If Sam Rowe is in the vicinity of Nat Fyfe at Etihad Stadium on Saturday, few would blame him for thinking twice before attempting to kick the ball.
When the teams last met, in round nine last year, the unheralded Carlton defender hyper-extended his knee in the first quarter when the Dockers skipper had looked to smother the ball. He left the field, had the knee strapped and returned, only for his right leg to buckle in a marking contest. It turned out he had torn his anterior cruciate ligament.
The season-ending injury could not have come at a worse time, for, coming off contract, Rowe had been in career-best form. This included holding Jesse Hogan goalless, Darcy Moore, Tim Membrey and Joe Daniher to a goal apiece and Charlie Dixon to two. So, will Rowe look to avoid Fyfe when the clubs again face off?
"I think he will be running around in the midfield but I won't be loading up for any big kicks when he is coming across my leg," Rowe said with a laugh on Friday.
Rowe's absence hurt the Blues, although it would contribute to former forward Liam Jones emerging as a key defender in round 12 – a spot he has since held.
The Blues, though, would reward Rowe, a fine team man and mentor, for his hard work with a one-year contract extension, one he hopes will morph into another for the 2019 campaign.
"I would certainly like to go round again. I think my performance would warrant that. No-one deserves a contract just for any other reason than performance. Hopefully, my form continues and contracts take care of themselves," he said.
Rowe, 30, returned to senior battle in round five against West Coast and has been a consistent performer, including restricting Lance Franklin to three goals at the SCG. The star Swan had booted 10 when the teams had last met, and Rowe was absent. His inclusion has been significant, for Caleb Marchbank has not been seen since round six although is expected back in a fortnight from ankle bone bruising.
Rowe's composure has added to the veteran feel in defence, for Kade Simpson, three games shy of becoming the fifth Blue to 300 matches, and Dale Thomas, reborn in a new role across half-back, have helped to provide hardened bodies and experience. Rowe's presence as a tight defender has also helped Jones play to his strength of taking intercept marks.
"I have enjoyed the responsibility of organising the back line a bit this year. We have had some new players come into the back line, even guys like Liam Jones who has played a lot of footy but hasn't played heaps as a defender," Rowe said.
"I have really enjoyed working with the group we have got. I think we have started to build some pretty good consistency. We are starting to know each other's games a lot better and we are reading off each."
While the Blues have made their rebuilding plans clear, the bottom line is that this has been a rugged, injury-hit year, with only one win. They had declared a more attacking style would be embraced but this provided defensive issues, and led to the side conceding 100 or more points in the opening four rounds. They conceded 125 points to Adelaide in round seven before they bottomed out against Melbourne, losing by a record 109 points. However, they tightened defensively against Geelong and Sydney leading into the bye.
Rowe, a mature-age recruit in the 2011 national draft who has yet to play in a final, has seen much in his time, including fractures in playing groups, but it's the unified approach of this list that he appreciates and says provides motivation when September ambitions are on hold.
"The group we have got at the moment really helps in that. There have been some pretty lean years in my time here and, probably at times, you get a bit of fracturing among the group," he said.
"That's what makes it tough. But the group we have got at the moment are really close. There is no selfishness coming into the group, there are no players just trying to do things for themselves. I like the camaraderie and the team aspect that we have going on. It feels like we are still trying to achieve something together even though we can't make the finals. We haven't been winning games of footy but we are still working towards something together. That gives motivation for old fellers like me and everyone really, we are working together."
He points to the development of the youngsters, including the increasing impact rookie midfielder Paddy Dow is having, and the emergence of "old-school forward" Patrick Kerr, who leads strongly to the ball and is a good kick. Jacob Weitering struggled early in his third season, perhaps having tried to do too much, but Rowe says he is defending better now.
A carpenter by trade with a building licence, Rowe, completing work placement, looks forward to spending more time on construction. But, in the meantime, he is content to play a role in laying the foundations of what the Blues hope will be their next flag.
Jon Pierik is a sports writer with The Age, focusing primarily on AFL football, cricket and basketball. He has won awards for his cricket and basketball writing.
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