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Sunday Age

NATHAN BUCKLEY, Not out of the woods

Author: Rohan Connolly
Date: 18/06/1994
Words: 1586
          Publication: THE SUNDAY AGE
Section: Sport
Page: 7
IF YOU'D taken at its word even some of the pre-season publicity about Nathan Buckley, the South Australian star should already have the Brownlow Medal stitched up, gone most of the way to delivering the impatient Magpies another premiership, and very possibly discovered a cure for the common cold in his spare time.

The combination of high-priced talent already displayed in a superb debut with Brisbane, a bidding war taking in just about every club in the league, and the perception that Collingwood was only one or two stars short of flag material was an irresistible but overpowering blend. It meant that when Buckley finally ran down the players' race at Victoria Park, he might as well have been wearing a big red cloak with an ``S" on the back.

The wraps made him an easy target for the legions of Collingwood haters hoping to see another high-priced flop similar to last year's Barry Mitchell debacle. Then, last Monday, even the Magpie faithful turned nasty, making Buckley the target of Bronx cheers in the dying stages of Collingwood's thrashing at the hands of Richmond.

Buckley didn't hear them, but then, he didn't need to. ``I know I didn't play a good game. No one is more disappointed with that than I am," he says. ``Supporters are dark on you when you lose and play badly, and they think you're an absolute legend if you win and play well. That's just the way footy is."

Tough. Tough enough to strike a sympathetic chord in Buckley's two AFL coaches, Brisbane's Robert Walls, and his current mentor Leigh Matthews. ``There's probably as much pressure on him as anyone playing the game," says Walls. ``But whatever it is, he'll get through. It might take him two seasons, but he'll get there."

``He's been under more pressure than Barry Mitchell, I suspect," says Matthews. ``I think he is held in much higher regard by the football world. If ever a player has had an aura and an image and an expectation built up that probably has been unrealistic, it's him.

That's not to say that we and he don't expect much more than we're getting at the moment, but we don't necessarily expect it overnight, either."

The weight of expectation hovering over Buckley is perhaps best summed up by his statistics. Last year, in winning the Norwich Rising Star award with Brisbane and polling 14 Brownlow Medal votes, he averaged 17 kicks, five marks and six handballs per game. His averages this season are 15, four and six, only a fraction down on 1993.

That would seem to indicate that perception in Buckley's case has been tougher than the reality. But so, too, has he found the differences between Brisbane and the intense football environment he craved at Collingwood more pronounced than simply playing on the winning side more regularly.

``I'm disappointed with the season I've had so far," he says. ``I've played some good games and some pretty bad ones. I had played just as many bad games to this stage last year, but this year the good games haven't stood out as much. I think the step from Brisbane to here has been harder to take than the step from SANFL to Brisbane.

``When people played us last year, I think they felt they could win without really being 100 per cent geed up, and none of our games were really at full pace. You'd watch a Friday night game here, and it would always be a couple of cogs higher than what we were playing at, and I think I'm finding that out at the moment."

By getting caught with the ball? ``Yeah, I am," he concedes. ``It's something that happened quite a bit on Monday, getting the ball knocked down to the ground instead of forcing it forward. I might have got my hands to the ball 20-25 times, but I only had 10 possessions.

It's something I haven't experienced before."

Matthews says what Buckley has produced so far in only 31 AFL matches is merely the tip of the iceberg. ``The thing you've got to remember is that he's 21 and has got a whole career ahead of him. Most players who change clubs with the kind of publicity he got are at the peak of their careers. He's at the beginning. Logically, he should have much better to come as he progresses, but a lot of people forget that."

Buckley rates Collingwood's second-round thumping of Carlton at the MCG his best effort in black and white, restricting the prolific Craig Bradley to just five possessions after half-time.

Since then, used mainly on a wing, he has been steady, glimpses of his obvious brilliance shining through only sporadically, most notably against St Kilda. In that game he fought an entertaining and eventually victorious duel with St Kilda's Nicky Winmar. It was there against Hawthorn and Adelaide, before last week's shocker.

Walls has had the chance to watch Buckley play live once this year. He gets his second next Sunday when Brisbane plays Collingwood at the Gabba. Asked early this year to rate Buckley's football expertise with that of his former Carlton champion, Stephen Kernahan, Walls had the league newcomer only a fraction behind on points.

But he had an inkling of the struggles Buckley was about to face, and they weren't just about racking up kicks, marks and handballs. ``I always felt it was going to be harder for him than most people thought," he says.

``He was always going to have to earn his stripes more with the Collingwood players than he did with us. More than half of them have been through some really good times together, and it was going to be harder for an outsider to step in there and be considered one of the top three in the space of 12 months.

``We didn't have that sort of background where a (Tony) Shaw, a (Gavin) Brown or a (Graeme) Wright could look at any newcomer and think: `We've paid our dues, you're going to have to earn it. We didn't have anything we could jealously guard as far as success goes."

Walls casts his mind back to his playing days with the Blues, when star recruit Mike Fitzpatrick faced what then in the football world was considered a dual handicap - being from interstate and an intellectual to boot. ``Life wasn't made miserable for him, but I reckon he'd say his first 12 months weren't too happy.

``I suppose the top half-dozen had done it the hard way, so we weren't going to let anybody walk in and be on the same level in six weeks. A guy could do it in the space of a season, sure, but he had to earn it.

Now that's never spoken about it, but it exists. I guess it's just the unspoken law of the jungle. A guy might be the best trainer in the world, the most dedicated, but he's got to spill a bit of blood alongside you to show he's with you all the way, and you can only do that out on the field of battle."

MATTHEWS says if the ``earning stripes" theory is working against Buckley at Collingwood, it does so only on a subconscious level. ``I haven't seen any indication of that, but let's face it, you can't say you're completely settled in until you've been somewhere a year or two."

Buckley is smart enough to realise he isn't about to become Mr Collingwood overnight, too. ``I worked pretty hard over the pre-season and showed most of the blokes I was pretty well fair dinkum and wanted get the best out of myself," he says.

Buckley's long kicking has attracted some criticism this season for its occasional waywardness. But his assessment of his own problems is far more detailed.

``Against Essendon, I got the ball in the clear out on the wing. I was running flat chat, then had a bounce and kicked and I was still running full bore. I don't think I've ever seen myself do that before," he says.

``I think I execute my skills pretty well at 90 per cent pace, but once you pick up that couple of per cent, you're really putting your skills under strain.

``My main improvement is going to be by becoming a player who runs forward and back, and by working closer and harder under the packs. I think there has been a gradual improvement, but while concentrating on that, my offensive game hasn't been as damaging. But it's only halfway through the season. It's not as if I set myself to become the complete player within 12 months."

Buckley says he doesn't usually believe his expectations can be too lofty, and offers his 1992 Magarey Medal, which he had set his sights on at the start of the season, as proof. ``I don't think I can set my aims too high, but I think I can reassess them as I go along."

He remains, however, his own hardest task master, even if others appear to be mellowing. Buckley rang his father, Ray, whom he once described as ``my worst enemy and my best friend", after the Richmond game.

``I really expected a bit of a serve and I didn't get it. He just asked how I pulled up, which is pretty rare for dad ... I don't know why I didn't get it; I know I deserved it."

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