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Less than a month ago, Collingwood forward Jack Ginnivan sat on the bench on a Friday night at the MCG waiting for his chance to take the field against Geelong.
After two months in the VFL, he had returned to the senior team, as the substitute, with just three games remaining before finals. He had replaced Ash Johnson in the 22.
Collingwood forward Jack Ginnivan has had a rollercoaster year.Credit: Luis Ascui
The 20-year-old doesn’t normally get nervous. Confidence has been a quality he never lacked as a junior footballer, where he managed to kick goals and get under the skin of the opposition while playing for Newstead and the Bendigo Pioneers.
But after being forced to fight his way back into the team not once, but twice, in a year that had challenged him at every turn he was no longer taking anything for granted.
Then he noticed his skipper, Darcy Moore, arriving at the bench with a hamstring injury.
“It was weird because he came off, and I saw him hold his hamstring, and I was like, ‘Ooh, I could be a chance’. You don’t want to be selfish but in some ways you need a chance when you’re on the verge,” Ginnivan said.
Ginnivan is a character who draws people through the gatesCredit: Getty Images
“I was a little bit nervous. My teeth were shaking. It’s a weird one because I’m never really nervous. This thing is so different for me and I’ve never really thought about being on the outside, but when, you know, selection is a real thing for you [then] you get a bit nervous. But as soon as you get the ball in your hands, you’re pretty safe, and it’s like you’re doing it in the backyard again.”
On Thursday night, in an atmosphere far removed from anyone’s backyard, he will play in his fourth final, in just his 40th match, once again as the substitute, after cementing a spot in the 23 with three goals against Essendon in the final round of the season.
He was even awarded a free kick for head-high contact in a tackle that dislodged his headband that night. Footage of his coach Craig McRae celebrating the rare event did not escape the fellow small forward’s attention. “I’ve seen it about 10,000 times,” Ginnivan said. “It’s a bit of a deja vu from last year when I didn’t get the free kick.”
He loves McRae – his coach was a triple premiership small forward at the Brisbane Lions, who has backed him at every turn.
But this year things got real for Ginnivan, who, with Nick Daicos injured, will be the youngest player in Collingwood’s qualifying final team.
This season he has played just 11 senior games but learned more than that number, the many hard lessons it takes to make a career in this game.
“It’s been a crazy ride, but I wouldn’t change it so far,” Ginnivan said.
He couldn’t change much even if he wanted to, but that doesn’t mean he is not open to changing.
After all, being suspended after being filmed—without his knowledge—taking an illicit substance in a hotel toilet cubicle and then apologising on television often prompts a shift in outlook.
“At the start, it was hard to recognise [the ramifications of] what I did, but I took full ownership, got on the front foot and I was really grateful that the club did that … then it was basically, just get back to work,” Ginnivan said.
Suspended for the first two rounds and the pre-season games as well as recording a strike under the AFL’s illicit drugs code, Ginnivan did a mini pre-season. He admits now he needed it, having wound down so far during his post-season break that he was behind the eight-ball for most of the pre-season.
“I obviously didn’t come back the way I wanted to from Europe,” Ginnivan said. “Everyone got to work and, potentially, I was a little bit lazy, and needed that break, and didn’t come back as good as I wanted to.”
Ginnivan loves the connection he has with the Magpie army.Credit: Luis Ascui
Nothing was as guaranteed as it had seemed after his impressive form last season. Collingwood had added two experienced, hungry forwards, Bobby Hill and Dan McStay, to the list in the off-season.
Back in the team by round five, he was dropped after eight rounds. The sound of the second wake-up call was a thud.
“Maybe I thought I was going better than I was and was just cruising because last year I played every game and did not get dropped,” Ginnivan said.
VFL coach Josh Fraser set up a plan for the youngster, and he teamed up in the weights room with his friend and teammate Trent Bianco. Not only did the pair work to become stronger, they emphasised tackling and pressure, areas the club had identified as needing improvement.
Ginnivan did not show the benefits of the work overnight. He took time adjusting to the VFL’s different rhythms and then when form returned, he had to manage his frustration at not being able to crack a spot in the seniors.
He is smart but with Jamie Elliott, Brody Mihocek and McStay deeper he needed to be fit too, so he could connect the mids and defenders creating turnovers at half-back with scores or fellow forwards. Smart enough to read the cues and get dangerous, it was a role that required commitment, with his front-and-square timing, his forward 50 stoppage work and his finishing skills already elite. His ability to apply pressure and running power was where he could improve.
Through this time, those who cared about him and could influence his development asked him to consider the question: how much does he want an AFL career?
The answer had always been clear, but now his actions were matching his words. “I want to be a footballer for as long as I can. It’s always been my childhood dream,” Ginnivan said. “It was a bit of a slap in the face and a reality [check] because, you know, season 2022 was so easy for me, I guess, in a sense of I was playing, I was an Anzac Day medallist after 10 games, I was kicking 40 goals as a 19-year-old. So I thought, ‘Oh, this is AFL and this is pretty easy, I guess’.”
