The epic Hollywood classic “Jaws” comes to my mind when I think of Hawks star Cyril Rioli.
On the field his instinctual predatory nature has his potential prey feeling like they are on tenterhooks. He doesn’t need to be close by for his opponents to feel sweat on their brows as he circles and threatens to strike from anywhere, more often than not leaving them in his wake. He doesn’t have to be directly involved to be ‘involved’. His free spirited nature provides that certain x-factor that is rare in our game. When he is in possession, his exploits often leave us wide eyed and aghast in awe.
Cyril Rioli has been a stand-out amongst the great Hawthorn players of the last decade. His watershed moment came during the 2008 Grand Final where, as an 18 year old youth, he showed off his freakish abilities. During a pivotal stage of the match he found himself on the wing, up against three much bigger opposition players and through sheer desperation he outplayed all three opponents, rendering them ineffective. His second efforts that day provided goosebumps to all who bore witness. His team mates rose in the face of his inspirational performance. To rub salt into the wounds of his fallen prey, a free kick to Rioli ensued. This passage of play was, for many, the tipping point when they switched from thinking the seemingly invincible Geelong juggernaut would win, to believing the Hawks were about to pull off a miraculous upset, to rival any from Grand finals past.
In the aftermath, Rioli’s reputation was sealed as a truly unique player who can, in a moment of sublime magic, flip any contest on its ear. He is the quintessential freak who can see events unfold way ahead of all others with his reading of the play. His ability is akin to a snooker player who can see 6 or 7 shots ahead to facilitate a dazzling clearance.
His career has often attracted criticism for being ‘flashy’; for being the figurative cream when many dictate that he should be the cake. On face value this criticism has merit, however this shows little respect to the effect he has when not in direct play. The aforementioned reference to ‘Jaws’ is revisited here when you consider the deferred pressure he imposes on opposition players and how he completely muddles their senses and associated decision making. The ‘flashy’ jibe is fully negated by the fact that in just a few moments of magic, Rioli can make all the difference.
The effect of this on his team mates is profound. It is no coincidence that the team’s fall from grace throughout 2017, which culminated in them missing out on playing finals, was a season which saw Rioli play only 7 games. He was severely limited in those 7 games after enduring a knock to his knee during the round one match against Essendon. This unfortunately deprived him of his game changing pace and associated elusiveness. Hawthorn’s much vaunted forward line felt the brunt of his absence. The front half that had struck fear into opposition think tanks during its glory years became largely dysfunctional. Highlighting the depth of its struggles, the team averaged only 84.72 points per game in 2017, a stark contrast to the 114.68 points per game it averaged during its halcyon days of 2013.
Whilst many of Hawthorn’s list enjoyed star billing during their flag winning days, last season highlighted their shortcomings, with many of these players found wanting. The absence of Rioli and the pressure he takes off them was key. Rioli’s pure genius offers perfect shielding to the less skilled forwards due to opposition defenders gravitating to him. This not only applies to his direct marker, but other defenders zoning off in support, which in turn allows others to operate with less attention.
As a largely disapointing season drew to a close for Hawthorn, Rioli, already on the shelf due to his on-field injury, was impacted by adversity off the field. His father suffered issues with his heart which resulted in the club granting the star compassionate leave. His absence from the club has been lengthy, stretching into the New Year and much of early pre-season training. This has sent Hawks forums into meltdown with fans wondering when he will return, if ever, along with what shape he will be in when he eventually does.
You can understand the hysteria given the importance that Rioli represents to a team in transition. He could be the difference between the club making the 8 or not or, if everything clicks, perhaps even a top 4 contender. The revival of the forward line will largely define the team’s fate. Rioli will be a huge factor in this, whether stationed as a full time forward or during his bursts in the midfield where he can conjure up goal assists from seemingly nothing.
The salvo in the concern over Rioli’s prospects in 2018 is the fact he is the epitome of a natural footballer. He is one of those rare players who could miss a pre-season yet still have the ability to impact. He is a veteran with many preseasons under his belt, meaning he has a strong base of residual fitness to draw from. He is likely to start the season slowly but come home like a freight train. On top of this, the patience shown by the club has a greater meaning. In dealing with this matter they have exuded their motto of being ‘The Family Club’ and this ethos will not be lost on either Rioli or the rest of the group.
The time spent with his father in this time of need will strengthen his resolve and steel his focus. The Rioli family is almost synonymous with football, their proud family heritage linked to the sport for decades through Cyril’s uncle Maurice who dazzled for Richmond in the early 1980’s, Dean, Daniel, Michael Long and other family members. I can imagine Cyril’s father whispering in his ear, urging him to be a definitive factor in the Hawks’ rise up the ladder.
Fear not, fellow Hawk fans, I have no doubt that Rioli’s star will dazzle once more in 2018.