Before Nick Vlastuin made his AFL debut he would have dreamed of getting his first touch of the Sherrin but he never would have dreamed about getting sledged when he hadn’t even been on the ground yet. He reveals the sledge the welcomed him to AFL.
We call it “backs camp”.
It is now an annual tradition at Richmond and was started a few years back by soon-to-be Essendon coach Ben Rutten when he was the defensive coach at the Tiges.
Every year — early during the pre-season and usually just after Christmas — the Richmond defenders will go out bush together for a few nights.
Peter Burge, our high performance guy, will give us the Saturday off and we’ll head off after training on the Friday.
The location changes each year, but it is usually about an hour and a half’s drive out of Melbourne. We’ll all just head up there with the tents and the dogs.
Bachar Houli is a brilliant chef and cooks up a huge traditional feed and we’ll sit around a camp fire, eat ourselves silly and have a few beers.
It started off as a way to really get to know each other outside footy and it’s grown from there. I’d say it’s really helped strengthen our bond over the years and helped us become an even tighter group.
We all get along really well and we’re all pretty similar types, although “Rancey” (Alex Rance) is a rare unit.
Rutten drove it when he was at the club and then it fell to current backline coach Justin Leppitsch to take up the reins.
To be honest, Leppa’s not really an outdoorsy type of fella.
He wasn’t too keen at the start, but he soon jumped on board once he learned first hand just how good Bachar’s feeds are.
It’s always good to get away together and it’s something we’ll continue to do every year.
My football upbringing was probably a little different to most AFL players.
My family is of Dutch heritage and my parents knew next to nothing about footy when I was young.
Dad was born in Papua New Guinea and grew up in New South Wales, and mum was a dairy farmer also from NSW.
They came to Melbourne for work and dad was a squash player and a rower.
Mum’s better with footy these days, but even now she’ll still ask how many goals I kicked after every game even though I’m a backman.
My grandparents on dad’s side moved to Australia not long after the end of World War II.
My grandfather, or Opa as I called him, was born in Holland and lied about his age to get into the Dutch New Guinea army and was shipped off to Indonesia.
Then when Japan invaded he was captured.
He escaped a few times but was recaptured and ended up in prisoner of war camps for quite a few years and worked on the infamous Thai-Burma Railway.
Opa survived and they moved to Australia just by luck after the war.
They settled in NSW, near Taree on the mid-north coast, where he started a tobacco farm with a mate and went from there.
I was about seven when he passed away and I remember him being quite a serious man. Probably not surprising given what he went through.
We’d see them only during the Christmas holidays, but we’d spend the whole summer up there.
We lived in Melbourne and I got into Auskick when I was about five, playing out at Eltham College on Saturday mornings before later joining the Eltham Football Club.
I was a Collingwood supporter and played games with an oversized Magpies jumper on.
Growing up I loved Nathan Buckley, and Simon Prestigiacomo was from my area as well so he was always a favourite.
BECOMING A TIGER
In the lead up to the AFL draft camp in 2012, I had a big decision to make.
My grandmother, or Oma as she was known to me, passed away and her funeral in NSW clashed with the camp.
I had an AFL dream, but this was a big family commitment.
I chose the funeral and I’m bloody glad I did, but at the time it was a big toss up.
I didn’t know if it was going to hurt my draft hopes or not, but thankfully it didn’t.
My manager called me a week out from the draft and told me Richmond was really keen.
Unless something drastic happened, he said, I’d probably be going there at pick No.9.
I didn’t mind going interstate, if it came to it, but it appeared unlikely.
GWS Giants had a lot of picks and I spoke to them, but they never appeared to be that keen.
As it turned out, my manager was right and I was off to Punt Rd.
SLEDGED ON DEBUT
When I think back to my AFL debut, the first thing that comes to mind is the abuse.
The game — back in my first year in 2013 — was in Perth against Fremantle and I started on the bench.
There was this one bloke in particular who gave it to me and called me a “ranga” and everything else under the sun.
