As I approach my 300th match in black, white and red, I've had time to reflect on many things, but one that stands out is how much the game has changed since I was drafted in 2000. Obviously the two hours of mayhem on game-day has changed, but the off-field side of the game has dramatically transformed in the past 16 years also.
Here's an insight into the biggest changes since I was lucky enough to be drafted at No.1 in 2000.
In the pre-season just gone, I looked back at footage from my first season in the AFL. What struck me most, apart from my skinny physique and bad hairstyle, was that footy was a one-on-one game. 18 match ups all over the ground and everyone played to their positions as marked out in every beginners guide to AFL. In comparison, the game is unrecognisable today and a forward pocket exists in name only.
The evolution of the game has been enormous. I went to the footy on Thursday night as a fan for the first time in a long while. My dad and sister Maddie used to do this every year to watch cousin Jack in the opening game of the season, and it was nice to keep this tradition alive by heading along with dad and my brother Alex. I caught the train in -- I did that for the first time in a long while, too -- it was so great to see the passion and excitement from footy fans on the ride in. It's my estimation that the passion of supporters is the only part of the game that has remained unchanged since my career began. I spent the majority of the game trying to explain to dad the defensive principles and structures both teams were adopting, which I must admit was difficult considering I didn't understand some of them myself, such is the rapid way in which teams are attempting to catch up to, or develop new trends, with respects to their game styles.
I miss watching and participating in the one-on-one battles around the ground made famous by contests such as Carey vs. Jakovich and Ablett vs. Silvagni. The opportunity for two opponents to go toe-to-toe for two hours is sadly a tradition that is going missing from our game.
I think the defensive side of the game is what's forced all the changes. I remember in 2004, we had a great year as a club and Fraser Gehrig kicked over 100 goals and basically didn't leave the forward 50. I played as a true centre half-forward and kicked about 67 and I had one opponent all game. I would get the ball, wheel around and bomb it long to Fraser in the square and he'd do the rest. I really enjoyed that style of footy, as did the thousands of supporters that ran onto the field when the G Train kicked his 100th goal. I hope this is part of our game that makes a resurgence in the near future; everyone loves kicking a goal and everyone loves a goal kicker.
Speaking to players today, we all agree there is nowhere near as much space as there used to be regardless of what position you play.
A good reflection of the lack of space on the ground in recent years is the amount of times you see players take a running bounce - you hardly see it any more. I was talking to 'Joey' Montagna before his 250th game at the weekend, and he said he remembered a match when he had about 18 bounces, and any time he got the ball on the wing he had an acre of space. It happens so rarely now -- taking off on a run and bouncing the ball is almost a dying art.
Some of you will think this might sound negative but I can assure you I still love the game as much as I did when I stepped onto the field 16 years ago. Change is inevitable, in fact it's facet of the game's identity that I enjoy as a player. I relish the opportunity to evolve and adapt with my teammates to the games ever changing game styles. Witnesses of the games in Round 1 would agree the game is as attractive and exciting as ever.
There have been myriad changes at training over the past 16 years in terms of the quality and quantity of training. My first preseason was basically three days a week and consisted of running laps, lifting weights and skills work. Malcolm Blight, our coach, insisted that, as there were no lap pools or velodromes on the football field, we would not be swimming or riding bikes as is the case in today's preseasons.
Training always was, and still is, exceptionally difficult; there is only so far you can push the human body. In 2001 they pushed us til we broke, and today they push us til we almost break. Physically, it's not much harder now than what it was 16 years ago, but it's evolved and we train much smarter.
There's far more science behind it now -- players have nowhere to hide with any part of their preparation. Everything is monitored to the nth degree; there's new technology, new science, and new theories. We watch behind-the-goal vision of games and film training, wear a GPS unit every session, and place a huge focus on recovery - all little things which for the younger players seem so normal, but it's an entirely new approach compared to when I started. Anything to find an extra 1percent.
