Rowan Marshall’s meteoric rise during his first 50 AFL games

In the final home and away round of his fourth season on St Kilda’s list ruck/forward Rowan Marshall played his 50th AFL game against the GWS Giants on Friday night 18 September at the Gabba. Marshall celebrated his 50th AFL game in style with 18 disposals, seven marks and a goal to be one of St Kilda’s best players in the 52 point victory which secured the Saints their first finals berth in nine seasons. After the game Marshall was interviewed on TV broadcaster Channel 7 by St Kilda captain Jarryn Geary who asked “50 games, how do you feel?” Rowan responded “Over the moon, best feeling ever, I’ve never had a feeling like this before, it is good for the club and all the staff members and all the boys that haven’t played finals in so long.”

In the 30 May 2019 episode of the St Kilda Football Club podcast ‘Saints Insider’ host Clair White asked Marshall “How old were you when you realised, oh this football caper might be for me?” Marshall responded “I was actually pretty different to a lot of other kids, so I was a pretty late developer, it wasn’t until I was 17, 18 that I sort of made my first inter-league kind of side so I was lucky enough to get invited to do a pre-season with the Rebels in Hamilton which is sort of the closest area to Portland to train.”

After getting a taste for representative football with eight games for the Rebels in 2013 Marshall was outstanding playing as an over-age player in 2014 finishing in the top 20 of the Morrish Medal and being runner-up in the Rebels best and fairest.

Marshall was considered a chance to be drafted in 2014 but was overlooked in both the National Draft and Rookie Draft. In 2015 and 2016 Marshall played for VFL club the North Ballarat Roosters however his opportunities were limited to the club’s alignment with AFL club North Melbourne. Marshall was limited to five games for the Roosters in 2015 and spent most of the season playing for Ballarat league club Sebastopol.

The alignment between the Roosters and North Melbourne finished at the end of 2015. In 18 games for the Roosters in 2016 Marshall impressed with his mobility, reading of the play and ability to play multiple positions, spending time in the forward line, ruck and at centre half-back.

St Kilda provided Marshall with an opportunity on an AFL list when they selected him at the 2017 Rookie Draft. From Round 1 2017 to Round 16 2018 Marshall played seven of a possible 37 AFL games, spending most of his time playing with the Saints VFL affiliate the Sandringham Zebras.

From Round 17 2018 onwards Marshall has played 43 of a possible 46 games for the Saints, missing one game due to illness and was omitted for two games – Round 20, 2018 and Round 1, 2019.

In the past three seasons the role that Marshall has performed for the Saints has changed. During 2018 he played predominantly as a key forward and provided some support in the ruck.

During 2019 Marshall thrived playing in the ruck, to be the most improved player in the competition, going from not being in the Saints side in Round 1 to finishing runner-up in St Kilda’s 2019 best and fairest behind another player recruited from the North Ballarat Rebels in midfielder Seb Ross. During 2019 Marshall averaged 110 points champion data ranking points per game, an improvement of 47 points per game on his average of 63 points per game in 2018 which was the biggest increase in the AFL ahead of Bachar Houli and Nic Newman who improved by 32 and 24 points respectively.      

With the recruitment of 2017 All-Australian ruckman Paddy Ryder from Port Adelaide Marshall split his time between the ruck and playing as a key forward during the 2020 season, during the home and away season he ranked second at St Kilda for contested possessions and inside 50’s and fourth for goals. In game 51 on Saturday evening 24 year-old Marshall will play his first AFL final against the Western Bulldogs at the Gabba. It will be the St Kilda Football Club’s first final since the 2011 elimination final against Sydney.

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Marshall’s journey to get onto St Kilda’s list and his meteoric rise during his first 50 AFL games is comprehensively covered below.

Early life and junior career

Rowan Marshall was born on 24 November 1995 in Taranaki, New Zealand, a town on the west coast of the North Island, his parents are Don and Jan. When Rowan was 18 months old the Marshall family moved to Queensland and then moved to a farm in Portland, a town on the Victorian south-west coast when he was three years old, his younger brothers Lleyton and Oliver were born in Victoria. Initially the Marshall family had a dairy farm in Portland and later on they transitioned to a cattle farm. 

Portland has a population of approximately 11,000 people and is located approximately 360 kilometres west of Melbourne and 100 kilometres west of Warrnambool. Due to having the only deep-water sea port between Adelaide and Melbourne Portland is a major centre for see transport of goods and produce.  

Rowan’s dad Don had played Rugby Union at a provincial level in New Zealand and Rowan also has a couple of cousins that are playing Rugby in Scotland and Ireland, despite the family background in Rugby Rowan preferred playing Australian Rules Football.