“S—, I haven’t even been on the field and had a touch yet and already I’m copping it,” I thought.
To top it off, we got done by a point that day.
I got told about three days out that I was playing and two of my mates drove all the way over from Victoria to watch me. It was a long old road trip to Perth and back for them.
In my first few years at the Tiges I would just hang out with the other first-year players and try to keep my head down.
After three or four years, when some of the blokes you were drafted with started disappearing, I started getting closer with some other teammates like Shane Edwards, Dylan Grimes and David Astbury.
TAKING THE NEXT STEP
We all knew something had to change.
During my first few years we’d play finals but we kept getting bundled out in the first week.
We still had more wins than losses so Punt Rd was still a good place to be around, but it was completely different to what it is today.
But in 2016 things went downhill.
For mine, it was Dimma (Damien Hardwick) and Trent Cotchin who really drove change about how we saw the game and life.
Then came 2017.
When I think back to that finals series, I just remember how much fun it was. Our group had very few players that had ever won a final to that point, so it was bloody exciting.
We were all just kind of faking it before making it, if that makes sense.
We didn’t really have any idea what we were doing. We were just making it up as we went.
Before most games that year, Dimma would say: “I don’t care if we win, lose or draw, it is just about soaking it all in and being happy with how we play.”
That took away some of the pressure on us straight away.
That first premiership was just a feeling of pure joy, while last year was more relief, to be honest.
It was also great to be able to share that premiership feeling with the boys who hadn’t been there before, like Tom Lynch, Jayden Short and Liam Baker. Previously it was a little awkward when you’re having a few beers and talk about the 2017 flag would come up.
Then of course there was the Marlion Pickett element. It probably wasn’t the best for Marlion, but all the attention went on him when the news dropped during Grand Final week he was going to debut.
It made us feel good that something positive had already come out of the game, and it took the media spotlight off the rest of the team. The whole week felt like more of a celebration.
It was a Dimma masterstroke.
DIMMA AND I
I might be biased but Damien Hardwick is the best senior coach I’ve had.
He’s also the only one.
The thing that sticks out most about Dimma for me is the care he has for his players.
There’s been times during games where maybe I’ve given away a free kick and been dragged to the bench. Dimma then gets on the phone and gives me a big spray, but straight after the game he’s immediately put that behind him.
He’ll never hold a grudge against you for something you’ve done on the field.
He’ll also never blame us and always reiterates that we’re all in this together.
There’s no doubt he can still give a good spray, but these days they are few and far between.
Although, he still takes the losses harder than anyone.
CATCHING A WAVE
The passion for catching a wave started young.
As a family we’d spend each summer up in NSW with the grandparents and I’d enjoy 10 weeks on the beach.
We were that keen to head north that the car would be packed up and loaded to escape as soon as that last day of school for the year ended. It was during those summers on the NSW mid-north coast that I started surfing.
My best mate growing up had a beach house down in Torquay so I’d often tag along with his family down there. Then as soon as I got my drivers’ licence I’d pretty much head down there as well, and that has continued to this day.
There are still a few surfers at Richmond, but I have lost a few over the journey.
Dan Butler used to be the main one but he’s now at St Kilda, while David Astbury has all the gear but hardly ever comes down with me.
I have a crew down in Torquay that I surf with and it’s a great escape from the pressures of footy. There’s no better way to clear my mind.
Hopefully I’ll get the chance to do some surfing while in the Queensland hub.
Speaking of Torquay, I’ve been down there a lot of late for more than just catching a wave.
I’m building two townhouses there and that has been keeping me very occupied.
It’s going well but when COVID hit it slowed it down a bit, but it’s starting to come along again.
I’m a qualified carpenter so I can do a bit on the tools, but I certainly couldn’t build a house on my own.
I’d love to live down that way with my partner Georgia, but the traffic getting back to Melbourne is the thing stopping me.
When the townhouses are completed I’d love to keep them both.
The plan is to rent one out and maybe Airbnb the other one while living there when it’s not being used.
That’s still up in the air though, a bit like everything at the moment.