Ryan Hebron’s 100th NEAFL/VFL match comes with a sense of satisfaction that all the change he has endured in his career has led to the balance in his life today.
Hebron, 25, has played for four state league clubs across eight years, two states and the uncertainty of the global pandemic.
He has moved from Sydney to Melbourne and back again, finished a university degree in physiology, managed the emotions of not being drafted, and lost a couple of years of football in his prime.
But everything fell into place in one January week when he moved to Sydney’s inner west, started a new job and joined the GIANTS, where he would be later be named VFL captain.
“This year is a new beginning, I feel fresh and like I am in the right place and enjoying it,” Hebron said.
The GIANTS can thank crosstown rivals Sydney for developing Hebron after inducting him into the Swans Academy when he was in Year 7 and only six weeks into his first season of football at St Ives on Sydney’s North Shore.
A Collingwood supporter and Anthony Rocca devotee thanks to his father’s support of the Magpies, Hebron was more interested in soccer and cricket, but he embraced what football could offer.
“I was pretty lucky to get swept up in that,’ he said.
“I would say the chances of me sticking with footy was less likely if it wasn’t for the Academy, so it highlights the importance of that.
“The academies up here have a pretty keen eye on future prospects – anyone with athleticism and raw talent.
“I was probably hitting my kneecap with the ball more than my shoe, but if they take a punt on kids then the quality of AFL in Sydney goes through the roof, which it is at the moment, and more people end up on (AFL) lists.”
After St Ives, Hebron followed the beaten path to the North Shore Bombers, where he went on to represent the Swans in the NEAFL 27 times from 2014-16 before moving to Sydney University to study physiology, playing 39 games for the Students in 2017-18 and one for the GIANTS as a top-up in 2018, where he met now VFL coach Damian Truslove.
“(Truslove) was in a development role there and we got along well,” he said.
After a Students’ best-and-fairest and two NEAFL Team of the Year guernseys, Hebron was disappointed to not be drafted in 2018, which in hindsight he put down to a lack of versatility.
“Some of the feedback was ‘we want to see how you go against AFL players week-in, week-out in a stronger comp,’ he said, “so I made the pretty tough decision to go down there (to Melbourne).”
Hebron joined Werribee in 2019, playing under AFL premiership coach Mark Williams in a move he considered pivotal in his development.
"Even though it didn’t eventuate to anything (in the AFL), it definitely paid off," he said.
"(Williams) was heavily focused on development and took my game to another level – he got me thinking about things that I wasn’t conscious of.
“I was probably a little bit more focused on the ball and not my positioning, for example getting in positions where your opponent can’t win the ball in a forward of the ball scenario.”
Hebron also relished the opportunity to face stronger opposition in Melbourne.
“The 23 players in the VFL (team) are very good players, and then you throw in Melbourne weather and some of the grounds down there – Williamstown, Frankston, Casey and so on – they can be very challenging conditions (and) if you don’t have elite skills, you get caught out.”
Covid-19 intervened just as he was getting established, but as frustrating as 2020-21 was, Hebron saw the upside.
“I had deferred uni and (in 2020) I went back and pumped out 10 subjects,” he said.
“I work a lot with mental health (and) it (physiology) is pretty much a medicine for anxiety and depression, and chronic conditions like diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease.
“Exercise might not seem like an option for people (with those conditions) but it has a role in everyone’s life. I am keen to promote exercise and physiology as a service because it is very important.
“It was a good break from how serious I was about footy – It was a bit of a gap year in a way … I took it as an opportunity to refresh, reset and finish the degree.
“I think it was what a lot of boys needed – particularly the VFL footballer who is hustling at work and then hustling at training.”
Hebron returned to the Swans in 2021 but only played six games due to Covid, and when good friend and former coach Lloyd Perris moved to the GIANTS and Truslove won the VFL job, he knew the time was right for a fresh start.
“That combination was too good a set-up not to take,” he said.
A defender for most of his career, Hebron is now often seen in the forward line, kicking seven goals in six games – a far greater strike rate than his 13 in the 93 games prior.
“I’m still working it out,” he said with a laugh.
“I’ve kicked a few too many watermelons than I would like but I have started practising my set shots for the first time in 15 years so there is a lot of room for development.
“I’m used to playing from behind and slipping in front when the time is right or bodying up my opponent (but) when you go forward you’re playing in front, so it took me a few weeks to hit the ball at the right time.”
Hebron was taken aback when offered the captaincy.
“I’m probably a bit of a random word generator in the pre-game speech but the boys all get around me so it’s good fun,’ he said.
“I am not going to pretend like I know what I am doing – I guess my approach is to do what got me there – I must be doing something right.”
Hebron has four criteria for success for the VFL GIANTS.
“If we can keep the same selfless approach, that’s one win (and) if we can get a few more boys (AFL) debuts, that’s another win.
“We also need to keep enjoying our footy – everyone has had a couple of rough seasons one way or the other, and we want to go deep in finals.”
The GIANTS get a chance to test their finals credentials with one of the toughest away trips in the league – Southport – on Sunday, and Hebron knows the challenge that awaits.
“Coming off the bye we are fresh – we should go in with a really good chance but it’s going to take our best footy,” he said.