Marshall’s junior football club was the Heathmere Magpies and he attended Bayview College in Portland. Marshall didn’t make the North Ballarat Rebels under 16’s squad and was also overlooked for the Rebels under 18 squad for his bottom age year in 2012. Marshall made the Rebels squad in his top-age year of 2013 and commented to Warrnambool newspaper ‘The Standard’ “I have always loved the game but I was never that good at it. But one day it all clicked. It is weird really. I worked hard over the pre-season and couldn’t believe it when I got picked because it was the first squad I’d been in.”1

During the 2013 pre-season Marshall made the hour trip to Hamilton with four other players from Portland on Monday and Wednesday nights for training however he was the only player from Portland who made the team and much longer trips were required to make it to training in Ballarat during the season. Every second week Rowan would have free period’s after lunch which allowed him to travel from school to training. On the 30 May 2019 episode of the St Kilda Football Club podcast ‘Saints Insider’ Marshall commented on making the Rebels list and the travel required, saying “I was lucky enough to end up on the Rebels list, I have no idea how, as I sort of a tall and gangly kid, but yeah eventually made my way onto the list and never looked back since really. I would travel down to Ballarat, train in the cold, wet miserable weather in winter, turn around and come back home and dad would be waiting for me at the bus stop in Warrnambool and I would get home at about 11 that night, it was pretty tough especially in year 12.”

As a top-age player in 2013 Marshall played eight games for the Rebels as a raw ruckman who moved around the ground well. During 2013 Marshall also played for the Portland Tigers under 18.5 year old team in the Hampden League including the Grand Final loss. 

After Christmas in 2013 the North Ballarat Rebels told Marshall they were interested in selecting him as an over-age player for the 2014 season. In November 2014 Marshall commented to ‘The Standard’ “I was pretty lucky to get a second chance really. They (the Rebels) were short of talls this year and they weighed up a decision about who to put on as a 19-year-old. I had a choice of living in Portland and training once a week or shifting up (to Ballarat). I decided to shift up to give it a red-hot crack.”2 The distance from Portland to Ballarat is approximately 260 kilometres and it is about a three hour drive.

During 2014 Marshall played 17 games for the Rebels under 18 TAC Cup team and improved significantly to be one of his teams best players and represented Vic Country in the 2014 Under 18 National Championships, being named in the best players in his teams 15 point win against Vic Metro in Round 1. During 2014 Rowan also played one VFL game with the North Ballarat Rebels.

In the 2014 TAC Cup coaches award Marshall polled 21 votes to finish 10th overall and was the second ranked Rebels player behind key defender Oscar McDonald who won the award with 30 votes, Marshall was also runner-up to McDonald in the Rebels best and fairest. Marshall was named as the ruckman in the 2014 TAC Cup Team of the Year and was joined in the team by McDonald who was named at centre half-back, Rebels head coach David Loader was named as the coach of the Team of the of the Year. A current St Kilda teammate of Marshall’s in Jack Lonie was also named in the forward pocket having represented the Dandenong Stingrays. Marshall’s strengths during 2014 were his mobility for his size and the ability to read the play.

In the lead-up to the 2014 National Draft the North Ballarat Rebels talent manager Phil Partington commented on Marshall to the courier.com.au “Most improved Rebel from last year when he was a young, raw ruckman travelling from Portland. Rowan has certainly worked hard on his game and we’re very pleased with his performance this year. Rowan’s done everything possible to get drafted but it’s out of his hands now.”3

At the 2014 National Draft and Rookie Draft Marshall was overlooked, in 2019 Marshall commented to saints.com.au on his 2014 season and the advise he was given by recruiters, saying “Everything happened at once, that final year I made the Vic Country squad which I never would have dreamed of and then I got invited to the National Combine which again I would never have dreamed of. You have your interview processes with different clubs and that sort of thing. It is every kid’s dream to end up on an AFL list when you are 17, 18, but I got some really good advise from recruiters to put on a bit of size because I was a beanpole, I did that and worked on it over 3 years and was lucky enough to end up here at the Saints.”

North Ballarat Roosters and Ballarat league club Sebastopol in 2015

In 2015 Marshall was on VFL club North Ballarat Roosters list however his opportunities at VFL level were limited due to the alignment with AFL club North Melbourne which was in its final season. From 2008 to 2015 North Melbourne had a dual alignment with North Ballarat and Werribee and one of the Kangaroos players aligned to the Roosters in 2015 was ruckman Braydon Preuss. Marshall only played five games for the Roosters in 2015 and spent more time playing for Ballarat league club Sebastopol.

