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Dustin Fletcher – Australian Rules Football Defender

Apparently not content to conclude at number three on the all-time games played list of the AFL, Dustin Fletcher has proclaimed his intention to return for the 2015 season.

dustin fletcherThe fewest games he has ever played in a season over his extended career was 13, his mark for his second season in 1994 and his 21st season in 2013, a season that he and many on his team, along with AFL and Essendon fans, might be anxious to have in the distant past.

If Fletcher can play in at least this number of matches in 2015, he will eclipse Keven Bartlett’s mark of 403, but still trail Michael Tuck by 20. If he is to catch Tuck, it is apparent that he would need to return again in 2016, when the early part of the season will find him turning 41 years of age. Fletcher missed out on a chance to catch Bartlett in the 2014 season when he was shut down by season-ending finger surgery to repair a tendon that he injured in late July of 2014. The Bombers had hoped to get him back on the oval before the end of the season, but this proved to be unrealistic.

As is quite often the case for an aging athlete in any sport, the allegations that he would be given playing time out of a sense of charity are adamantly erroneous, according to Fletcher. It is true that he will become the second-oldest player in the history of the AFL. Judging by some of the happenings on the field since his departure, particularly an encounter with North Melbourne where Ben Brown had his way with the Dons, it would seem as though Fletcher still has contributions to be made to his team, so his insistence that he will reach the 400 game milestone on merit has more than a little basis in reality.

Hopefully, the findings of the anti-doping tribunal will not provide any impediment to Fletcher’s pursuit of history or the fortunes of Essendon FC, although it would be a most welcome for all sports if the chemical enhancement, actual and alleged, would fade away once and for all.

In examining Dustin Fletcher, it would be easy to cite statistics ad infinitum, but in a career of this length, it would be expected that the numbers would be substantial. The Bombers won the Premiership in the year in which Fletch made his debut.

They would also credit the man who has spent the majority of his time manning the Full Back position with contributing to the team accomplishments of taking the pre-season NAB Cup in 1994 and 2000, as well as the McClelland Trophy in his debut season, and thrice consecutive in 1999, 2000 and 2001. A second Premiership in 2000, in which Feltcher, playing in his 151st game, held Melbourne captain David Neitz in check, leaving Fletcher with the best and fairest credential to add to his resume, which is often described as the most prestigious award in football when it takes place during a premiership season.

Justin Fletcher was twice selected to the All-Australian Team, in 2000 and 2007, and he received the W.S. Crichton Medal in 2000 as the Best and Fairest of the Bombers, a distinction he shares with his current teammates and Brownlow Medal winners James Hird and Jobe Watson. Fletcher quite deservedly was an AFL Rising Star nominee in his debut season of 1993, and was also selected as an International Rules Series Player in 2005, 2006, 2010 and 2014.

Suffice it to say that he must have been doing something over the course of all those years to garner the attention he received.

Respected observers of AFL, and perhaps some who might have less than altruistic attitudes from having been on the short side of Fletcher’s oval exploits, would in all probability say that one of the key contributing factors to his longevity was his consistency. From a purely physical standpoint, it would not be unjust to say that Fletcher was considered a bit slight in terms of bulk to withstand the rigours of the AFL, let alone persist for anywhere nearly as long as he has.

One moment that served as a foreshadowing of things to come would have been his debut.

As a year 12 student at Penleigh and Essendon Grammar School, his 1993 debut for the Dons against Carlton in round two at the MCG saw him turning in an impressive performance in the ruck, producing the first hit-out of the game, to which he would add four more and six disposals whilst matched against premiership player Justin Madden.

Fletcher uncomplainingly took on the tough asks for his team that season, moving from the ruck to full back. Fletcher took on the big guns, such as Adelaide’s Tony Modra of the redoubtable Gary Ablett of Geelong. Fletcher was not successful in limiting Carlton’s Stephen Kernahan in the Grand Final, but teammate Kevin Sheedy praised Fletcher for the balance Fletcher brought to the team, something that Sheedy felt was instrumental in the Bombers raising the flag.

It would be 134 games, more than a career for many competent AFL players, when Fletcher would again contribute to Essendon taking the Premiership Flag again in the 2000 season. That might have been Fletcher’s best season, judging by the team awards bestowed on Essendon and the individual ones received by him.

His courage in taking on opponents who were bigger and stronger was never more apparent than a round 16 game in 2004. He lost two teeth in a monumental marking collision against West Coast at the oval in Perth. That occasion was cause for a teammate to observe that Fletcher was never one to lament, but accepted the bashings and the bruises without complaint.

He also had to supply a nimble mind in order to compensate for his relative lack of physical gifts.

In his 332nd game, a 2011 round 4 match against Carlton, Fletcher chased down Jeff Garlett with a match-saving tackle, the sort of play that highlighted how he was able to contain small forwards and key forwards, along with the kind of mental flexibility that falls into that nebulous category of intangibles that never make it onto a stat sheet, but go far to illustrate why Dustin Fletcher has the deepest respect of his coaches, teammates, fellow competitors and fans.

Even if he were to equal his career high for games played, 23 in 2000, in 2015, Fletcher will still be 10 games lacking of Michael Tuck’s record, and even those who completely lack objectivity would have to admit that a player soon to turn 40 would not be expected to play at that rate.

All the same, here’s hoping that Dustin Fletcher gets as least as much out of football as he has put it, and that he, rather than the judges, gets to dictate when the course has been run.

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