I have my eye on Rhys Mathieson from the opening bounce. I know he is going to do it at some stage.
I don’t have to wait long. Ten minutes into the first quarter, the ball drops into Mathieson’s hands thirty metres from goal. He is quickly surrounded by three Carlton players. Where Mathieson sees tacklers, he sees opportunity. I know what is going to happen.
I meet Rhys Mathieson for an interview in the lobby of a Melbourne hotel. Brisbane were in town to play Richmond. On-field, Mathieson struts around with a performative confidence, greasy hair slicked back with 90’s action-movie villainy. In person, Mathieson is relaxed and considerate. He suggests that we go to a quieter corner of the lobby for the interview.
In his debut year, Mathieson found himself playing regularly for a struggling Brisbane side beset by injury and front office turbulence. Star player Dayne Beams missed the majority of the season with injury. First-year players were fed to much more experienced opponents. Coach Justin Leppitsch would claim just three victories for the season before being terminated.
Thrust into the team’s best 22, Mathieson was instantly duelling the game’s premier midfielders. He may have expected this eventually, but certainly not so soon. A product of the Geelong Falcons system, comparisons at the time of the 2015 draft were stellar- Matt Priddis, even Joel Selwood. Draft experts had him rated as a pick late in the first round, maybe earlier.
Mathieson: It was definitely Selwood.
Sakata: That was your guy?
Mathieson: Believe it or not, everyone thinks I probably hate him, from our incidents we have on the field, but he was my guy. He’s a great leader. He’s a hard footballer. He doesn’t do anything special. I think he’s one bloke that can actually will his team over the line. Just one man that can actually get 21 other blokes over the line.
Sakata: But when did that start for you? I mean you were, for all accounts, you were a St. Kilda supporter?
Mathieson: Yes, I was. When you’re younger, you’re probably diehard one team, but as you get older you start to watch players rather than your team. You want to watch the good players. So, Joel.
If Geelong dominated, you wanted to go watch ‘em. They won premierships, so the hype around Geelong was huge, so whenever they come on you want to watch them.
Sakata: How much of it was … Were you playing a certain style, and looked for guys that were playing similarly, or did you change your game to match them?
Mathieson: I think I just liked Joel more, his style, because of how competitive he was. He was hard. I like hard footballers. I like to consider myself as an old school footy player, hard, nothing really special.
When Mathieson first played on Selwood, Geelong dominated Brisbane in a ten goal smashing. The game itself was one-sided and unremarkable. The personal match-up between Mathieson and Selwood was electric. Mathieson had grown up with Selwood imprinted onto his footballing brain. The clash between star and facsimile was at times surreal.
In the second quarter, Mathieson gathered a loose ball from a stoppage. The experienced Selwood was two steps ahead, using his superior closing speed to wrap his arms around Mathieson’s torso. Well, only Selwood didn’t.
Mathieson had ducked, drawing high contact. Selwood looked up, bewildered. The golden god of ducked frees found himself in the bizarre position of giving away a high free-kick. Depending on what you get out of football, it was either a low point for the rules of the game or a satisfying turn of football karma.
Sakata: Is it a tactical thing?
Mathieson: Yeah, it is. It’s so hard to say it’s a tactical thing, because it happens so quick. I just say to the boys, as soon as someone sticks their arm out, and it’s not near my body, I can find it with my neck. It’s sort of just … It’s based off the player coming front-on, side-on …
Sakata: Is this something that you practice?
Mathieson: I shouldn’t say I practice, but …
Sakata: Because it does sound cynical, you know, that you’re just kinda like uh …
Mathieson: Cause it doesn’t come natural to a lot of people, and I think I do it, the transition, pretty smoothly. But, it’s just sort of built around my game.
Sakata: It’s definitely part of Selwood’s game.
Mathieson: Yeah, I mean, it’s a part of his game. Maybe it just builds from putting your head over the footy, getting in tight spaces, I don’t know. But like this year I’ve had to change my technique. I’m not getting as many high free kicks, nor that I’m looking for them. But you have to change the technique. It can be handy for a goal or two, to be honest with you. It can be handy when we’re under the pump, down the back line. Once again, you don’t go searching for them, cause it’s a heat of the moment thing.