Speaking to the ‘Standard’ in November 2016 Marshall reflected on his 2015 season saying “Everyone wants to play VFL when they’re on the list and it was hard when I wasn’t getting a game, but looking back it was probably a good thing in a way. I think it has taken me a couple of years to adapt to senior footy. Obviously I was never a strong junior and I only played a couple of games of seniors (at Portland) before I was 18, so I am not like the other kids. Some start playing seniors when they’re 15, 16. I wasn’t used to playing against big bodies but I think my development last year at Sebas really helped. Coach Shane Snibson out there was really beneficial and I think it’s put me in really good stead.”4 Marshall won Sebastopol’s senior best and fairest award in 2015 despite only playing 10 games for the club.

2016 VFL season with the North Ballarat Roosters

During 2016 North Melbourne were no longer aligned with the Roosters, instead being fully aligned with Werribee, which contributed to Marshall having more opportunities at VFL level during his second season with the Roosters.  Marshall played several positions throughout the season, playing more as a ruck/forward in the first half of the season and spent more time at centre half-back in the second half of the season which was partly to prevent him from burning out. At the Roosters Marshall was able to learn from ruckman Orren Stephenson who played a total of 15 AFL games from 2012 to 2014 for Geelong and Richmond. During 2016 Marshall played 18 games for the North Ballarat Roosters in the VFL, averaging 7.6 kicks, 7.8 handballs, 5.6 marks and 11.5 hit-outs per game.

Marshall attended Federation Uni in Ballarat studying Sport Management and Business. In early November 2016 Marshall was unsure if he would drafted two years after first being considered a chance to join an AFL club, he commented to ‘The Standard’ “A couple of years ago I didn’t really know what to expect and was pretty nervous leading up to the draft, but this year I am pretty laid-back and whatever will be, will be. I’d love to get picked up but you can’t do much more now other than impress in interviews. I have had a few interviews, had a couple at the statescreening. I think there is a little bit of interest but we’ll wait and see. Even if it doesn’t happen this year, there’s still other opportunities down the track when I get stronger. It’s an exciting time and I think being in that full-time environment would really help. I’d love to give it a crack.”5

2017 and 2018 seasons with St Kilda and Sandringham

At 21 years of age Marshall was selected by AFL club St Kilda with pick 10 at the 2017 Rookie Draft, at the time of being drafted Marshall was 201 centimetres tall and weighed 98 kilograms. Marshall wore the number 43 jumper in 2017 and was one of four players recruited in the 2016/17 off-season who have been regulars in the Saints team during 2019 and 2020 with the other players in this category being St Kilda’s first two selections at the 2016 National Draft in Ben Long (pick 25) and Josh Battle (pick 39) along with Jack Steele who was acquired in a trade from the GWS Giants.

St Kilda had finished the 2016 season in ninth position with 12 wins and 10 losses, percentage behind North Melbourne who finished eighth, it was the fifth season in a row that the Saints had missed the finals, the club’s previous final was the 2011 elimination final loss to Sydney, the Saints finished ninth in 2012, 16th in 2013, last out of 18 clubs in 2014 and 14th in 2015. Alan Richardson was heading into his fourth season as the Saints head coach in 2017, having commenced the role in 2014.

In late November 2016 Marshall commented to ‘The Standard’ on St Kilda selecting him in the Rookie Draft “I was shocked. I was sitting there and saw my name pop up (on the computer screen). I’m just over the moon, couldn’t be happier. I have had a fair few interviews with them but I wasn’t really expecting anything. I hadn’t spoken to many clubs since the draft through to the rookie draft, so I wasn’t expecting too much, but seeing my name read out, it’s amazing. All the hard work that I have put in after I missed out (getting drafted) is a just a good reward and I’m certainly not going to let myself down now. I am going to make the most of my chance.”6

The profile for Marshall in AFL Record Season 2017 said “The addition of Marshall left St Kilda well stocked for big men. However the club didn’t hesitate to add another tall, considering Marshall’s skills at ground level and accurate kicking. He looms as a ruckman who can spend time in the forward line.”7

At the start of the 2017 season Marshall was playing with St Kilda’s VFL affiliate the Sandringham Zebras. In Round 4 he was named in Sandringham’s best three players in the 14 point VFL victory against his former side, North Ballarat. After 14 consecutive VFL games for Sandringham Marshall was named an emergency for St Kilda’s Round 17 game and he made his AFL debut the following week at 21 years of age against Sydney at the SCG in Round 18, 2017, having five kicks, nine handballs, four marks, five hit-outs and nine contested possessions on debut in the 42 point loss.

After his AFL debut Marshall was named an emergency for Round 19 and didn’t add to his AFL games tally in 2017, finishing the season in the VFL. Marshall was named in Sandringham’s best three players in four games during 2017, including being best afield back at Mars Stadium in Ballarat against the North Ballarat Rebels in Round 19, kicking four goals and taking seven marks in the 55 point win. Whilst Marshall only played one AFL game in his debut season he was given the nickname ‘The Prospect’ early on during his time at the Saints.

