Sometime in the late ‘90s my dad confided in me that he and his friend had stoutly agreed in about 1988 that Steve Waugh would never make it as a Test cricketer. The reason, fantastically, was that he was too soft. He didn’t like it hard and only wanted to play his way, a cavalier approach to batting that would never see him succeed at one of the most mentally gruelling sports there is.
Anyone with even a passing interest in cricket would know that Steve Waugh did very much succeed at Test level, and he did so whilst forging a name for himself as the most ice-cold, dour, hard-nosed, determined bugger imaginable. I’ve heard my old man make many a prediction that has proved true, as he is actually an astute judge of a sportsman, but he quite simply could not have gotten the Steve Waugh one more wrong.
I can be an opinionated fellow too. I do like to back in my judgements with reasons, and I do think that I can concede when someone has performed greater than my estimation. Shaun Hampson, the comically inept Richmond ruckman did, in 2016, lift his output from being the “worst ruckman I have ever seen at AFL level” to “reasonably competitive tap ruckman who is woefully inadequate around the ground”. Yes, Hampson slightly improved one facet of his game by virtue of being fit, but the basis of my argument remained intact, in that he was still very bad at playing football.
His kicking was poor, decision-making worse, and I couldn’t understand why we were persisting with this bloke who seemed too small to be a true defender, a bit too big and hopeless to be a midfielder, and far too clueless to be a forward. I really didn’t like young Alex Rance at all. As it turns out, Rance is awesome. I’m not sure when exactly it dawned on me that I’d gotten the Rance opinion a bit off, but I think it was sometime around 2012-3. Certainly by 2014 I was spruiking his output to any non-believer I could, and by 2016 he was close to the only reason to go to a Richmond game.
I was at the MCG in 2016 when Richmond, despite playing awful football before, after, and even during the game, somehow managed to beat Sydney with a kick after the siren. Even though it was Sam Lloyd that took the kick and the glory, and Rance’s direct opponent kicked five goals, it was Rance’s extraordinarily desperate and sustained efforts that were the deciding factor in the match. His last quarter was something to marvel at, and I remember yelling, “There he goes again!”
Well, in fairness to me, which I’m all for, Rance has improved out of sight. When you listen to him speak, he’s still a bit of a goofy goose. From the outside, it’s hard to know if he even has the slightest idea just how good he is. His athletic attributes were never actually questioned, just his ability to play footy, and I can’t imagine there would’ve really been anyone out there who genuinely believed he would end up this good. I’m sure there were people, unlike me, who thought he’d be a good AFL player, but surely not the best defender in the league.
And make no mistake, that is what he is. Live, he is a sight to behold. He’s worth two men at least in the backline, and forwards must dread being in his area because no matter how much space he’s given them to man someone else up, he’ll still manage to get there and at least make you earn it. I actually laugh at him when I’m at the game, as he is that good you can’t believe it.
Like Steve Waugh before him, Rance undertook the very difficult process of self-improvement. I’m sure there have been many sportsmen through the years with greater ability who weren’t able to overcome their deficiencies. Waugh was a great talent, but it was his application that saw him become great. Rance is physically superior to everyone on the footy field, but his ability to think clearly in traffic is something he has developed, and the confidence he lacked and now has is something someone does not normally acquire. I’m not sure his desperation can be taught, but it is definitely something you can lose, or not use.
Unlike Hampson, who lacks any kind of applicable skill for his sport besides being tall, Waugh and Rance’s deficiencies were mental, and that is where Dad and I went wrong. Courage and composure were lacking, and they are two traits that I believe are difficult to master if lacking naturally. The old man and I assumed, with history on our side, that these deficiencies would not be overcome. It's either that, or we just stuffed up. Either way, we were wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
I’m unlikely to change my habit of sporting assessments. I’m sure, being a passionate follower of my sports that I’ll continue to watch and form opinions, and I wonder if I’ll temper my assessments from “can’t” to “most likely won’t”, but I most likely won’t. For now, re Rance, I’m very happy I was wrong.
Which leads me to ask: when have you been wrong?
Follow Greg Gibson on Twitter: @GregGibbo28