The Libba Sisters exchanged a significant glance. Because this was no garden-variety tall and athletic figure, but one of our 2016 premiership heroes, Fletcher Roberts.
But we played it cool. We figured that Fletch most likely didn’t want to spend six hours trapped alongside two gushing fans acting like excited teenagers, droning on about their thoughts and emotions about the premiership experience.
At some point of the long plane trip, though, small talk was exchanged. Fletch, endearingly, said he ‘had a week or two off work, and so was catching up with some mates.’ The Libbas nodded, poker-faced. We didn't let on that we knew Fletch wasn't your average person having a break from his boring job in a payroll office somewhere.
We all disembarked; our little brush with fame was at an end. On social media, though, we soon saw the three *ahem* workmates with whom Fletch was holidaying. His fellow premiership team-mate, Lachie Hunter, and two men who came heartbreakingly close to being premiership team-mates: Mitch Wallis, who played all 17 games of the 2016 season until he broke his leg, and Lin Jong, also a regular in that fateful year, who broke his collarbone in the first final in Perth. Neither Lin or Mitch has had a chance to play in a final again.
Since 2016 the careers of those four men have meandered in different ways.
Lachie has barely missed a match, and is our reigning Charles Sutton medallist. Mitch, after making a comeback from his dreadful injury, last year found himself on the outer. A lack of 'qualitative sheen' was identified as a shortcoming. There was talk of him leaving – maybe even joining – (deep breaths) – the Bombres, before he decided to remain with us. He's been a solid contributor in 2019.
Lin Jong has had a horror run with injury and struggled to regain form and consistency on the rare occasions that he has been able to get on the park.
But the career trajectory of Fletcher Roberts since the flag has been the most baffling of all. Stranded in the Footscray team last year even when we were decimated by injury, Fletch has been the forgotten man of the 2016 heroes.
I wondered, as the four blokes lazed around the pool (possibly trying to work out how to escape any chance encounters with the Libba Sisters), if the talk ever turned to the ‘what ifs’ that had seen two of them reach such heights, while the other two looked on.
I thought I knew a lot about the randomness of footy while we waited for that flag to come – the fine line between success and failure, the sliding door moments, the depressing truth that immense talent is no guarantee, in a team game like ours, of premiership success. I just never appreciated that unpredictability and randomness would not vanish once we achieved the ultimate goal.
Fletcher Roberts, a 23-year-old playing in a premiership in game number 37, seemed to have the world at his feet. Yet, called upon to play Brisbane this weekend, he is playing just game 50. The call-up indeed came only after our promising ruckman Tim English was a last minute withdrawal. No banner is prepared in honour of the milestone.
What were Fletch’s thoughts when, after such a long time in the wilderness, he ran down the race again with so many fresh-faced new team-mates as well as some - but not all - of those who'd played alongside him in the flag?
Had he quietly kept his faith that this day would come again?
Maybe it would be a turning point, the catalyst for an unexpected renewal of his career. (I began imagining an article, celebrating Fletch’s 200-game milestone, where he reminisced, with a chuckle, about a lean period when he thought he was done and dusted. 'There was a match in Ballarat; from that point, everything turned around for me. I knew it would all be ok if I just persevered.').
Then again maybe his appearance against Brisbane would be a cameo, before he returned to tiny crowds and the smaller stage of the VFL. (I began imagining an article, where in the usual prosaic style, the club thanked him for his service, and a disappointed but philosophical Fletch said that it had been an honour to play for the club. 'I knew my cards were marked when I got dropped after that game in Ballarat. Bevo told me then that I lacked qualitative sheen. Still, I'm looking forward to my new career with the Gold Coast Suns.')
Fletch, so familiar in his number 18 guernsey, took up his accustomed position deep on the full-back line. (He has never kicked a goal in his AFL career – even Dale Morris somehow has managed three). At the opposite end of the ground a teenage superstar-in-the-making – one of the boys who was preferred in defence to Fletch in 2018 – also prepared for the game to begin. Excitement has built about his future, this rare blue-chip talent, dubbed already: 'The Astro-Naught.'. Kids will want his number 33 jumper. Excitable fans, even those of a certain age, will most likely be unable to refrain from pestering him, maybe even requesting an embarrassing selfie, should they be seated next to him on a Jetstar flight to Bali.
