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The greatest Saint

My first recollection of Nick was when he got to the club. He had the board shorts on, the big blond mop and I thought he was a bit of an upstart from the Gold Coast to be perfectly honest.

But you could see that he was super competitive when he trained, and that was clear from the moment he got to the club.

Even though he was the No.1 pick in 2000, when he started out with the Saints I thought he was still quite raw.

We got him and Justin Koschitzke in the same draft and you could see glimpses at training from both of them where’d they take a strong mark and you knew that with a few seasons under their belt they’d be primed.

Nick had a bit of a frustrating start in his first year after hurting his knee in the pre-season which led to him playing in just six games in the back-end of the year and I don’t think he really set the world on fire, but the next season he was the Rising Star and won our best and fairest.

From early in 2002 we knew that we had something special.

I remember chatting to senior players and the consensus was that all he needed was 50 or 60 games and he’d be a superstar.

The next few years proved to be a steep learning curve for the younger leaders like Rooey and myself.

If anything, being thrusted into the spotlight so early into our careers fast-tracked our development in a way. We knew that for the club to move forward, we needed the younger players and the middle-tier players to take on more responsibility and drive the standards.

There were some difficult times for Nick because he had to be challenging and ask more of the older and more established players, but it built some good traits.

From early on, the actions that he displayed at training and in games probably allowed to him to be quite forthright and I think the older players bought in because he earned respect immediately.

He didn’t care if he put any noses out of joint, he just wanted to drive the group and knew what it took.

In his earlier years, I got a sense that he was a leader of the young guys and they all looked up to him. He was added to the leadership group when he was 22 — he was an articulate guy — so when he spoke everyone listened.

One thing he did really well early in his career was observe the likes of Aaron Hamill, Stewart Loewe and Robert Harvey to see how they trained.

From there, he realised what was required and then set the tone for everyone to follow.

Speaking of following, a certain grab he took in 2004 left an indelible mark on the playing group.

It was incredible and it summed up his determination and his courage. Running back with the flight of the ball became his trademark in the end.

The impact was huge on his teammates. It gave everyone a lift. Playing with him for a lengthy amount of time meant I probably saw him take 15-20 marks that were just as courageous, but probably not as spectacular.

He’d go back with the flight one or twice a game, and I’d be out there thinking that there was no one else on this field capable of doing that.

He ended the 2004 season as just about the best player in the competition. Then he was made captain in 2005 and broke his collarbone in Round 1 against the Lions, and was famously set upon.

That emotion that he felt during and post the game was understandable because it was quite overwhelming for him.

It was less about the injury, and more about the fact that he couldn’t be out there helping his team and stamping his authority on the group and the competition.

That’s an insight into his character and how driven he is.

He still learnt a lot that year because it provided him with the opportunity to take a step back and spend a bit of time in the coaches’ box.

Grant Thomas instilled a belief in us that we were good enough and that we’d get there, so channeling that inner belief after the 2004 and 2005 preliminary finals losses was incredibly important to help us rally.

In saying that, we also knew how hard it was to reach a grand final and that a lot of things had to go right. We fell short as a younger group, and being outplayed by the Swans in 2005 was disappointing for us.

It would take a few years for us to get back and challenge.

Nick was pretty upset at the circumstances surrounding Grant’s departure, but as soon as Ross came in they built a strong rapport. It was an adjustment period for Nick and for all of us, but we knew early on that Ross understood where we needed to go.

Prior to his arrival, Thommo’s rotation policy set us on the right path because we had a number of emerging leaders.

In 2008 Nick was made the standalone captain, he was the right guy for the job and proved to become one of the greatest captains the competition has ever seen.

In 2009, Nick was unbelievable.

Looking back, I think it was his best season and unsurprisingly, it was the team’s best in his time.

Since moving to the Giants as an assistant coach, I’ve learned first-hand what a nightmare he is to coach against. A couple of weeks ago we had a chat and I let him know that the majority of our planning earlier in the year when we met the Saints went into him, and he’s 34!

For opposition coaches, when he was in his peak years it would have been unbelievably challenging.

As a midfielder, every time you got the ball and looked up, there was Nick presenting. Even if he had to dart back or across the field on an 80-metre, zig-zag lead, he’d always get separation from his opponent, his work rate was something that had to be seen live to be fully appreciated.

As he got a little bit older, he mellowed.

He was always caring and a great mate to have. I felt like I could always talk to him about anything.

As he matured, he could empathise with how other people were, whereas in the early days he struggled to understand how teammates weren’t as fanatical about their football as he was. High achieving people struggle to understand that at times.

That aside, the perception of him on the field as that intense character doesn’t depict what he’s like off it.

After losing the two grand finals, we still felt like we had a team that could challenge.

We were taught that you had to be prepared to do the work, it wouldn’t guarantee you success, but it would certainly give you your best chance.

In the years that followed it wasn’t to be but Nick led the team and club incredibly well through a challenging period between 2011-2013.

Talking to Mark McVeigh recently who I work with at the Giants, he was saying how he remembers going out pre-game and seeing Rooey running around doing his run-throughs 90 minutes before the game is due to start.

He could sense some of his younger teammates watching Nick thinking, ‘How the hell are we going to stop this bloke today? He’s flying up and down the ground and the game hasn’t even started yet!’

Nick would always get his message across well, he is a great communicator. I always marvelled at how he’d come up with different things to say in the pre-game huddle, not an easy thing to do every week for 10 years.

If Nick won the toss, he’d always elect to head towards the end where our cheer squad was. He would run back to the huddle and start his last-minute speech with, ‘We’re kicking to our fans this week boys!’ It became a bit of a running joke but something that we all enjoyed, a light-hearted moment two minutes before the opening bounce of a game.

I saw Nick a couple of weeks ago and we discussed where he was at.

He asked me a few questions about how I felt back in 2014 and when I knew it was the right time.

I’m sure he spoke to many other people as he was deliberating, but it was nice that he saw me as someone to lean on.

He then gave me a call on Sunday to let me know that he was going to announce it on the Monday and I must admit that I felt some sadness.

Whenever you watch the Saints, you expect to see Nick Riewoldt running around.

One part of me was happy that he came to a decision and that he was content, but there was also a selfish part of me that would miss seeing him running around.

I have no doubt in my mind that Nick Riewoldt is the best St Kilda player I’ve played with.

I got the tail end of Robert Harvey’s dominant career, and as a midfielder I looked up to him immensely. But to play for so long with Rooey and see how consistent he was, at times through adversity, it made him so special. I feel so lucky to have played a lot of footy with him.

He sits comfortably at the very top of the list with the likes of Darrell Baldock. Everyone will have their different opinions, but he is right up there.

As for what he’ll do now, I’m sure he’ll lap up the next few weeks, and enjoy some quality time with his family.

He has the ability to slide straight into the media, but I could also see him moving to the U.S. and spending time with Cath’s family.

It also wouldn’t surprise me if he ended up on the AFL Commission one day!

Thankfully, we’re playing in Victoria in Round 23, so I’ll hang around to watch Nick on Sunday at the MCG. But I’m not sure I want that to be the end.

Hopefully the Saints can get on a run and get into finals contention.