Western Bulldogs wingman Roarke Smith’s journey has been one of perseverance. After seven years on an AFL list, which has included two delistings (and being re-rookied) and two torn anterior cruciate ligament injuries in his knees, Smith will finally get the opportunity to play in his first AFL Grand Final. Smith chatted to AFLPA Digital Manager Ben Guthrie about his fascinating career.
Ben Guthrie: Roarke, thanks for having a chat with me. If I asked you at the beginning of your AFL journey whether you would have expected your career to pan out the way it has, what would you have said?
Roarke Smith: I was lucky enough to even just get drafted (out of the Calder Cannons with the fifth selection in the 2016 AFL Rookie Draft) in the first place so to spend seven years on an AFL list is something I never thought would happen and the journey has been a bit of a rollercoaster. But looking back to when I first got drafted and you would have told me I’d be playing in an AFL Grand Final seven years later I would’ve been in disbelief.
A lot has been made of the one-year contracts that you’ve had to navigate through during your football journey. Do you think living ‘on the edge’ has been a good thing for you?
I’m pretty thankful for the one-year contracts because I have looked at it as though I have had to prove myself. We’ll be halfway through a season and I’m thinking: ‘I could be working digging trenches next year, so I’ve got to do everything I can to get another one year contract.’ The dream would be a two-year contract but it does keep me on edge and keeps me motivated and prove to everyone that I deserve to be here.
You have been far from an automatic selection during your whole career. How have you looked to approach the opportunities that you’ve been given knowing they may not be an every week thing?
I’ve been in and out of the team for the last seven years and when I do get the call up it’s hard because you want to give everything and prove to them (match committee) that that’s where you belong. It is a bit of a kick in the guts when you’re getting dropped and then you’re back in a week later and you’re dropped again. You’ve just got to take the opportunities when you are in the ones and I’m always giving it everything I’ve got and leaving it out on the field.
So you mentioned the frustration you experience when you are being dropped all the time. How do you get through that and turn it into motivation?
It is frustrating because it’s hard to build on your performances when you’re always getting dropped. There is a lot of self doubt in yourself and a lot of the coaches I’ve worked with over the last seven years have really been urging me to believe in myself and believe that I belong here. When you are in and out of the team it’s hard to have that self belief. I’m grateful for a lot of the coaches I’ve had over the years.
Who have been the major influences for you in that department?
When my career first started off we had Jordan Russell (former development coach) and to this day I definitely wouldn’t be here without him. I’ve had so many little discussions with him about how he wants me to believe in myself and how he wanted me to belong. He was always the one helping me realise that I do believe in myself. And when he left, Jamie Maddocks (Bulldogs development manager) has filled that void and he’s been great for me as well.
What did you do to work on that mental side of your game?
It’s mainly the mindset part of things. A big thing for me is making a mistake in a game and sometimes I’ll drop my head and allow it to affect me a little too much. But those two coaches always tell me: ‘Players make 100 mistakes in a game of footy, individually, so why drop your head for one mistake?’ You’ve got to think about moving onto the next contest and building from there.
I remember watching you playing in the VFL midway through the year. Knowing the team was capable of contending for a premiership and you not being part of that for the bulk of the year, how did you maintain your positive attitude that things would eventually turn and open up?
You’ve just got to really believe that it might happen and believe that you do belong in the AFL team when you’re running around in the VFL. You just want to prove to everyone that you’re the best player in the VFL side, and you want to be next in line for the AFL side. When you play with that kind of confidence it really shows. It looks so much different when you watch back the footage and see a bloke playing with a lot of self doubt.
You came back into the side in round 18, but then got unluckily dropped again in round 22. What did coach Luke Beveridge say to you after you went out of the team?
Even towards the end of the season it was a bit of a rollercoaster ride and I thought I played a good game and then I got dropped and they were bringing blokes in after injury and I wasn’t far off. He just said, ‘Look mate you’re not playing in the team because you’re playing badly, there’s just guys coming back from injury. So you’re going back to the VFL knowing that you’re next in line.’ He wants me to play a specific role on the wing, so that’s what I tried to prove to him that I can play that role and I’ve got that defensive mindset which he really values in me.
Another key part of your journey has been the two knee injuries you’ve suffered. How did you get yourself up off the canvas after those two setbacks, which, let’s be honest, could have been the end of your career?
It’s not an easy process because everyone who has done an ACL will tell you it’s a long road to recovery. A lot of it is the mental side of it but when you think about you’re surrounded by such a great group of blokes and they’re supporting you the whole way through two years of rehab I went through. That just keeps pushing you to want to come back and play with those guys and win premierships with them so that gets you through the 12 months of rehab.
It’s also easy to forget you were delisted twice by the club and then re-rookied and given another chance. Did you have to start thinking about what was next in your life, knowing your football career may have been coming to an end?
I did try to start a teaching course early on, but quickly realised university wasn’t for me. I was thinking, ‘What am I going to fall back on? It’s September and I haven’t signed a contract yet.’ But I’m pretty lucky because my girlfriend (Ruby) and I had always planned to move to the Gold Coast at some stage of our lives and we’d happily work at a café or bar up there and play a bit of footy up north for a while. Hopefully that’s still on the agenda one day, but for now footy is the priority and I think everything’s going to work out.
“When you play with that kind of confidence it really shows. It looks so much different when you watch back the footage and see a bloke playing with a lot of self doubt.” – Roarke smith
Are you looking forward to the biggest game of your career?
For sure. I wish we didn’t have to wait the extra week because the build up has killed me. But it’s just exciting and I’m still in disbelief that we’re playing in an AFL Grand Final. It’s such a good group of boys and everyone’s pretty excited.
I know you’ve got your eyes firmly planted on this Saturday, but looking ahead to next year you’re obviously hoping you can stay at the Bulldogs and build on what you’ve achieved so far this season.
I’ve made such a good tight group of mates here and the last thing I want to do is leave them so I’m just hoping the club offer me another contract. I don’t really want to go anywhere and I’m pretty content where I am.
You’re also a good Sunbury boy, we hail from the same town. My allegiance is with the Lions but I’m pretty sure you’re the first player from the Sunbury Kangaroos to play in an AFL Grand Final which is an amazing achievement. Congratulations on your career to date and good luck for the big one on Saturday.
Cheers Ben, really appreciate it.