At VFL level for Sandringham in 2017 Marshall predominantly played as a key forward who could also provide some support in the ruck, however highlighting his versatility he also spent some time playing as a key defender and was adept at winning intercept possessions in that role. St Kilda had 11 wins, 11 losses and finished 11th in 2017, one win and percentage behind the West Coast Eagles in eighth place.

St Kilda named Marshall an emergency for Round 1 and 2 of the 2018 season and he made his first AFL appearance of the season in Round 3, having 14 disposals and 18 hit-outs against the Adelaide Crows. In Round 4 against Geelong at GMHBA Stadium Marshall kicked his first AFL goal, had nine disposals and six hit-outs. Due to suffering a concussion Marshall’s game against Geelong ended early and he played only 45% game-time.

Due to concussion Marshall missed Round 5, he was named an emergency in Round 6 and was selected in the Saints Round 7 side, he played three consecutive games, averaging 9.0 disposals and 4.7 marks per game during this period.

After being omitted in Round 10 Marshall was recalled to the St Kilda team in Round 11 against West Coast, setting a new career-high with 22 disposals comprised of five kicks and 17 handballs, however he was omitted from the side for the following round, being named an emergency. 

Marshall was recalled to the Saints side in Round 17, having been named an emergency the previous week and played six of the Saints last seven games of the season, the exception being Round 20 when he was named an emergency. In Round 17 against Carlton at Marvel Stadium Marshall kicked multiple goals for the first time in his career and also played in his first victory in his eighth AFL game. In the 64 point victory against Carlton Marshall kicked two goals, had nine kicks, seven handballs, took an equal game-high eight marks, a game-high for contested marks and had 23 hit-outs.

Marshall played 12 AFL games in 2018 and won more of the ball late in the season, having at least 14 disposals in six of his last seven games after reaching that mark only once in his first five games with 14 disposals in Round 3. During 2018 Marshall averaged 7.1 kicks, 6.3 handballs, 5.6 marks, 9.4 hit-outs and 98 minutes played per game. The Saints dropped down the ladder in 2018, having four wins, a draw and 17 losses to finish 16th, ahead of Gold Coast and Carlton.

His profile in AFL Prospectus 2019 said “Marshall continues to play both forward and in the ruck across both levels. He averaged 120 Champion Data ranking points in VFL – the second most of any key forward, also ranking in the top-three key forwards for disposals, contested possessions, forward 50 marks, score assists, score involvements and tackles.”8

Break-out 2019 AFL season as St Kilda’s number one ruck

Marshall was promoted onto St Kilda’s senior list as a rookie elevation at the 2018 National Draft. During the 2018 trade period Tom Hickey who had been St Kilda’s number one ruckman for most of the 2018 season was traded to the West Coast Eagles. During 2018 Hickey led St Kilda for hit-outs with 316 from 13 games, ahead of Billy Longer with 121 hit-outs from 5 games, Marshall with 113 from 12 games and Lewis Pierce with 58 from three games.

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Brett Ratten joined St Kilda as an assistant coach for the 2019 season and was in charge of the forward line and ball movement. Ratten played 255 games from 1990 to 2003 for Carlton as an inside midfielder, he played in Carlton’s 1995 premiership, won three best and fairest awards (in 1995, 1997 and 2000) and was named in the All-Australian team twice. Ratten was Carlton’s head coach for 120 games from late in the 2007 season to 2012 with Carlton making the finals in three seasons during this period.

During 2019 Marshall well and truly lived up to his nickname of ‘The Prospect’. After playing predominantly in the forward line during 2018 Marshall spent the 2019 pre-season training in the ruck and was competing for the role of St Kilda’s number one ruckman with specialist rucks Lewis Pierce and Billy Longer.

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In the 30 May 2019 episode of the ‘Saints Insider’ Podcast Marshall commented “I had a chat with Richo early in the pre-season and they said we would love you to have a pre-season in the ruck and see how you go and that sort of thing. It was different changing positions because like you said I had spent my first two years learning my forward craft and learning off Brucey and Paddy and Skunk and those kind of players and felt like I had learned a lot but then the opportunity came to shift into the ruck. It was awesome, I learnt heaps off Brendon Lade and Adam Skrobalak, Billy and Lewey, took it all in and was lucky enough to now be playing in the ruck.” Marshall started to wear the number 19 jumper in 2019.

