'Stynes helped change the face of ruckwork in the modern game'
Stynes battles it out with Carlton's Steve Kernahan at Princes Park.
ONE of the most memorable stories about Jim Stynes stems from his very first experience of Australian football.
It was October 1984. The Melbourne Football Club had sent former Richmond premiership player, coach and president Barry Richardson, then a board member with the Demons, to Ireland to flush out potential recruits from the unlikeliest source.
Though Melbourne had already persuaded Sean Wight to switch codes, packing up and moving half a world away, the Demons' experiment was still being widely ridiculed.
And the sceptics would hardly have been persuaded otherwise had they clapped eyes on Stynes, an anaemic-looking, 18-year-old Gaelic footballer among a group of 16 kids at a clinic in Dublin.
"There was this tall, skinny kid in the long, baggy shorts the Irish wear," Richardson recalled years later. "He was white, iridescent white, and his arms hung like two pieces of cotton from his shoulders."
Stynes had seen Melbourne's advertisement offering a sporting scholarship in Australia in the local paper. All he knew of the game was what he'd seen in the film adaptation of the David Williamson play, The Club. "I saw blokes jumping all over the place," he would recall later. ''I thought it was weird, but it was exciting."
Stynes won all the endurance tests at the camp. But Richardson saw something beyond the numbers, namely a natural curiosity and a determination to master a completely foreign game. "At the lunch break one day during the camp, he left quietly 10 minutes before the others and I remember watching him trying to teach himself how to bounce the ball. There was just something about him.''
There certainly was. Indeed, Richardson's gut feel would prove probably the most judicious recruiting call in football history.
Former teammate and best mate to the end, Garry Lyon, has often called Stynes' transition to and mastery of a foreign game the greatest story AFL football has seen. It's hard to disagree.
In the near three decades since Wight and Stynes, now tragically both gone far too soon, broke the ice for recruiting from foreign shores, many more AFL players have emerged from other parts of the globe.
Another Irishman, Tadhg Kennelly, played an important part in a Sydney premiership in 2005. Irish recruits are scattered around several AFL clubs. Brazilian-born Harry O'Brien has played in a Collingwood premiership. North Melbourne youngster Majak Daw could be the catalyst for the burgeoning Sudanese community in Australia to embrace our indigenous game.
But if any can scale the football heights Stynes did, they will be doing very well. The pinnacle, of course, was Stynes winning the 1991 Brownlow Medal, five votes ahead of the runner-up.
Then there was his incredible durability, reflected in a record unlikely ever to be beaten, that of 244 consecutive games spanning an amazing 12 seasons, from 1987-98, long the stuff of legend.
In 1993, he damaged rib cartilage in a collision with teammate David Neitz and was given no hope of playing the following week. A searching fitness test saw him little short of being belted up by Demon tough men Rod Grinter and Martin Pike, ending in punches being thrown. But Stynes survived. And played.
In 1994, Stynes suffered a knee injury serious enough to have kept almost all his contemporaries on the sidelines for weeks, if not months. Again, he played.
But it wasn't just about the numbers with the loveable Irishman. Stynes helped change the face of ruckwork in the modern game, from an art dominated by tall but largely immobile giants who couldn't be counted on for more than the odd kick and handball, to one which necessitated a far more mobile and athletic beast, a role he filled to perfection.
But perhaps it was Stynes' biggest onfield setback which says as much as anything about one of the great AFL careers. In the 1987 preliminary final, just his 13th game of senior football, he committed a cardinal football sin, which may well have cost his side its chance at a first grand final appearance in 23 years.
With the Demons leading by four points, Hawthorn's Gary Buckenara marked right on the 50-metre line. Lining up to kick from about 55 as the siren rang, he then received the ultimate gift as a naive Stynes ran across the mark, costing a 15-metre penalty. Buckenara converted the shot, and an entire club was devastated.
One of the game's most iconic photographs is of Stynes entering the Melbourne rooms, with Demon coach John Northey pointing furiously at the 21-year-old, screaming: ''Don't you ever do that again, Jim.''
It could have broken any player, let alone one whose first steps in the indigenous game were rightly more tentative than most. But it didn't break Stynes. Indeed, one could argue, not only in a football sense, it was instead the making of him.