Rhys Mathieson Has Never Seen a Shotgun

Evaluating the future of the AFL’s pest problem

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Buddy Franklin doesn’t use his brain. I mean this in the best way. Zen Buddhism has an expression — mushin no shin, meaning the “mind without mind”. When your mind is not preoccupied with thought, you are free to just proceed with the next moment.

Buddy gathers the ball at top pace, wheels around and just kicks it. Three steps are really, one step. It’s natural. For Tom Lynch, marking is natural. For Scott Pendlebury, moving out of traffic. Football talent is a spectrum. For a select few, it is natural to be annoying. These players are taggers, sometimes small forwards. But they are all primarily used as pests, whose main positive is to have a negative impact on a legitimate player. I see the pest, because I see myself.

I am six feet tall and have a decent frame. I should have been a better athlete growing up. I think about it often. I played soccer, happiest as a right midfielder. It was the height of Manchester-era David Beckham, so all I practised were set-pieces — curling corners, curling free-kicks, curling-fucking-everything. In other ways I was a starfish. Poor fitness, poor shot selection, no defensive awareness etc. Most of my time wasn’t spent anywhere near the action. I played the role of an instigator, a pest.

Elite sport is all about incremental efforts. If a talented opponent gains an extra one percent, you’re cooked. As a pest, your goal is to displace that one percent. You are diverting mental focus on goal-kicking, gut running, whatever — to anything else.

I would tell my opponents about boring dreams. I would confess to small crimes, like shoplifting. I would describe things I would do with older men. Specifically, their fathers. Sexual things. I don’t know if it truly angered anyone, but it always — always confused. Now, having the time to take stock, I have been in three fights in my life, all on the field, winning none.

So when I watch football over a decade later, I see the pest. I see their irrational confidence, their ill-natured creativity, their otherwise ordinary football.

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Moments after his first goal, Rhys Mathieson raised both arms, miming a firearm going off. It was an exceptional celebration. I’ve seen it probably 50 times online. But why is it so exceptional? Is Mathieson an exceptional player? Rhys Mathieson is a mid-tier grunt. Was Brisbane dominating? The Lions were losing, on the way to a 79 point defeat. Then it hit me why it was so exceptional — it’s because he doesn’t know. Rhys Mathieson has no idea he’s not a superstar.

Every star needs a nickname, a brand. Mathieson has given himself the nickname “Beast Mode”. The less said about this, the better. Any nickname you give yourself < the worst nickname given to you by someone else. For example, I was given the nickname “Crackers” growing up. It is dumb, but still vastly superior to the nickname I have recently given myself — “Beast Mode”.

In 2006, the International Astronomical Union voted to exclude Pluto as a planet. In 2016, it will struggle to define another astral phenomenon — Rhys Mathieson’s irrational confidence. The fabric of space-time has struggled to contain it, as it tears a hole into a parallel universe, where Rhys Mathieson currently lives. This is the only explanation for Rhys Mathieson texting then-coach Justin Leppitsch before games, finding himself in a position to mock the opposition. Mathieson expected to “clip the Eagles’ wings” (Brisbane lost by 64 points) or to “turn off the Power” (Brisbane lost by 77 points). Wherever Rhys Mathieson is, the Lions are good.

He called it a ‘shotgun’ celebration. For interested parties, it’s Mathieson’s ode to his love of hunting with his best friend (Essendon midfielder Darcy Parish). Hunting. An activity Mathieson has definitely done before. Let’s compare Rhys Mathieson with someone he identifies with: a hunter.

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In the figure above, a hunter is holding a shotgun. He has one hand on the trigger and the other underhand, supporting it. The hunter looks like someone who has seen a shotgun before. Rhys Mathieson is holding two triggers, as if holding two pistols. This may be because (a) he thinks holding two pistols is called ‘a shotgun’ OR (b) he thinks a shotgun has two triggers. Either way, he looks like someone who shouldn’t be allowed near a sharp pencil.

The whole point of being a pest is not to look like a superstar. It is to make the superstar look more like you. Once Rhys Mathieson awakes to his destiny as a pest, he could be an elite on-field talent. He has already shown glimpses.

Facing Geelong late in the season, Mathieson was used against Joel Selwood, a strong inside/outside goal-kicking midfielder. There could not have been a player more fundamentally different. A top-ten draft pick finding his way to a Geelong superteam, Selwood has known nothing but victory. His legitimate skill as a midfielder undeniable, his reputation as a club captain unimpeachable. It’s reasonable for Joel Selwood to think that no other club songs exist. Selwood sits on an unrelatable career winning percentage of 75%.

The entire Selwood experience is so enchanting, so intoxicating, that the footballing public are willing to overlook all of Selwood’s sick fetishes, like ducking for free-kicks (A clever way to gain competitive advantage or a cynical exploit of the rules — read either way, there is no ducker in the game more decorated than Selwood).

As a junior footballer playing in Geelong, Mathieson had modelled his game on Selwood, even spending a week training with the Cats in his draft year. Touted initially as a first-round pick, his lack of polish saw Mathieson sliding to pick 39 and into a Brisbane wasteland. The Lions were singing a different song in two-part harmony: on-field and off-field incompetence. Nine games in, Mathieson was riding a winning percentage of 22 percent.

Geelong v Brisbane was trash. Mathieson v Selwood was incredible. Aggressive from the opening bounce, shoving and pushing at any chance, relentlessly verbal. Even without beasts, shotguns and tweets, the youngblood was making Selwood earn his reputation. It allowed for rare highlights in an otherwise one-sided belting. 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.

Rhys Mathieson had ducked, drawing high contact. A boyhood fan of Selwood, he had picked up all the right moves. Selwood looked up, bewildered, finding 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. Mathieson went back and kicked the goal. A humbled Selwood would mockingly reference Mathieson’s ‘shotgun’ celebration, but the deed was done. A distracted Selwood would finish with a relatively human 23 disposals.

Football talent is a spectrum. We can’t all be magnificent beasts. Sometimes it’s more fun to be a hunter. If Rhys Mathieson stopped trying so hard to be one, his battles with opposition superstars could make Brisbane games watchable.

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