It started with a baby. The week Jack Darlings life changed was also the weekend his football career began to turn.
It was the first week of June last year. Darlings wife Courtney was expecting the couples first child as the Eagle landed on the Gold Coast for his sides round 11 Saturday afternoon clash with the Suns.
On match eve, Courtney went into labour. But Jack was stuck on the other side of the country. He raced to Brisbane in a bid to get home for the birth but was too late as son Max entered the world. Instead, Darling returned to the Gold Coast and went goalless with just eight disposals as the flaky Eagles lost to the struggling Suns.
Until that point of his career the former man-child, taken at pick 26 of the 2010 draft, could reasonably be described as an occasionally brilliant but inconsistent forward. How things have changed.
The West Australian would be a walk-up start for the All-Australian team if it had been picked after eight rounds, with that oft-displayed promise at last materialising into weekly dominance.
Much has been made of the way Darling has started the season. Among the myriad of statistics highlighting his form are the fact he led for contested marks, was second for score involvements and third for goals heading into round nine.
With Darling firing, West Coast, a popular pick to drop out of the top eight this year, will on Sunday play off for top spot against reigning premiers Richmond.
A stellar pre-season on the track has done wonders, but Eagles forwards coach Jaymie Graham said the turning point was that dramatic weekend in Queensland.
“I actually thought we saw good signs last year after the midway point,” Graham told The Sunday Age.
“I think he had a poor performance up at Gold Coast. He had a bit going on that weekend.
“But from that point on hes played pretty solid footy and hes really stepped up this year.
“He had some really good games towards the back end of the year when we started playing some good footy themselves.”
Darling had been labelled a disappointment in some quarters. Whether that was fair or not is questionable. After all this is a player who had kicked 39 or more goals in five of the last six seasons before 2018. The only year he didnt hit that mark was an injury-interrupted 2015.
However that was also the year of his horror grand final against Hawthorn, with his infamous dropped chest mark likely to be part of finals folklore for decades.
He was an easy pin-up boy for a club whose wild form swings had fans and critics looking for a scapegoat. Perhaps some of the mud from an incident-riddled draft year, during which he had a couple of alcohol-related run-ins with authority, had clouded judgments around him.
“It was well-advertised when he got drafted he had some incidents off-field but hes definitely matured as a person,” Graham said.
“He had that breakout year in his first year in 2011 and expectations were so high on him.
“He is a quite a deep thinker. I think he at times has been unfairly criticised.
“I cant speak for Jack on this but Id say thered be times that he would know about the criticism that hes receiving and thered be times where to his own admission hed say he needed to be better. There definitely hasnt been any criticism this year.”
Drafted in the same year as Darling, midfielder Andrew Gaff has become a close friend of the forward. Gaff and Scott Lycett, who also joined the club at the end of 2010, were groomsmen at Darlings wedding. They have, in a sense, grown up together.
“Hes probably relaxed a bit,” Gaff said of his mate.
“Probably football isnt at the forefront of his mind like perhaps it might have been and perhaps it is for guys who havent had a family.
“Hes learnt to let go of things, whether hes played a good game or a bad game, hes able to move on perhaps quicker and able to focus on the next week and ways to keep improving which I think is really important.”
As for the criticism directed at Darling, Gaff suspected it had taken its toll.
“I think he wouldnt be human if you didnt take some of it to heart,” he said.
But Gaff was rapt that both Darling and the similarly maligned Chris Masten were changing perceptions with their performances.
“Im very happy for those two guys. Its very easy for people on the sidelines to say bad stuff about people, but to make people change their mind is a tough thing.
“I think its pretty obvious that people are starting to think differently about Jack now.”
That finger-pointing has become a thing of the past. Gaff notes that Darling and Courtney have a particularly low-carbohydrate diet full of organic food, pointing to a diligence in his preparation. But for Graham the difference has come from added intensity.
“The biggest thing I think with JD this year is hes improved his consistency in the contest,” Graham said.
“To his own admission he wasnt as consistent in that area.”
In the early rounds Darling shone in the absence of Josh Kennedy. The dual Coleman medallist has returned, but Darling keeps delivering.
"The opportunity he had, without JK being there, that's given [Darling] the confidence to keep it going," Gaff said.
"Josh is still finding his feet, but for the time being while Jack is playing as he is, Josh probably doesn't need to be kicking six or seven goals like perhaps he needed to last year for us to win games."
Darling is a tricky match-up, with athleticism to trouble “gorilla” defenders and strength to cause issues for those who can match him aerobically. The Eagles have developed a potent mix of forwards. Jake Waterman, Willie Rioli, Liam Ryan, Daniel Venables and Jack Petruccelle have all been welcomed to the fold this year, while Mark LeCras and Jamie Cripps keep contributing.
“I think the key to any forward line is that you are unpredictable to the opposition and that you have multiple threats, and I think theyve been able to do that this year,” Graham said ahead of the meeting with the imposing Richmond backline.
Heres the scary thing for opposition clubs. Darling is still just 25. So where to next?
“Hes playing at an elite level at the moment as a key position player,” Graham said.
“Hes working hard on stepping up in his leadership. I think thatll probably be the next phase for him, to keep developing in that area.”
SPREADING HIS WINGS
Jack Darling's flying start to 2018
Contested Marks: 24
(1st in AFL)
Marks on Lead: 15
(Equal 8th in AFL)
(Equal 5th in AFL)
Scoreboard Impact: 164
(4th in AFL)
Score Involvements: 65
(2nd in AFL)
(3rd in AFL)
Inside 50 Targets: 79
(4th in AFL)
Marks Inside 50: 26
(Equal 2nd in AFL)
Disposals Inside 50: 50
(4th in AFL)
Daniel is an Age sports reporter.
Morning & Afternoon Newsletter