Essendon's Ben Howlett in action on ANZAC Day. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
KADE Simpson led his Carlton teammates through the banner last Sunday afternoon in honour of his 150th consecutive game. When Essendon ran out the previous day, the holder of its current games streak was fittingly lost in the red and black pack.
The evergreen Dustin Fletcher, perchance? The similarly lean and languid Paddy Ryder? The omnipresent Brent Stanton? No, no and no.
Step forward Ben Howlett, whose mere 37 appearances on the trot since round 15, 2010, qualify him as the current Bomber most capable of putting games back-to-back.
''Is it really? It's not many, is it?'' Essendon football manager Paul Hamilton said yesterday, admitting that it's both a statistic of quirkiness and a fair statement on where the club has been in terms of rebuilding. ''We've had so many changes.''
As has Port Adelaide, which dropped Kane Cornes last year to end his run at 174, and has turned over so many players lately that Travis Boak's 22 has Howlett's 37 looking Jim Stynes-esque.
Harry Taylor leading the Cats, also with 22, is a function of resting players, while Brendan Whitecross's 26 topping Hawthorn's chart betrays how well the Hawks have managed their cattle despite regular injuries.
Back at Essendon, Stanton would normally have been Hamilton's guess for the games-in-a-row gong, but he missed three in five weeks midway through last year. That he turned 26 last week yet has played 168 games is testament to his ''stickability'' since his debut as a 17-year-old in 2004.
The shoulder injury that grounded Stanton left him with a longest career streak of 56, a figure that stands as the best of any current Bomber, and exemplifies how hard the men from Windy Hill have found staying on the park.
''You only have to look back over the years, in terms of injuries and different things over time, it's what happens, it's part of the game,'' Hamilton says. ''Only some guys tend to be able to keep playing, week in, week out.''
Howlett is shaping as one of them. In his third season, he has already played more games in a row than Dustin Fletcher has managed in nearly 20 (his best run was 36, from round 16, 1995 to round four, 1997; he has never played every game in a season, which has been arguably more help than hindrance).
It's not lost on Hamilton that, while Howlett had turned 21 before his mature-age debut, he will draw great benefit from getting consistent football under his belt in the formative stage of his career. Dyson Heppell, whose run stands at 29 since his debut, and Jake Melksham, who has played the past 32, are similarly blessed.
''We've had quite a few of those younger guys get a lot of regular games and game time, and as they get older it's going to really help them long-term,'' Hamilton said.
The Bombers have several at the other, unfortunate end of the scale. Such as David Myers, who is yet to better the eight consecutive games he played from his first in round eight, 2008. Courtenay Dempsey has never managed more than 12, Alwyn Davey 17 and Cale Hooker 22, but none has been as cursed as Scott Gumbleton.
Remarkably, 14 of Gumbleton's 22 senior games since his 2006 drafting came in one chunk, two seasons ago, before his back/hamstring hoodoo returned. Gumbleton is stepping up his training with an eye to a VFL return, although with Bendigo having a bye on two of the next three weekends, it will be June at the earliest before his latest comeback takes shape.
Hamilton described Howlett as a ''bread-and-butter midfielder'' who has staked his claim to be part of the more balanced midfield group the Bombers need, to both reduce Jobe Watson's burden and compete with the elite. ''He listens to the coach, he does what's asked of him, that's the key,'' he said of a player who has double-figure tackle counts eight times in his 44 games.
''He might not always be as flashy as some of the others, but he's a good, consistent player who plays his role. I know that's a boring thing, but that makes good sides - if you've got enough players who play their role then you're on the right track.''
The more players who aren't just playing their role, but simply playing, every week, the better you'll be.