Despite an impressive performance in the ruck during St Kilda’s second JLT game in 2019 against the Western Bulldogs Marshall was left out of the Saints Round 1 side against the Gold Coast, being named an emergency. The St Kilda match committee named Pierce in the ruck to play his fifth AFL game against Gold Coast ruckman and co-captain Jarrod Witts who is one of the biggest players in the AFL, being 209 centimetres tall and weighing 111 kilograms. St Kilda defeated Gold Coast by a point with Pierce having six disposals and 27 hit-outs.

The St Kilda match committee opted to make a change in the ruck for Round 2 against Essendon at Docklands with Marshall replacing Pierce who was named an emergency. Marshall played his role in the Saints 11 point victory, having nine kicks, five handballs, five marks, 21 hit-outs, six tackles, a game-high six clearances and an equal team-high 13 contested possessions.

Due to a concussion didn’t play at any level in Round 3 and he ended up missing the rest of the season due to concussion. In Round 4, in his 16th AFL game Marshall polled his first Brownlow Medal, receiving one vote for his role in the five point victory against Hawthorn at Docklands, having eight kicks, nine handballs, three marks, 28 hit-outs, seven clearances, one goal assist and kicked a goal.

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From Round 2 to Round 5 Marshall played four consecutive AFL games as the Saints number one ruckman, setting a new personal best, surpassing his previous best of three consecutive games which he achieved three times in 2018. Whilst Marshall was learning the craft of ruckwork, his athleticism, reading of the play and ball winning ability meant that he was effectively another midfielder after the ruck contest. At the end of the 2018 season St Kilda had won only one of Marshall’s 13 AFL games, however he became more accustomed to singing the Saints theme song early in 2019, playing in victories in three of his first four games of the season, Rounds 2, 4 and 5.  After Round 5 St Kilda had a record of four wins and one loss to be second on the ladder behind Geelong on percentage.

Due to illness Marshall was a late withdrawal for St Kilda’s Round 6 game against Adelaide with  Longer being brought into the side as his replacement. Marshall returned to the Saints side in Round 7 against the GWS Giants and played 16 consecutive games to finish the season. Due to concussion fellow St Kilda ruckman Longer didn’t play at any level from Round 13 onwards.  

In the 30 May 2019 episode of the St Kilda Football Club podcast ‘Saints Insider’ Marshall commented on the support he receives from his immediate family, saying “They (his parents) have been awesome, they come down pretty much every week. It is awesome to have someone that follows you that closely no matter what, even if you have a bad game. They are always happy, no matter what, they are just happy that I have made it this far and everything is a bonus which is good, everything I do is pretty much for them and my two younger brothers.”

Rowan enjoys getting back to Portland when his football schedule allows him to catch up with family and enjoy life in the country and during 2019 Rowan donated his time to feature in a series of Promoting Portland television commercials.

Later in the ‘Saints Insider’ episode host Clair White asked Marshall “Say we fast forward 30 years what sort of player do you want to be remembered as?” Rowan responded “The one main thing is probably just competitive, that is sort of what I have worked my game around this year is just being competitive up there in the air in the ruck contest and as soon as the ball hits the ground I want to spread and sort of work on my strengths which is my running patterns and mobility, that sort of stuff so I guess around the ground I just try and be another midfielder and in the ruck contest you want to win every hit-out but when you don’t it is not letting that opposition ruckman win a clean hit-out straight down to their mids and then them getting the clearance sort of thing. As time goes on I want to get a bit stronger and put on a bit more size so I can come up against those really big ruckman so hopefully I can break even in the hit-outs or win and then get them with my running patterns around the ground.”

In Marshall’s nine games during the first 11 rounds of 2019 he flourished being involved in the play more due to playing in the ruck and averaged 16.6 disposals and 26.1 hit-outs per game. One of the queries was how Marshall would shoulder the responsibility of being St Kilda’s number one ruckman and having very little support in the second of the season as due to Longer and Pierce each being sidelined with concussion, the only other ruckman on St Kilda’s list was Sam Alabakis who had been recruited as a category b rookie, having spent two seasons playing college basketball with Louisiana-Monroe. Alabakis was a project pick and was still learning the game of Australian Rules.  

