Former AFL stars strengthen WAFL and State team

Friday, May 4, 2018 - 10:06 AM by Chris Pike

THE strength of the WAFL competition has only been heightened with experienced former AFL players including Nick Suban, Rhys Palmer, Sharrod Wellingham and Kane Mitchell who have been included in the State squad for next Saturday's clash with South Australia.

The WAFL has been a strong competition now highlighted in recent years by five consecutive State game victories including against powerhouses the VFL and SANFL, and the strength of the league has helped ensure the attraction of quality, experienced former AFL players.

There was again a bevy of them who returned to the WAFL in 2018 and that includes Suban, Palmer, Wellingham and Mitchell who have been included in the State squad for next Saturday's clash against the SANFL in Adelaide.

Suban joined South Fremantle, Palmer went to Swan Districts, Wellingham remained with East Perth and Mitchell returned to Claremont with the four of them bringing back 485 games of AFL experience into the WAFL.

They have all thrown themselves fully into their clubs this season too and have earned their place in the WAFL State squad through their strong form and performances, not through reputation to their credit.

While those four have had tremendous starts to the 2018 season and will be pivotal figures in the WAFL State side, the strength of the competition is only highlighted with the fact that the likes of Ben Howlett, Patrick McGinnity and Zac Clarke are AFL experienced players in strong form too.

Howlett won Peel's fairest and best award in 2009 leading into his career with Essendon in the AFL where he was a regularly selected player for much of his time with the Bombers racking up 124 games up until the end of 2017.

Once out of the AFL, the 29-year-old was keen to return home to his original club Peel virtually as a direct replacement for retiring five-time fairest and best winner, Sandover Medallist dual premiership legend Rory O'Brien.

His form in the midfield for Peel has been strong too with him averaging 23.5 possessions a game despite receiving some close attention from the opposition.

Howlett hasn't had it all his own way especially with the tagging job by East Perth's Julian Ameduri on Sunday, but he couldn’t be happier to be back with the Thunder following his time at Essendon.

"Being tagged is just something I have to adjust to really. I've copped a bit of that over the first four rounds straight away so personally I have to adjust to that tagging a lot more. On the weekend it was frustrating for myself to have to go back and try to free myself up a little bit," Howlett said.

"I'm really enjoying being back at the club. There are lots of familiar faces around the club still, which is great to see, even though the club has changed so much over the last 10 years. It has become so much more professional and it's really part of the WAFL competition well and truly now. 

"You can tell that by the last two years and obviously two premierships is fantastic for the club. The club culture is really great now and I love being down there and part of it. Being close to family as well is also nice too."

McGinnity, too, is in outstanding form with the East Perth co-captain named M & J Chickens Player of the Round after his 27 possessions and four goals on Sunday against East Perth.

Having played 93 games in the AFL for West Coast, he returned to the WAFL full-time in 2017 and joined the Royals. He has started 2018 just about in career-best form having now averaged 21.5 disposals and kicking the five goals.

Clarke, too, could have easily been included in the State squad as the ruckman with the former Fremantle big man having a solid start to his life with Subiaco following his 100-game AFL career with Fremantle.

He missed all of 2017 with a knee injury after playing in the premiership of 2016 for Peel in the Grand Final victory against Subiaco.

The athletic big man has made a solid start to the season in a dominant Lions team averaging 13 possessions and 28 hit outs while kicking five goals.

He has enjoyed the transition into the WAFL and to be at Subiaco.

"Obvoiusly I knew quite a bit about the club before I got there. There's a few guys there that I knew back from Melbourne like Leigh Kitchin who I knew pretty well," Clarke said.

"I ran it past Sammy Menegola too who was there for a year or two post-Freo so I knew what to expect and it's been exactly that. It has been a really professional, hard-working environment and they are well coached with a driven group. 

"That's probably the thing that has surprised me. The fact that they've come so close the last two years and not quite got the job done has really strengthened the group and they are really hungry for success this year."

So while Suban, Mitchell, Palmer and Wellingham bring 485 games of AFL experience in the WAFL State team, there easily could be another 318 matches from Howlett, McGinnity and Clarke. But by not being included it only further highlights just how strong the WAFL competition is in 2018.

