I’m fairly sure the last two months are not a challenge you saw yourself having to take on in your first year as captain…

You’re right. And it’s not just me, everyone would have their own story about what they were hoping to do for the year, whether it be a new job they were about to embark on or a promotion somewhere, whatever it might be. People everywhere have had to change their plans. It was an exciting time for us coming in after the year we had last year. A lot of people were questioning how we’d go and we put in a lot of work over the pre-season and our form going into round one was superb, which we showed in that game against Geelong. For me personally, since then it’s been about remaining present, not thinking too much about what has happened or what could happen. We were in a great position and we’re still in a great position. And we’re in a fortunate position that we still have a job and that we get to come back now and do what we love to do.

Take me back to last year, when you got the job as skipper. What made you feel that the time was right, that you were ready to take it on?

I’ve been vice-captain now for a few years, and shared that with Josh Kelly for the last couple of years. There were two games last year where Phil (Davis) and Cal (Ward) were both out through injury, and I was able to get a bit more of a taste for it. It’s hard; when you start your career you think ‘I’d love to be captain one day,’ or ‘I really want to be captain one day,’ but the way it happens is just an evolution, while you work out who you are, what the club means to you and how you think you can help. There wasn’t one moment where I thought ‘I’m ready now.’ For me, now that we’ve gotten so close to proper success, it just makes me always wonder what else I can do to contribute, which makes me want to step up. Re-committing to the club last year was huge for me and once that decision was made and I knew my life was here, it was something I wanted to do and felt comfortable to do.

What were some of the first things you tried to put in place in your weeks in the job?

I really wanted to get Jeremy (Cameron) and Toby (Greene) into our leadership group, and so did the other players. Lachie (Whitfield) too. We really want proper success, so I didn’t think there was an option for those guys anymore. Maybe in your first couple of years you might think ‘leadership’s not for me’ or whatever it is, but it gets to a point where it’s not really a choice anymore, whether you like it or not you’re a person who is in a position to help us get what we’re after and who has an influence over all the other players with the things you do.

Stephen Coniglio

You’ve all been here together for a long time now….

Exactly, and that was the message I was trying to get through to those guys. The influence they have on the group is huge and I wanted to be able to say to the other players, ‘you know what, once upon a time leadership wasn’t for these guys, but now have a look at what they can give to the group, look at the influence they have.’ The whole time we’ve been here we’ve had two captains sort of share the load, so for me being sole captain, I still wanted to make it a really collective approach and involve all the guys around my age, even Nick Haynes, Matt Buntine, Adam Kennedy. And that includes the older brigade – Heath Shaw, Shane Mumford – too. I want their input and value their input and want to get all those guys in front of the group and presenting as much as possible. Of course they’ve had chances to do that before, but going from two captains to one I really want to make sure  that those guys have a lot of input into what we’re doing. And the other thing I wanted was for guys to take a bit more control over what they’re doing day-to-day to make them better football players. Because it’s such a large group, you can get caught up in everyone doing the same program, whether you’re a ruckman or a small forward. I want us to find ways to get better as individuals so that we can make the group stronger, and that’s something I’ve been keen to implement, to give guys as much opportunity to do that as possible.

Leading into round one there was so much uncertainty around. What part did you play in managing those feelings and any anxiety that might have surfaced in the group?

It was an interesting week, for sure. Going into round one, I couldn’t have been happier or more confident that we were going to win the game. The only thing I worried about was how much the guys were reading about it or talking about it, whether they were stressing out about it when they went home and thinking too much about it. When we were at the club we made a conscious effort to not talk about it, and not let it be the thing that got in the way of us beating Geelong. It was hard and of course we did have to chat about some elements of it, but we made a big effort to keep things as normal as possible and not let it derail us. We trained on the Wednesday before the game and I remember chatting to Shawry and saying, ‘I think the boys are in a really good spot here.’ We’ve been through tough situations before, but when it’s happened we’ve known what we were dealing with, what we had to do and also when it would probably end. This was different because it was so uncertain and because it was impossible to know what exactly we were dealing with.