On 11 June 2019 it was announced that Marshall had signed a three-year contract extension with St Kilda until the end of 2022, Marshall commented “I’ve loved my time at the Saints so far and am stoked to have signed this new deal. I feel like I’ve really learned a lot during my time, especially the past eight months or so, and I’m excited to keep growing and learning. I really believe in what we’re building and I’m looking forward to being part of it.”9

In late July 2019 St Kilda assistant coach – mids Brendon Lade spoke to afl.players.com.au about Marshall’s progress as a ruckman saying “He’s willing to learn but he’s also a blank cheque so we’ve been able to write what we want on him because he’s listening to everything we’re saying. While he doesn’t win the amount of hit-outs a Grundy or Gawn does, his work around the ground is as good as those two. Good teams have ruckmen that players want to follow and this year ‘Row’ has started to put the group on his back and take them with him. If he keeps having high standards and driving what he believes in, it is going to take the rest of the group to higher standards.”10

In his 24 AFL games before Round 15, 2019 Marshall had polled one Brownlow medal vote in his career. In four games from Round 15 to Round 18 Marshall polled a total of six Brownlow medal votes comprised of two votes three times – Round 15 against Richmond, Round 17 against Geelong and 18 against the Western Bulldogs. During this four game period Marshall averaged 20.5 disposals, 31.8 hit-outs, 13.5 contested possessions and 0.75 goals per game.

From Round 6 to Round 17 St Kilda only won two of their 11 games to have a record of six wins, 10 losses and be 15th on the ladder. After Round 17 Alan Richardson stepped down as St Kilda’s head coach with Brett Ratten taking over as care-taker coach. St Kilda won three of their last six games of the season with Ratten as the head coach.

In his 11 games from Round 13 to Round 23 Marshall averaged 18.7 disposals and 30.3 hit-outs per game, increasing his disposals per game by 12.7% and his hit-outs by 16.1% from the first half of the 2019 season. During the 2019 home and away season St Kilda had nine wins and 13 losses to finish 14th on the ladder.

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Entering the 2019 season Marshall had only played 13 AFL games predominantly as a forward, however after playing as St Kilda’s number one ruck he went in to the 2020 Trevor Barker Award as one of the favourites. Marshall finished 2019 with 569 of St Kilda’s 692 hit-outs for the season, only three other Saints players had more than 20 hit-outs for the season comprised of Josh Bruce (33), Lewis Pierce (27) and Billy Longer (20). Pierce’s only AFL game for the season was Round 1 when he was preferred to Marshall and Longer’s only game for the season was Round 6 when he was a late inclusion for the ill Marshall, so in all 20 games that Rowan played he didn’t have a recognised ruckman in the Saints line-up as a team-mate.

Marshall polled 152 votes at the St Kilda best and fairest to finish second, in between two midfielders, 18 votes behind Seb Ross who won his second Trevor Barker Award, having previously won in 2017, and finished one vote ahead of Jack Steele who finished third for the second year in a row. Marshall won three awards at the Saints 2020 best and fairest, the Dare Iced Coffee Sainter of the Year Award as voted by the fans, the Lenny Hayes Player’s Player award and Best Emerging Player Award. In the Dare Iced Coffee Sainter of the year award Saints fans gave their 3, 2 and 1 votes for each round. Rowan had five best afield performances and finished the season strongly to poll 19 votes and finish vote ahead of wingman Jack Billings followed by key forward Tim Membrey in third place on 12 votes. The St Kilda players voted Marshall to be one of club’s three nominees for the AFL Player’s Association Most Valuable Player Award, being joined in this category by Jack Billings and Jack Steele.

During 2019 Marshall played 20 AFL games, averaging 9.9 kicks, 7.9 handballs, 4.2 marks, 11.4 contested possessions, 28.5 hit-outs and 105 minutes played per game. Due to spending most of his time in the ruck Marshall didn’t have many shots at goal but he was very accurate when he did, kicking eight goals and two behinds for the season. In 2019 Marshall led the Saints for contested possessions, ranked second for clearances and fifth for score assists and inside 50’s. In the 2019 home and away season Marshall had 121 hard-ball gets – ranked second in the AFL behind fellow ruckman Brodie Grundy with 137 and was ranked seventh in the AFL with 569 hit-outs. Marshall had three times as many hit-outs per game in 2019 as in 2018, increasing from 9.4 to 28.5 per game whilst his clearances increased exponentially from 0.5 to 5.5 per game, his contested possessions doubled from 5.67 to 11.35 per game and his disposals rose by 33% from 13.3 to 17.5 per game.

The profile for Marshall in AFL Prospectus 2020 said “Marshall was clearly the most-improved player in the AFL – averaging 9.5 more AFL Player Rating points per game compared to 2018. He thrived as the Saints’ sole ruckman, ranking fourth of all ruckman for Rating points per game, with his ball-winning the key.”11 Marshall polled seven Brownlow Medal votes in 2019, ranked third for St Kilda behind Seb Ross (12 votes) and Jack Billings (11 votes).

