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The Sydney Morning Herald

Dale Lewis gets serious

Author: Richard Hinds reports
Date: 18/07/1997
Words: 1035
          Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: SPORT
Page: 58
There was a time he couldn't wait to return to Melbourne, leaving the lowly Swans behind him. But that was before Dale Lewis grew up and became one of Sydney's shining stars.

THERE are times when Dale Lewis seems so laconic he makes Mark Waugh look as intense as a Kamikaze pilot. Moments when he gives the impression he is more concerned about lining up a putt in a social golf game than lining up a vital shot for goal in front of 40,000 fans.

"He's just one of those unfortunate guys who has that nonchalant look," Victorian State of Origin coach Leigh Matthews says.

"He doesn't look like the guy who is about to crawl along on his hands and knees to get the ball and, if things aren't going well, it looks like he's not trying."

It was an impression shared by many of the obviously gifted, but less obviously committed Lewis, in his first half dozen seasons as a Sydney Swan. Including Lewis.

"I've always tried, but obviously I looked laid back and lazy," he admits.

He wasn't. Not totally. But last year, when he turned 27 and the end of his career came into view for the first time, he realised he could do more to harness his talent.

"Some guys mature quickly and I would say I'm a lot more mature," he says. "I've just realised it would be a shame not to get the best out of my own ability. I want to be able to sit down at the end of my career and say I gave it my best, so in that way I guess the penny's dropped."

Dropped and made a noise.

In a 12-month period that spans a brilliant run of form in the second half of last year that has continued into the current season, Lewis has shrugged his reputation as a talented underachiever and become one of the Swans' most reliable performers.

"He's always had the ability and I think he's getting the best out of himself now," Swans captain Paul Kelly says.

"He was really good last year and he's been great this year, especially in some pretty tight games."

To that end, Lewis says sacrifices have been made - chiefly less beer and hamburgers, more isotonic sports drinks and lettuce.

While that may not seem an excessive price to pay for an elite sportsman, for someone with the outgoing personality and an exceedingly healthy social life of Lewis, it represents a small fortune.

"I still get out and have a drink now and then," he says. "But it's now a matter of not putting my body in a position where it can't meet the demands of training or a game."

Lewis has long been a victim of other people's perception. If his nonchalance on the park and easygoing nature off it gave the impression he was capable of more, the ease with which he excelled at other sports only fuelled those expectations.

Even at school in Ballarat, Lewis was the kid who could pick up a tennis racquet and hit a perfect top-spin forehand, grip a driver for the first time and knock the ball 240m dead straight or drop by the amusement arcade on the way home and rack up the top score on a new machine.

"Put it this way, I was never the last one picked on a team," he says. "I was pretty little when I was growing up, so I guess I was a bit of a surprise packet with some of the things I could do, but I've always had good hand-eye coordination."

Given that natural ability, Lewis had to struggle harder than most for his chance to play AFL football, something he puts down to his puny schoolboy physique.

While his more robust junior teammates were invited to try out with St Kilda, who had first choice in the Ballarat area, he battled his way through the local leagues and waited for the growth spurt that added a vital 10cm to his height between the ages of 17 and 19.

Just before the 1990 mid-season draft - a sort of bargain basement sale of those players overlooked in previous drafts, long since abandoned - Lewis kicked seven goals for Ballarat in an inter-league game, caught the eye of scouts and trained with six clubs in the next few weeks before the Swans made him their first pick.

They did him no favours. Lewis was drafted into a Sydney team that was falling apart in the post-Edelsten era. While he showed flashes of individual brilliance and established himself as a regular senior player, it was usually in a losing team.

"Nobody likes to be branded a loser and that's pretty much what you were," he says. "As a kid who had been successful in most things he had done, it was a real kick in the guts. I even missed the game that broke the drought (in 1993) because I was injured."

At the end of 1993, Lewis returned to Melbourne, where his parents ran two hotels, and asked to be traded. But a deal with North Melbourne fell through just before the trading deadline.

Lewis slogged on as a talented player in a bottom team. Then, last year, for both him and the team came the turning point, the arrival of a kindred spirit in coach Rodney Eade.

Like Lewis, Eade was renowned during his playing days at Hawthorn for his sense of humour and easygoing approach off the field.

"I honestly think he has a good understanding of my personality," Lewis says. "He knows what it's like to be reasonably outgoing and fun-loving. At times it can be seen as being too carefree. But he's not tried to curtail my personality, but rather to bring out the more responsible side as well."

Assistant coach Damian Drum says Eade has also taken some of the pressure off Lewis during games.

"I THINK people might have been hard on him because he has this perceived abundance of talent - whether it's there or whether it's in the eye of the beholder, we don't know - but I think Rodney has been extremely tolerant of the few mistakes that go with Dale Lewis's game. I think he has really responded to that positive style of coaching."

Eade has also had faith in Lewis's instincts.

"I have a reasonable licence to roam around where I think is good for me and the team on the day," he says. "If I have certain match-ups with guys I'll take them up forward, if it doesn't suit I'll take them down back and make up extra numbers. He (Eade) is relying on my knowledge, and if he doesn't think I'm doing it right he'll take me off and tell me."

While Lewis seemed to finally reach his potential late last year, there was a glitch when he came out of contract. There were strong rumours (denied by the club) the Swans were prepared to trade Lewis, and Lewis rang Eade, who was on holidays in Italy, to find out where he stood.

"I didn't want to go," Lewis says. "But moving back to Melbourne wouldn't have been a hassle for me. I wasn't overly happy with the way things went, especially the fact that I played so well in the finals last year, but they still took so long making a deal."

Drum says the club always intended to keep Lewis, but negotiations stalled because so many players came out of contract simultaneously. Neither club nor player is regretting his decision to re-sign, as Lewis continues to change opinions about his commitment.

If Matthews once thought Lewis did not look as if he was trying, this year he chose him to represent Victoria. Meanwhile, the Swans fairytale continues.

"Obviously it's a lot more exciting now than when we were copping those terrible drubbings," Lewis says.

"Last year was such a great season, and once you experience something like playing in the finals, you don't ever want to miss out on that again."

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