Everyone headed in different directions after games were called off. What part did you play in keeping the players connected while you were apart?

Initially we were talking about footy a lot, about things that were not irrelevant, but that we probably didn’t need to talk about as much as we were. We didn’t know how long we would be without footy so I thought we needed to find new things to talk about. Leon (Cameron) and I were having chats all the time about what we could do. I read a book last year called The Captain Class, where the author looked at some of the best sporting teams in the world over the last 100 years and did the same thing with leaders. So when we had our Friday catch-ups with the whole group we’d have our usual banter and get updated on various things, but then guys had to present on one of the teams that was mentioned in the book: Kobe and Shaq’s Lakers, or the All Blacks, whoever it was. We looked for things we could learn from, things we could bring back and relate to us. We’ve been doing reviews of the Last Dance documentary; rather than just sit and watch it we’ve quizzed each other about it or had guys present on what they saw and talk about things they think we can use. Now that we’re getting closer to playing we’re obviously going to be talking a lot of footy again, but I think it’s been a good thing for us, to find other things we can talk about and look for new ideas about how we can get better.

I want us to be the team that keeps looking for the positives during this time.

- Stephen Coniglio

Has it been hard as captain to be physically separated from your teammates, in terms of working out how they’ve really coped with it all?

For sure. We organised small group catch-ups every Tuesday which were designed to get across that. Each leader ran those chats and we had our psychologist and welfare staff on the call as well.  No doubt it’s hard when you can’t see someone in person. The one thing I tried to tell the boys throughout everything was, ‘just try and remain present, keep in touch and be positive, because how often do we get time like this back with our family? I’ve just encouraged guys to embrace that element, because if you approach it with some positivity then things just feel a lot better. There’s been a few different times when the talk about hubs and other things has tended to dominate the conversation and I’ve tried to steer us away from wasting that energy and wasting time talking about things that might not happen. For me it’s been about: enjoy your family, enjoy your time, do your training, because once we’re back we all know how taxing the season can get, even without the restrictions that will be on us. So let’s enjoy what we’ve got, let’s live in the moment a bit.

Have you had moments where that has been hard to do?

A little bit, but to be honest this whole time for me has been a blessing in some ways. I’ve spent a lot of time back home in Perth, which I’m not able to do very often. I have a new little nephew I’ve been able to spend some time with. Obviously I missed the team environment and craved that, but training away from the club was something I quite enjoyed. I’ve been able to stay in a really positive frame of mind and I think if you live in that bubble and have the ‘everything happens for a reason’ mindset then you can roll with things as they happen. Even now, I think that’s important. We’re not going back to footy as we knew it for a lot of reasons, but we’re lucky because we’re getting to go back to work and do the thing that we love. That’s important to remember.

Are the ideas and plans you had prior to the season ones you’ll go straight back to now that games are on the horizon, or is keeping an open mind still really important?

A bit of both I think. There’s going to be new challenges once we do get back, just with our everyday lives and the discipline that’s is going to be asked of us. That’s what getting the “normality” of footy back will take and I think that really makes you reflect on why we love what we do and why we want to do it. Things aren’t just going to bounce back to how they were, every day and every week will bring new challenges and we don’t know what they will be, but they’re going to come and I want us to be the team that keeps looking for the positives during this time. Really, it’s just another thing that we’ve had to go through. To get through this and cope and deal with it and aim again for the stars – it’s a challenge that suits our group and how resilient we’ve been since the get-go. I have so much faith in this group. This has been a really weird situation, and very different, but something we pride ourselves on is sticking at it and staying the same no matter what is going on around us.

It’s almost two months ago now. But did you enjoy getting to lead the team out for the first time?

It was nice. I won’t lie, playing in front of no-one does suck. It makes you realise how special it is to have your fans there, but this club means a lot to me and to my family as well so it was a nice moment. And I’m just happy that we’re getting to come back together now. I’ve missed my teammates. Like I said, we were in a great place when things stopped and we’re still in a great place. Our routine will change and things will be different but I know this group and I know we will deal with whatever comes our way.