Sharing ruck duties at St Kilda in 2020

On 5 September 2019 Brett Ratten was appointed as St Kilda’s head coach. There were significant changes to St Kilda’s list between the 2019 and 2020 seasons with Jack Steven, Josh Bruce and Blake Acres being traded to Geelong, the Western Bulldogs and Fremantle respectively. Jack Newnes joined Carlton as a delisted free agent, David Armitage, Billy Longer and Paddy McCartin all retired and Lewis Pierce was delisted. St Kilda identified deficiencies on their list and targeted players to improve these areas, recruiting midfielder Zak Jones from Sydney, wingman Brad Hill from Fremantle, small forward Dan Butler from Richmond, key defender Dougal Howard and ruckman Paddy Ryder both from Port Adelaide.

Given Marshall’s rise to prominence playing in the ruck during 2019 there was much discussion about the recruitment of ruckman Ryder who would turn 32 years of age just before the 2020 season commenced and what impact this would have on Marshall. In early November 2019 Marshall commented to saints.com.au on Ryder joining St Kilda saying “I’m stoked, over the moon. He was obviously an All Australian ruckman a couple of years ago and I’m pretty new to the ruck craft. I’m really looking forward to learning from him and I think we can be a pretty good duo. He’s a really superb tap ruckman (and) that’s probably one weakness in my game I need to work on. At times against bigger ruckman I was found out a little bit in the ruck craft, but with Paddy here I will be able to improve on that and it can become one of my strengths.”12

In the week before the 2020 AFL home and away season commenced it was announced that due to the uncertainty regarding the coronavirus that the structure of the season and length of games would be condensed. During the 2020 home and away season each club would play 17 games comprised of one game against each of the other AFL clubs, a reduction from each team playing 22 games across 23 rounds. The length of quarters was reduced from 20 minutes plus time-on to 16 minutes plus time-on to enable a shorter break between games.

Round 1 of the 2020 season went ahead as planned from March 19-22, however due to the threat posed by the coronavirus fans were unable to attend and it was expected that the season would have to pause at some point due to COVID-19. St Kilda started the match well and led by 31 points seven minutes into the third quarter, however were outplayed from that point on with North Melbourne kicking six goals to one to defeat St Kilda by two points. With two minutes remaining in the game Marshall missed a set-shot from 40 metres out on a slight angle.

With coronavirus cases in Australia increasing the AFL season paused after Round 1 and resumed just under three months later on June 11. Whilst the season was paused Rowan went back to home in Portland with his mum, dad and two younger brothers. As well his doing his training Rowan was helping his dad out by doing odd jobs on the farm. Rowan’s mum Jan works at the local high school.

Marshall appeared remotely on the 16 April 2020 episode of ‘That’s Good for Footy’ and was asked by host Damo (Damien Rocher) “How much are you in contact with other players from the club and training staff, dieticians etc, is that on a regular basis?” Marshall responded “Yeah, a fair bit, I think we’ve sort of got to rely on each other to get through these difficult times. We probably have four or five zoom meetings a week. So we have got like a line meeting that we have with the midfield and even just like last Saturday there were about 15 or 16 boys that just jumped one and we had one or two beers together and just sat there and just chatted a bit of garbage for a couple of hours which was good fun.”

Later in the episode Damo asked “What is the one thing you will never take for granted again?” Marshall responded “Probably just the footy lifestyle, I guess, I miss just seeing the boys every day and you sort of have that spare time so you go out for brekkie or have a latte with them, I just miss doing the simple things like that.”

From Round 1 to Round 3 Marshall shared the ruck role with Ryder with the duo alternating between playing as a ruck and as a forward. The Saints have been able to stretch opposition defences in 2020 by frequently having Marshall or Ryder playing in the forward line along Tim Membrey and Max King.

Ryder was left out of St Kilda’s side from Round 4 to Round 6 with Marshall playing as the Saints sole ruckman. After Round 6 St Kilda were seventh on the ladder with three wins and three losses. From Round 2 to Round 5 AFL games were being played all around Australia as they would in a typical season however a second wave of coronavirus in Victoria resulted in the Victorian clubs relocating to hubs in other states, mainly Queensland after Round 5 and no AFL matches being played in Melbourne after the first weekend of July. St Kilda have been based in Noosa on the Sunshine Coast in South East Queensland.

Ryder was recalled for St Kilda’s Round 7 game against Adelaide at the Adelaide Oval. Before this season St Kilda had lost all 10 games they had played at Adelaide Oval and were on losing streaks of 10 games and eight games respectively against the Adelaide Crows and Port Adelaide. The Saints smashed these hoodoos in the period of five days, defeating Adelaide by 23 points in a Monday night Round 7 game on 20 July followed up by a 29 point victory against the top of the ladder team Port Adelaide on Saturday night 25 July. The combination of Marshall and Ryder rotating between the ruck and the forward line proved to be very effective against Port Adelaide with the duo having 25 disposals, 40 hit-outs and kicked four goals between them.