Sakata: It happens pretty quick.
Mathieson: Body position, people trying to grab you from far away and you just roll the neck a little bit. But yeah, it happens so quick.
My parents are pretty worried. They just say, you know, just ease up on your neck. But once I’m out there, and it’s a heat of the moment thing, and around the goals or you want to slow things down, it does come in handy, it does. You win the ball back for your team. I think my teammates like me doing it, to be honest with you.
Sakata: Well, it helps you … I guess it helps you win.
Mathieson: It does.
Sakata: It’s hard to argue against it. But the only thing that you argue against, I suppose, would be that it’s a pretty cheap free kick.
Mathieson: It is cheap.
Sakata: But I think there’s also a concern about injury. That’s the other thing.
Mathieson: Yeah, that’s … I mean, it worries me, but I go out there and play the game, mate. Whatever happens … Anything could happen to you. Blokes get injured all the time, so it’s all a part of the game. It might take a toll on me one day, but …
Sakata: Do you think you picked it up from Selwood?
Mathieson: Yeah. I’ll give him credit for it. I’d definitely give him credit for it, yeah.
Moments after his first goal, Rhys Mathieson raised both arms, miming a firearm going off. It was an exceptional moment. Mathieson was criticised in the media for this moment of exuberance in the midst of a colossal Brisbane defeat. In the AFL, a personality is seen as something that needs to be justified with ability. The goal celebration dogged Mathieson through his draft year.
Weaponised personality appeared again this season. Noted Melbourne pest Tomas Bugg attracted considerable attention for his exaggerated take on villainy. A mural in a Melbourne laneway was quickly painted in his honour. Things devolved into entropy when Bugg’s psychological approach pivoted to the physical. Bugg served a lengthy suspension for punching an opponent. Personality, it seems, is dead for now.
Mathieson: Maybe playing in Brisbane protects me a little bit. I get away with a lot more things than what you see other people happen to them down here.
They’re getting smashed where I’ve probably done worse, you wouldn’t hear a whisper.
Sakata: It’s probably analogous to Tom Bugg this year.
Sakata: He probably was in the same spot that you were in last year probably, but he punched a bloke, that’s different. But it gets blown up way more here.
Mathieson: Yeah, that’s pretty … I think that’s what it was. I mean, last year I’d come in, did some things the AFL hasn’t seen for a while. I mean, I got booed in my first game.
Sakata: But look at the NBA. Look at other leagues. There’s so much more personality.
Mathieson: Yeah, absolutely.
Sakata: And for me, there are so many interesting blokes here, and we’re just suppressing all this stuff. I don’t think it’s healthy.
Mathieson: I think my teammates get good energy off me. I think I bring a lot of energy. I bring a lot of new things. But yeah, to me, honestly I don’t give a [redacted] what they … Well, they’re going to be looking in at me, cause really they don’t know me. They just watch me for two hours and say he’s a [redacted].
Sakata: It’s a pretty unnatural place to be, I think, when you’re young and you’re having a lot of eyes on you. I can see how Brisbane would be a better place when you’re starting out.
Mathieson: Yeah, it’s protected me, I think, a little bit more than if I was playing at a bigger club, I’d cop it a little bit more, which wouldn’t worry me at all, because I don’t read into things. I’m a pretty easy going person. What you see is what you get.
Mathieson is now settled at Brisbane, recently signing an extension keeping him at the Lions until 2019. He is more engaged around the club, consulting senior players to improve his game. Mathieson is now better acquainted with the standards required of him at the top level. He knows the work is ongoing.
He travelled home to Geelong this past off-season, taking the time to work on his fitness at his old club with former junior teammate Darcy Parish. Talking to athletes can give you an insight into their peculiarities. Talking about fitness, Mathieson tells me how much he enjoys suffering.
Mathieson: I get a satisfaction of suffering and …
Sakata: That’s not normal.
Mathieson: Yeah. I mean, not many people think I’m normal. After my career, I’d like to join the army. It’s just me. I like being around a group of- I love banter. Yeah.
Sakata: The army?
Mathieson: I would love to join the army, yeah.