Aaron Naughton starts slowly, as you might expect from a still raw 19-year-old. The Brisbane team were handling the wet conditions better than us, outplaying us in many areas. In 2018 we would have most likely folded under their pressure; even a few weeks ago, our earnest efforts to wrestle back the ascendancy would have collapsed under a barrage of missed shots at goal and aimless entries into the forward line. But in a sign of new maturity, Our Boys persist, working and working even when things aren't going right, and then beginning to take control of the game.
Aaron Naughton is a key factor in that turnaround.
After his quiet start, Aaron marks on the boundary line. The fact that he’d marked it, that he’d kept leading and presenting despite early signs that this may not be ‘his day’, was further evidence of his talent. The half-time siren sounds; he's now dealing with a difficult and tricky shot with the flukey wind. He slots it home with a superb kick, and the Dogs go into the half-time break, brimming with confidence, riding momentum.
In the last quarter the Lions press, again. They are four goals down, but still look dangerous. It's time for blue-collar footy, for making the right decisions with the wet and slippery ball, for weathering clash after clash on the heavy ground. A goal, against the run of play, would be handy too in killing off the Lions’ ambitions. The ‘Astro-Naught’ flies across the face of goal, bringing down what we’re already recognizing as his trademark – well, trademark mark, I guess. The pressure of being 'The Man' doesn't seem to weigh heavily on his 19-year-old shoulders.
Fletcher Roberts had nine disposals, though disposal numbers have never been what his performances are about. He was unobtrusive, which is not the same as ineffective. He did not attempt to resurrect his career and demonstrate qualitative sheen with some Naughton-style high marking. He did not make an unexpectedly daring dash to the forward line and wow the crowd with his first ever goal, an Ed Richards-style banana from the boundary.
He was dependable, playing well within what you imagine he knows, as much as anyone, are his limits.There was no real clue as to which of my imagined scenarios will play out for Fletch – a rejuvenated career, or a return to journey-man status. Somehow I can't escape the melancholy thought that his name will be the first to be tossed around as an 'out' when we play the Cats. It makes me much sadder than I could have imagined.
I find myself thinking about his finals performances in 2016, searching for memories. I had forgotten he only played in two of the four finals. Though he'd played most games, he was not selected for the matches against West Coast and Hawthorn; he only came into the preliminary final team after injury to Matt Suckling. I remember, vaguely, reading that, even then, he spent grand final week unsure whether he would be retained in the team.
I can't really remember much of his performances, except that they were solid. Nobody got off the chain against him, he made no glaring mistakes, he played his role.
He also served.
I search for something a bit more galvanising. When a sharper Fletcher Roberts memory finally emerges, it's vivid, those feverish minutes of the preliminary final against The Acronyms. Jackson Macrae had goaled; we were ahead, but there were agonising moments to endure,
Another devastating loss was still a real possibility when, with less than two minutes to go, the ball was pumped forward into The Acronyms' forward line. A forward line packed with glittering talent courtesy of the AFL: supercilious Jeremy Cameron, smarmy Toby Green, haughty Jon Patten, and others for whom I've run out of nasty adjectives. Ours was filled with rejects and rookies. Blue collar, not blue chip. Big-hearted, not big-headed.
As the kick spiralled into their star-studded forward line the hopes and dreams of thousands rested with those unheralded defenders all making the right decision, ensuring the wall would withstand the surge. Unobtrusive Fletcher Roberts was one of that wall. Easton Wood made a massive leap, crashing the contest. Danger still awaited; the ball hit the deck. Fletcher Roberts scooped up the ball. In that nightmare parallel universe into which Bulldogs' teams have so often tumbled, he would have fumbled it. But he handled it as cleanly as The Bont. Fletch launched a long bomb out of defence. It would have, in that parallel universe, skewed off his boot, gone out on the full, landed straight in the arms of someone wearing orange. But his kick landed in a pack inside the boundary line. And the ravenous Bulldogs were not going to let that ball back into the Giants' forward line again.
We remember JJ's dash, and Macrae's goal, and Clay Smith's ferocity, but Fletcher Roberts played his part in that night's story too.
What a strange thing it is, sitting at close quarters for six hours next to someone whose decisions and actions back in 2016 made such an immense difference to my happiness, and yet never exchanging a word to try and tell them so. I wish now, that I'd found a way - unobtrusive, of course - to let Fletcher Roberts know that I appreciate and cherish those moments, and hope there will be more. Maybe I could have just slipped a little note onto his tray-table when he was distracted by the safety demonstration. Just two words would do it. 'Thanks Fletch.'