injuries we had in the first four rounds, but we didn’t have that solidity in the team as a whole. To have five or six weeks playing together and learning each other’s tendencies and cues to read off each other and that helped a lot, but I don’t think we’ve changed too much from what we wanted to do pre-season. In terms of our solidity behind the ball with our back seven, and also around the ground in the last few weeks we’ve developed and learnt to play with one another so that’s been the main contributing factor.
The game against St Kilda seemed to kick-start your individual season, being able to create the outnumber and coming over the top of Paddy McCartin as the third man, is that something that you do instinctively or has it just evolved?
I’m just trying to help my teammates out as much as I can. Coming in last year, I just wanted to solely focus on playing on a man and learning the way that AFL football is played, because it is such a different beast to any other level of football that you play. With another pre-season under my belt, and just learning how to play the game, I feel more comfortable. As a defensive group, we’re told to help out your mate and not to leave them one-on-one, support the ball and set up well behind the play and be more proactive in following the ball.
At what point do you get the confidence to be more aggressive?
I’m not sure there’s a specific moment that I can remember, but I came into the system knowing that I’m a mature-age player and that I’m going to have less of an opportunity and time period in the game. Last year was more about learning the cues of the game and how to read it and try to win one-on-one contests and that sort of thing, and now that has evolved. I believe I’m in the system for a reason, I can obviously play the game so I’m just trying to get to as many contests as I can each week and try and influence them.
Who’s the leader of the defensive group?
I’d say there’s a number of us. There’s a lot of different personalities back there, we all get along really well. To have Zach Tuohy down there who has played over 150 games, Mark Blicavs who has played over 120 and Harry Taylor who has played 200 helps, but I’d like to say that myself and Jed Bews and Jake Kolodjashnij all help out in that respect and want to become leaders in our own right. We want to learn how we lead individually, and whether that’s off the field or on it with our voice or our actions, we’re all developing a lot of strong leadership qualities. I’d throw both Jack Henry and Zach Guthrie in that group, too, because they’re both finding their voices. We’re all trying to find our own path and how we can help the team the best.
Can you remember a moment where things clicked this season defensively? Perhaps a point in a game where it all came together after a slow start?
We obviously lost the game, but over in Perth against West Coast I thought we defended really strongly. A couple of quarters have hurt us — late in the game against Hawthorn we lost a couple of crucial contests which didn’t go our way and then we lost by a point — then we went over to WA and played West Coast which is always a tough task, but to get done by 10 points with one player on the bench, that’s when it really clicked to us that the way we defend is holding up. Then we came back here and played St Kilda at home and kept them to a fairly stingy score and the last five weeks have flown on from that. The belief we have in the system we’re playing has gradually improved, but I think from the West Coast and St Kilda games was when it really started to click.
When you talk about the West Coast game, I assume you’re talking about the second half when you got back into it?
Yeah, that’s when we started to play a bit more proactive behind the ball and we were playing the right way within our system. That’s when we understood how each role player worked.
So what was said at half-time in that game? Were you told to take the game on and roll off your man and almost throw caution to the wind?
There was a contest or maybe a transition of play where Scarlo emphasised that the way we set up behind the ball and the way we moved and pressed in behind was going to work for us going forward, and that gave us clarity and gave us a lot of confidence that we were playing the right way and that that was our system.
Now you’re in the elite environment and not our there working post your apprenticeship, what are you doing away from footy?
I’m studying at Deakin doing health and PE subjects for teaching, because I’m looking to possibly move into a coaching or a mentoring role after footy. I’m focusing on how to deal with young people and ways to teach and ways to coach and their tendencies and that sort of thing. It’s something different, I haven’t been in a classroom for about seven years, so it’s a different challenge and it keeps my mind off footy.
Was that something you always considered doing even when you were completing your apprenticeship, or was it once you moved into the elite sporting environment that teaching and coaching piqued your interest?
I never considered myself as the coaching or the teaching type, but coming into the system and taking that mentoring role with the academy boys and the younger group has been something I really enjoy and have relished. I thought something that would harness those factors is learning how to teach, and that was the pathway I chose to take.
Who are some of the players you have mentored at the club?
Being an older head when I came in last year, I naturally took on a mentoring role with the other players who came through like Brandan Parfitt, Sam Simpson, and also the second and third-year boys like Nakia Cockatoo and Wylee Buzza. I just found myself in a leadership and mentoring role and I have relished it.
Considering how much your life has changed in 18 months, did you listen to the hype, or read any of the talk surrounding you?
I try not to, but it’s often hard because we live in an age where everyone has an opinion. It’s hard to escape it, and I try and not look at my phone and look into it too much. It’s nice when people say nice things about you, but on the flipside, a lot of people don’t understand that footballers, because they have such an access to Instagram and Facebook etc. that they may end up reading those channels after a poor game and see what people may say casually and without a grain of salt, but it’s those types of comments that get players down. You enjoy the positivity, but on the flipside, if you receive negativity, it’s easy to focus on those more and for them to get you down. I’m 25 now and can understand where I’ve come from and have enough confidence in myself, but I can understand with kids who are 18 or 19 how it can get to them and thinking that the people who leave those comments that their opinions matter. But more often than not it’s only the minority who are thinking these things. I show empathy for the young kids who live in that age.
Were you a Cats fan growing up?
No, I was a Brisbane Lions supporter, so having Chris Scott and Nigel Lappin as my coach and assistant coach is quite cool.
Why Brisbane? Was it a Fitzroy link?
Yeah, dad went for Fitzroy. When I was a bit impressionable, Brisbane were winning flags so I may or may not have jumped on the bandwagon! It’s funny now because Nigel Lappin was my favourite player growing up, so now having his number on my back is pretty cool.
Very nice. Thanks for taking the time to chat, and good luck for the rest of the year.
Thanks mate. It was a bit of a shaky start, but to come out 5-3 is positive and hopefully we can keep keeping on!