Sakata: Yeah, well if your neck survives. [laughs]
Mathieson: Yeah, I mean, depends on how long my career is. Yeah, I don’t know about my parents thinking about me joining the army, but if I wasn’t playing footy I’d be in the army.
Sakata: That’s what you’d be doing.
Mathieson: Yeah, I would be in there right now.
The ball drops into Mathieson’s hands thirty metres from goal. He is quickly surrounded by three Carlton players. Where Mathieson sees tacklers, he sees opportunity. I know what is going to happen.
Mathieson slides his neck into the nearest tackler’s outstretched arms. The whistle blows. A high tackle. I am watching at home, trying to reconcile how this feels having met Mathieson, an accessory to his crimes. I think I understand what Brisbane fans see in him.
Mathieson is marooned in a challenging football situation, with few sparks of optimism. The media has come for him, his coach and his captain. Brisbane will be rebuilding for seasons to come. This doesn’t affect how Mathieson plays. The free kicks, the bravado, the gunshot celebrations. Mathieson allows his team to play unapologetically, ambivalent to their temporary place in football’s cellar.
Sakata: What’s the question that people aren’t asking you?
Mathieson: That’s a tough one, cause they normally ask me a lot of questions, what I’m doing, and what I’m thinking when I play football. I guess maybe one of the reasons- ‘Why do you do what you do’
They just jump to the point of ‘Why did you do it’. But not the reasons why. They don’t really get to know my personality as well. I mean, I think if you ask the boys here, most boys would say ‘Yeah, we love him around the club, he brings a lot of energy’. But yeah, I don’t think a lot of interviewers like to find my personality yet. They just think I’m a loose cannon all the time, which I’ve probably got a few screws loose, and I’m all right with that.
Sakata: Well, you have to, to play the way you play.
Mathieson: Yeah, I do. I guess they assume that what I’m like on the footy field is like what I am off.
Sakata: But that can’t be true, right?
Mathieson: It’s not all true. Some traits are probably, a little bit, but I wear my heart on my sleeve when I play. I’m competitive. So they probably just jump to this point, ‘Why do you throw your head back’, ‘Why do you duck’, ‘Why do you do stupid celebrations’.
If we’re winning games by 19 points and I’m celebrating like that, I guess everyone loves me. You know what I mean? I know the time to do it. I kicked a goal this year against Freo late when we were winning. I was pretty excited. Got a little bit of smack for that celebration as well, but –
As long as my teammates are happy with me, my coach is happy with me, that’s all that matters to me, really.
The whistle blows. A high tackle. The defender is exasperated, it’s an unstoppable move. How do you go low when Mathieson always goes lower? If you laid your arm flat on the grass Mathieson’s neck would find a way to tunnel underground and find it.
Mathieson heads back to line up for goal. He kicks truly. I watch closely for a gunshot celebration. It’s not forthcoming. It’s only Brisbane’s first goal. The game is still in the balance. Maybe Mathieson will bring it out later.
Sakata: That’s from hunting, is that it? What’s that from?
Mathieson: Yeah, I like guns. Like I said, I’d join the army. But it was just a goal celebrated. I was shooting the scoreboard, like watching the numbers flick over, but I mean people just thought I was a dickhead, but I was just [shrugs] first goal …
I mean, most of our fans like it. But yeah, I’m not there to please everyone.
Sakata: So you had the- was it a shotgun?
Mathieson: Sort of like a double pistol.
Sakata: It was a double pistol. Because there were two triggers in there. I saw that.
Mathieson: Yeah, so it wasn’t a barrelled shotgun. It was a double pistol, but everyone thought …
Sakata: Let’s get the facts right. [laughs]
Mathieson: Yeah, so it was a double pistol. I did a single pistol on the weekend, but people just … They blow it up, and like I said, it does not concern me one bit. I don’t …
Sakata: But you want to fire your boys up.
Sakata: You want to get the win. And that’s the core business.
Mathieson: Yeah, you know, some of my teammates are telling me to do ridiculous goal celebrations right now, cause they know I don’t care. They go ‘What are you gonna do next?’, like ‘Maybe pull out a machine gun?’
Like, I don’t know, some of them probably just want me to do it to see what happens. You know what I mean? And see what stick I cop from it.