The accountability is so much greater now, which leads to better-prepared athletes. When you look at our game globally, I think it's the hardest preseason in world sport. Obviously individual athletes like boxers and triathletes push themselves extremely hard, but in the sphere of team sports I believe AFL is the hardest.
The role and number of coaches within a club have grown immensely to cope with the demand for a more teaching environment. The game is far more structured now than ever before, thus more meetings, more repetition, more classroom-based instruction. Some players would argue this is at times more challenging that the physical side of training.
Just as the game itself has changed significantly since I started, so has the off-field focus. I guess a byproduct of the AFL's commercial success is the increase media exposure, and general interest in the game.
The role of a player used to be to go out there to play and perform. Now, it's about representing the club on game day and also being a full-time representative for the club to the members, sponsors, corporate partners, the community at large -- all the stakeholders in the game. You're employed to do so much more than play football. It's a genuine 24/7 lifestyle; it's far more all-encompassing than what it used to be.
For me, I need to escape footy sometimes. I'm not a footy junky, but I keep up to date with what I need to. My priorities and perspective have changed a lot in recent years for a number of reasons. Naturally, footy is still a strong priority, however I try not to bring it home as much as I used to.
I've been fortunate enough to have the support of the Saints over the past few off seasons to spend time overseas, with my wife and her family. Being in Texas on these occasions has freshened me up in the lead up to the season, both physically and mentally. It's also improved the quality of my training.
Getting away from the game, I think, is so important, especially for senior players. Hopefully clubs start to give senior players more time away from the club so they stay fresh and achieve some real longevity in the game. The preseason is incredibly long and if there's an element of trust with the senior players who are self-motivated, to have a longer break can be really beneficial for a lot of guys.
So, what does it mean to reach 300 games?
Upon reflection, once I finish my career, it'll mean a lot. But players are generally uncomfortable being the centre of attention, and I'm no different. Of course, I'll reflect on it a lot more after my career is over as opposed to in the lead-up.
Only four other Saints players have played 300 games and I was fortunate enough to play with three of them. To be joining Bourkey, Loewey and Harves in the 300 club is made more special by the revere that I have for these great Saints men.
The only thing missing from my 300th will be Maddie, so the celebration for me will be to honour her and her life -- and use it as a vehicle to do some great things, and raise money for the charity.
ROOEY 300 PROUDLY SUPPORTING MADDIE RIEWOLDT'S VISION
SATURDAY APRIL 2, 2016 St Kilda vs Western Bulldogs 7.25pm (AEDT), Etihad Stadium
$5 from every adult ticket purchased goes to Maddie Riewoldt's Vision.
Nick's 300th & Maddie Riewoldt's Vision Raffle: Purchase a $25 ticket at mrv.org.au and receive 1 entry into the Raffle to win some amazing prices - 1st prize: $20,000 APT Touring vacation package to the Kimberleys.
For more information or to donate head to mrv.org.au or SMS 'Maddie' 0437 371 371.
Support via social media #Rooey300 #FightLikeMaddie
Facebook: Maddie Riewoldt's Vision
Twitter & Instagram: @MaddiesVision
ABOUT MADDIE RIEWOLDT'S VISION
Since being established, Maddie Riewoldt's Vision has received close to Aus$1million from generous donations ($860,000) and probono support. They have already made strategic inroads into their mission of finding a cure and started funding significant medical research projects, including the world's only National Aplastic Anemia Registry.
Maddie Riewoldt's Vision aims to raise over Aus$1 million per year to sustain their research strategy.
Maddie Riewoldt, 26, suffered from a Bone Marrow Failure called Aplastic Anemia, which claimed her life in February 2015.
Maddie had a five-year fight with the illness, experiencing countless blood transfusions, intrusive medical procedures, two bone marrow transplants and seven months in hospital, with 227 days spent in ICU.
Maddie and the Riewoldt family didn't want anyone to go through what Maddie went through and in June 2015, four months after Maddie's passing, Maddie Riewoldt's Vision was established to raise money and fund medical research into finding a cure for Bone Marrow Failure.