Although there is an overwhelming pressure on teams to secure ladder positions with four weeks to go until finals, AFL’s Round 20 matches is set to be overshadowed by a host of feel-good stories, with multiple players ready to make their long-awaited return to football after serious injuries.
Fans will witness the extraordinary final hurdle for Sydney’s Alex Johnson, St Kilda’s Nathan Freeman, Melbourne’s Aaron Vandenberg and Adelaide’s Brodie Smith as they return to their respective side after a long absence from the game.
Saturday night will see the Sydney defender feature in his first game since the Bloods’ 2012 Grand Final win. Johnson’s return will mark a total of 2195 days between his last game of football.
“There were times there when lying in a hospital bed, having two surgeries in a week and being more concerned about my health than being back playing footy, you sort of start to question whether it will actually happen, so I’m over the moon that it’s come,” Johnson told ABC News earlier this week.
The 26-year-old had to undergo five knee reconstructions to get where he is this weekend – running onto the SCG to face Collingwood in a crucial match for Sydney’s finals hopes. The return will undoubtedly give the Swans a much-needed boost this week after losses to Essendon and Gold Coast over the past fortnight.
On the same night, a different venue will have many fixated on the debut of St Kilda’s Nathan Freeman, who has been plagued by injuries since being drafted five years ago. After being drafted with pick ten in the 2013 National Draft by Collingwood, Freeman battled with ongoing hamstring injuries, which only allowed Freeman to play four VFL games during his opening two seasons in the league.
He was then traded to St Kilda at the end of the 2015 season, and showed some great signs for VFL club Sandringham for two years running, but could never gather consistency due to ongoing hamstring and ankle troubles.
On the back of some strong VFL form this season, Freeman recorded a 37 possessions for the Zebras last week to capture the eye of St Kilda coach Alan Richardson for a debut against the Western Bulldogs.
Lewis Taylor (103 games), Marcus Bontempelli (100), Zach Merrett (99), Josh Kelly (96), Ben Brown (95), Jarman Impey (93) and Luke McDonald (92) were all taken in the same draft as Nathan Freeman. Well done to the kid on finally making his debut!
— Ronny Lerner (@RonnyLerner) August 2, 2018
Continuing with the Round 20 trend, Adelaide have confirmed the return of defender Brodie Smith against Port Adelaide in Saturday afternoon’s showdown. Last year’s finals series saw Smith suffer an ACL Injury in their qualifying final win over GWS.
Smith, who is an All-Australian defender, has made great progress to return sooner than expected from his serious knee injury.
“I thought he was ready two months ago, the way he was zipping around at training and his intensity and the way he was kicking the ball and moving across the ground,” Crows midfielder Bryce Gibbs told the West Australian.
Adelaide face a tough task ahead of them, needing to win all four games to finish the year and have a chance at playing in September, Smith’s return could provide a spark to spur the Crows on.
A name not as known in the footy world in comparison to the previous three, Melbourne’s Aaron Vandenberg has been selected to face Gold Coast this Sunday, after almost two years of no senior action.
The Demons utility went from dealing with stress fractures in his foot, to suffering a serious achilles injury which has prolonged his absence from the Melbourne side.
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