A club insider said Ginnivan is the typical annoying small forward, loved by teammates, frustrating to oppositionCredit: Getty
On the field it was. What was happening off the field was taking him some time to get his head around.
Not even Ginnivan’s wildest childhood dreams would have had him ascending from relatively unknown rookie to high-profile public figure within record time as he did last season.
Before he knew what hit him, he became more than just a publicly recognisable face. He was suddenly an opinion divider, an antagonist, a showman, a fan favourite, an opposition’s villain, a talkback topic, an Anzac Day medallist, a Collingwood hero.
Polite, coachable, family orientated and a football lover, he had not minded testing the boundaries in what others considered to be regular fashion and hairstyles when an anonymous high school student.
But as an AFL player who saw no reason to change when he joined the Magpies, he entered what singer Nick Cave once described as “the fraught nature of being out there in the public space”.
Ginnivan was in a space few footballers his age had rarely been. “It is an adjustment. I never really thought I’d come into the league and have to do media. It’s not a thing you think of when you are an 18-year-old kid getting drafted,” Ginnivan said.
He’s still adjusting. On Friday night when he travelled to Bendigo to watch his talented sister, Meg, be best on ground in a premiership with Castlemaine’s women’s team,his parents, Craig and Debbie, got a glimpse of their son’s world.
“I would have had 70 photos [taken] and it’s a great thing. I love my fans and I love everything they do for us. Without them, we can’t do what we do, but it is very overwhelming as a 20-year-old kid from Castlemaine who doesn’t have much experience in that field. It’s a challenge, but I have grown in [handling] that,” Ginnivan said.
Ginnivan carries a huge public profile that he admits can be overwhelming at timesCredit: Getty
His parents and two sisters, Brooke and Meg, are key people in his life, along with teammates, his coaches, and a close bunch of friends from Castlemaine. He does not take their support for granted.
“Without them, I don’t even know what I’d be doing to be honest because they have looked after me through the hard times of last year, and even this year,” Ginnivan said. “I’m a big mummy’s boy, so you’ll see me cuddling Mum after the game and giving her a kiss and stuff. I’ve got so many people around me from the club and friends. I have a really close circle.”
His love of his teammates and respect for the club’s senior figures is immense with their respect for him growing as they watched the way he responded to each roadblock this year.
His profile means he needs to be careful with whom he trusts, but he has no trouble finding friends in the locker room, and he emphasises that he has no complaints about being in the public eye.
“I like to say I don’t like it, but it’s obviously awesome,” he said.
The thought of a fan wearing his No.33 on their back is humbling, while making someone’s day just that bit better by stopping for a photo is no price to pay, he said. Handing out footballs to children screaming his name remains a thrill.
He is not silly. He knows the long sleeves, the baggy shorts and the headband make him stand out from the all-too-homogenous playing cohort, but he also says he is more comfortable playing footy in the style he developed as a youngster.
Jack Ginnivan enjoys the moment.Credit: AFL Photos
But that does not mean Ginnivan is defiant. He is learning about himself every day, a person a teammate said is more likely to correct after mistakes, a disruptor in a conservative industry where commentators such as Kane Cornes don’t hesitate to express a view about what they deem is best for others.
“Everyone knows how far is too far, I guess, and how if you do something that is too crazy it can hurt your footy and have a bit of a backlash,” Ginnivan said. “There will probably be no blond hair for a while, and nothing too crazy from me.”
He laughs without malice at the mention of Cornes, aware that the Port Adelaide premiership player, commentator and columnist for this masthead is “on my side at the moment”. “I just saw something on SEN that I should be a midfielder next year if I have a big pre-season,” Ginnivan said.
He is learning to take commentary in his stride, aware that it’s a game built on opinions, good or bad. He is happy to make a general observation about the media from his perspective, but he is not one to offer advice or complain.
“It is crazy how the media can just be on you then off you, but I don’t mind reading it because it sort of fuels me if it’s bad or if it’s good – it’s good reinforcement for you,” Ginnivan said.
On the eve of the finals he is already setting himself for a big pre-season after what he hopes is a premiership for the Magpies.
He recently decided a trip to Egypt that had been considered for this off-season can wait; he has a smaller holiday planned. His social media activity has been similarly reduced.
Funnily enough, the neck exercises he does that became part of his routine with former teammate Brodie Grundy have continued this year with Josh Daicos, despite the number of head-high free kicks he’s received in 2023 tumbling to four compared to a league-high 21 last season. “There are a few boys on the neck program,” Ginnivan said.
The general feeling among his coaches is that Ginnivan is crossing the same rocky path many young players have trodden. Some learn away from the spotlight. Others, such as Ginnivan, learn with a light as bright as the Las Vegas sky line trained on them. Some become yesterday’s hero. Some, such as Ginnivan’s favourite player, Giants’ star Toby Greene, become All-Australian captain.
All those who progress, as he has, understand that help is there when it is needed. “We have so many good older heads to help me go on the right path I want to go on,” he said.
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