When Rowan Marshall pulled on his North Ballarat Rebels jumper at St Kilda’s ‘community football night’, it presented an opportune time for him to reflect on how far he has come in his 29 games of AFL.
From missing out on being drafted at 18-years-old to going back and working with Sebastopol Football Club in the Ballarat Football League and the now-defunct North Ballarat in the VFL, Marshall’s journey to St Kilda has been arduous.
Despite the challenges, it has been an experience he wouldn’t change.
“When I first missed out on getting drafted I was pretty disappointed and not sure if I would ever end up on an AFL list,” he told AFLPlayers.com.au.
“It’s been a whirlwind but I’ve loved every minute of it.”
This time four years ago Marshall was studying a Bachelor of Sports Management and a Bachelor of Business full-time at university and, in his words, “mucking around”.
After lengthy discussions with recruiters and his management, Marshall knew he was going to have to work hard given he was undersized as a ruckman if he wanted to make it in the AFL.
“I was a bit of a beanpole at that age and was hovering around 198cm and only 85kgs… I was very raw,” he said.
“The advice I received was really beneficial in helping me end up where I am now.”
Although Marshall has only grown three centimetres since that time, he’s gained 13kgs and has positioned himself as one of the AFL’s most versatile rucks.
In his first three seasons at the club, Marshall has been working closely with ruckmen Lewis Pierce and Billy Longer, ruck coach Adam Skrobalak and more recently, St Kilda senior assistant coach Brendon Lade.
Initially primed as a forward, Marshall’s experience in the ruck was limited before concussion and injuries to Pierce and Longer halted their 2019 campaigns and the Saints were forced to find a back-up.
Marshall concedes the first few rounds of the season were a learning experience but he’s since feeling more comfortable in his role.
“As the season progresses I’m learning more and more every week,” he said.
“I think the more games you play, the more you understand about the smaller details (of a ruckman’s game) like where to run.”
Despite size being the biggest knock on Marshall, Lade was full of praise for the way the 23-year-old has gone about his football and how willing he has been to improve.
“He’s only played 15-16 games in the ruck in his life and his improvement from the first two to three games has been monumental,” Lade told AFLPlayers.com.au.
Lade, who was part of Port Adelaide’s 2004 premiership, believes Marshall’s commitment to football is as good as anyone else he’s seen.
Each week, working closely with Skrobolak, Marshall designs a plan with areas of improvement and key learnings he can take away from his opposition’s game – most notably Collingwood’s Brodie Grundy and Melbourne’s Max Gawn.
But, even with his meticulous planning and work-rate, Marshall’s rapid rise has come as a major surprise to him.
“I had an injury-free pre-season which really helped… but, it’s a bit of a shock to be honest,” he said.
Marshall’s improvement has come as less of a surprise to those who work with him though. Lade believes the foundations Marshall laid in the pre-season are starting to come to the forefront.
“He’s willing to learn but he’s also a blank cheque so we’ve been able to write what we want on him because he’s listening to everything we’re saying,” he said.
“While he doesn’t win the amount of hit-outs a Grundy or Gawn does, his work around the ground is as good as those two.”
Marshall is a well-loved figure at the Saints and highly respected among the playing group, particularly the midfielders, a trait which Lade said is critical to the success of the team.
“Good teams have ruckmen that players want to follow and this year ‘Row’ has started to put the group on his back and take them with him.”
“If he keeps having high standards and driving what he believes in, it is going to take the rest of the group to higher standards.”
Improving his disposals by an average of four per game and hit-outs by an average of 20 per game since 2018, Marshall is still conscious of the work in front of him.