Mitchell was a key part of Claremont's premiership teams of 2011 and 2012 while winning the Sandover Medal in the second of those years prior to his four years and 35 AFL matches with Port Adelaide.

He couldn't be happier to be back with Claremont in 2018 and to be enjoying the new Claremont Oval facilities.

"It was a little different coming back just with all the change rooms and everything that are brand spanking so on that front it was slightly different, but there were plenty of familiar faces and also some young guys who I've developed relationships with as well," Mitchell said.

"I did have to learn 40 new names but they've really given me the enjoyment back in football which I kind of missed during my last year back over in Adelaide. I'm very thankful to be back at Tigerland."

Mitchell's fellow Claremont representative in the WAFL State team is 2016 Sandover and Simpson Medal winner Jye Bolton. This has been his first chance to play with his midfield teammate and he couldn’t speak more highly of him.

"Bolts is extremely hard-working and probably one of the hardest players I've played with. He usually has two guys hanging off him at a clearance but that leaves me and Jared Hardisty and Ryan Lim and Morgan Davies free to do our own thing," Mitchell said.

"He is a really good player to play with. We've only played three or four games together because I was injured in pre-season and so was he, so we are developing that chemistry as we go on and hopefully as the year goes on we can gel and turn some of these close losses into wins."

One former AFL player in especially hot form to start the WAFL season is Palmer with Swan Districts.

He joined the black-and-whites in 2018 on the back of a 123-game AFL career split between Fremantle, Greater Western Sydney and Carlton, and has been one of the best afield in all four of his games this year.

He started with a dazzling performance in Round 1 with 31 possessions, 19 clearances and three goals and has gone on to average 27.3 disposals and kick seven goals over his four matches.

Palmer was happy to join Swan Districts for a number of reasons and is enjoying life back in Perth, and in the WAFL.

"Obviously I've been away for six years now and when you are out of the system you realise how much energy you put into the training sessions and everything else," Palmer said.

"It's a 24/7 job being in the AFL and it is very full on and it's a young man's game, but I am content and proud of what I achieved. Coming back, I feel happy with myself and glad to be back home around my family and friends who I've been away from for six years.

"You definitely have more appreciation for WAFL players and the time that they sacrifice to play and train, but they are also missing out on family time. 

"I'm sure the girlfriends and wives are always hounding them about the amount of time they spend on footy with the three or four nights of training after work. 

"But I'm involved in property and am involved with renovating a property in Perth. I was quite fortunate to set myself up quite well so hopefully I can continue being involved in property and stay involved in that as well as footy."

Suban is another player who might have still had plenty to offer at AFL level if he was still at a club in 2018, but it wasn't to be with him delisted by Fremantle at the end of 2017 following his 156-game career with the Dockers that also saw him play in the 2013 Grand Final.

Along the way, he played in WAFL premierships at Claremont in 2012 and Peel Thunder in 2016 and 2017 so brought a wealth experience with him to South Fremantle when he elected to join the Bulldogs in 2018.

He has had a good start to the season too averaging 18.5 disposals splitting his time between playing in the midfield and off half-back.

He has enjoyed settling life into the WAFL and having elected to join South Fremantle.

"I obviously got delisted by Fremantle at the end of last year and was wanting to play on with my footy somewhere," Suban said.

"I had a close relationship with Todd Curley who was an assistant coach at Fremantle and I live in the Fremantle area, and I know South Fremantle is a really proud and great club. So I thought why not join them and I decided to join the Bulldogs.

"Anyone that gets delisted or retires from the AFL, there's obviously a transition period and for me it was quite tough. But in saying that, I have a young family with our young son so that has kept me quite busy and not think about that disappointment of being delisted too much. 

"I obviously would have loved to keep playing AFL footy and I did have the opportunity to maybe go over to Sydney, but for the best interests of my family and my wife who is from Perth, we decided it was probably best to stick here and go out and get a job, and play some WAFL footy."

Another player thriving back in the WAFL this year is Wellingham. Clearly he is still good to be adding to his 171 games in the AFL at Collingwood and West Coast, including the 2010 premiership, but it's not to be and he's thrown himself fully into life with East Perth.

He is averaging 20.3 possessions a game while having kicked eight goals and he was a guaranteed inclusion in the State squad with the form he's in, and proven ability to deliver on the biggest of stages.