St Kilda head coach Brett Ratten commented to Radio Station SEN days on the ruck tandem of Marshall and Ryder against Port Adelaide “I thought on the weekend that was the best we had the combination. We got four goals from them and we got great use through Paddy’s hit-outs and then Ro’s follow-up at ground level – I think he had seven clearances himself – so I think the balance was absolutely perfect. If we can get that output, that is just brilliant for our team. And to hit the scoreboard and play a big part around clearances, that is the perfect game from both of them.”

St Kilda continued their momentum, defeating Sydney by 53 points in Round 9 and Gold Coast by four points in Round 10 to improve their record to seven wins and three losses to be second on the ladder a game and percentage behind Port Adelaide.  

The Saints lost three of their next four games which included back to back nail-biting losses to Brisbane by two points in Round 13 and Melbourne by three points in Round 14. After St Kilda’s Round 15 bye Marshall was influential in the 14 point victory against Hawthorn at Metricon Stadium, having 11 kicks, three handballs, eight marks and kicked an equal team-high two goals to receive the Silk-Miller medal for being best afield.

St Kilda’s final round victory against the GWS Giants by 52 points secured the club’s first finals berth since 2011. Only one St Kilda player remains on the Saints list from that elimination final loss to Sydney, current club captain Jarryn Geary who has played 202 games.

On October 3 St Kilda will host a Saturday twilight game against the Western Bulldogs at the Gabba with the game starting at 4.40pm AEST, the winner will play the side that loses the qualifying final between Brisbane and Richmond at the Gabba. St Kilda have won their two most recent finals against the Western Bulldogs, winning preliminary finals in 2009 and 2010 by seven and 24 points respectively. In Round 2 this season the Saints defeated the Western Bulldogs by 39 points. 

During the 2020 home and away season Marshall played all 17 AFL games, averaging 10.1 kicks, 3.9 handballs, 4.2 marks, 8.4 contested possessions, 14.5 hit-outs and 85.3% game-time per game. Throughout the season Marshall has split his time pretty evenly between the ruck and the forward line, spending slightly more time in the ruck. Among ruckman who played at least five games Marshall ranked fourth for disposals per game, second for inside 50’s, equal second for goals and score involvements, fourth for contested marks and first for metres gained. At the Saints Marshall ranked second at the Saints for contested possessions and inside 50’s in the 2020 home and away season, ranked first for contested marks, third for marks, fourth for clearances, goals and kicks, fifth for score assists and equal sixth for tackles.

Epilogue

Many players on AFL lists had decorated junior careers across various age groups and had considered the prospect of becoming an AFL player for several years before they were eligible to be drafted. Rowan Marshall does not fit into this category and made his first appearance for the North Ballarat Rebels in his top-age year for under 18’s in 2013.

Considerable hard work, dedication, ability to adapt and travel by Marshall playing for the Rebels followed by VFL club the North Ballarat Rebels resulted in him getting an opportunity at AFL level as a rookie at St Kilda.

Whilst Marshall needed to take the long road and prove himself at VFL level with the North Ballarat Roosters to get onto an AFL list he has been true to his word and made the most of that opportunity once it arose.

During his four home and away seasons at from 2017 to 2020 Rowan Marshall has played a variety of roles at St Kilda and has developed into a very versatile player with his mobility, reading of the play, marking and goal kicking ability resulted in him making a meteoric rise during his first 50 AFL games with the skill-set to play in the ruck, as a key forward or combine the two roles very effectively.

By Dean Andrews

Twitter – @DeanAndrews7777

1 https://www.standard.net.au/story/2705065/rowan-marshall-takes-giant-strides-towards-afl/

2 https://www.standard.net.au/story/2705065/rowan-marshall-takes-giant-strides-towards-afl/

3 https://www.thecourier.com.au/story/2723779/north-ballarat-rebels-carry-afl-dream-into-national-draft-photos/

4 https://www.standard.net.au/story/4265941/afl-draft-detour-the-right-path-for-marshall-photos/

5 https://www.standard.net.au/story/4265941/afl-draft-detour-the-right-path-for-marshall-photos/

6 https://www.standard.net.au/story/4322308/portland-pair-picked-up-in-rookie-draft/

7 AFL, AFL Record Season 2017, page 301

8 Champion Data, AFL Prospectus – The essential number cruncher for season 2019, 14th edition, page 319

9 https://www.afl.com.au/news/52932/big-man-marshall-answers-saints-prayers-with-contract-extension

10 http://www.aflplayers.com.au/article/the-rapid-rise-of-st-kildas-blank-cheque/

11 Champion Data, AFL Prospectus – The essential number cruncher for season 2020, 15th edition, page 322

12 https://www.saints.com.au/news/306474/marshall-over-the-moon-to-work-with-ryder

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