It took Toby Greene nine games to kick his very first AFL goal, but there was something a little bit special about it. On a Saturday afternoon in Sydney, a little over eight years ago, Greene scooped up a handball with his back to the goals, turned, sold some candy to one player, squeezed a kick underneath another’s attempted smother, squeezed his fist tightly as he watched the ball fly through then turned again and made his way quickly back to the middle. It was probably a bit overdue: he had kicked six behinds in the weeks leading up.
Greene was 18 back then, in the middle of both his first season and that of the GIANTS. He came to the club as a No. 11 draft pick, and he made his start not just as a midfielder, but as one who had a remarkable knack of getting his hands on the football, week after week after week. He averaged 28 disposals in his first 19 matches, dropping below 20 just one time. In the last game of the season, he had 38 possessions. They are the sorts of numbers, in the part of the ground, that first-year players dream about, and certainly don’t want to give up. So how, then, did he end up the sort of forward that people go out of their way to watch?
It happened gradually, starting three years after his excellent debut season. By 2015, the GIANTS had a fairly full midfield: Callan Ward, Stephen Coniglio, Dylan Shiel, Adam Treloar, Josh Kelly, Tom Scully, Tom Bugg. Ryan Griffen had just turned up, and Dev Smith wanted to push into that group. Greene’s kicking could waver some days but he hadn’t done anything wrong and his running capacity, effort, work rate and competitiveness were not things that Leon Cameron wanted to leave out of his young side. So, he came up with a new spot for him.
It took Toby Greene nine games and six behinds to kick his first goal, and it was worth the wait! ?? pic.twitter.com/irbLpjaTkV— AFL (@AFL) May 26, 2020
Greene was very good, from the very start, in one on one contests. He had shown, as an onballer, that he could mark the ball overhead. Greene remembers being played a couple of times off the half-back line, and knowing like the coach that it wasn’t the ideal alternative. As a kid and as a mid, he had already spent plenty of time in the forward line, so playing down there wasn’t completely foreign to him. So the idea was raised: why not try him as a permanent forward?
“It probably wasn’t an easy call. No doubt the appetite to keep him on-ball was always there because he has a big motor and he runs both ways. And big motored mids who want to run both ways are bloody hard to find,” said Cameron. “He had that and so we thought, we’re trying to squeeze a lot of midfielders in, why not take his running, take his work ethic and try to make our forward line a bit better by getting him going up the ground and back again.
“That was the idea, and he made it his own. There’s no doubt that deep down he would have been determined to still play a bit of mid, but the way he took it on told us a lot about Toby. I still vividly remember him having the approach of, 'OK, well if that’s what the team needs then I’ll go and do it, and I’ll make that role my own, and I’ll become really good at it.'
“He could have cracked it and not wanted to play, but the reason he’s still at our footy club is because he has a tremendous attitude towards team. He wants to play well, don’t get me wrong, but he wants the team to win more than he wants his own success. He went down there and he mastered it and he’s become as good as he is because he had that selfless approach.”
As Greene remembers it, being open to new things was just part of being a GIANT at that time. “It sort of happened slowly, and it was getting hard to get a game in the midfield back then. I’d spent a bit of time in the forward line and I think Leon was always a bit surprised or happy by what I was able to do down there. It was probably a 50-50 split for a while and it ended with him saying, ‘you’re playing forward now, we think you’re good at it,” Greene said.
“I didn’t have too much hesitation. I knew we had a lot of really good mids, so I was trying pretty hard to stay in the side and to stay in the midfield was hard. And I guess if you want to stay in the team as a young player, you need to be open to things like that and just find a way. So I sort of embraced it, and went with it. I was happy to go down there and see what could be done, and just make the most of the opportunity. I’d always loved ‘resting’ as a forward when I was kid, but this was on a whole other level. I had a fair bit still left to learn.
Starting with his big tank, and doing what he could with that. Though it wasn’t only his running and his competitive approach that made Cameron think he could work as a forward. “There was a uniqueness about Toby and his footy,” said the coach, “because he could bob up and take a mark, or he could snap it out of nowhere and even as a midfielder there were things going on just because he was clever. I’m thinking about his ability to make something out of nothing in congestion, his ability to toe poke something or break a tackle and just do something. He had that, but he had a bit to learn about running patterns and forward craft as well.”
That work picked up throughout 2015, but leading into the next year Greene had a whole summer to get his head around this new role. His 2016 season ended with him winning the Kevin Sheedy Medal as club champion for the first time, making the All-Australian team for the first time and kicking 44 goals as he helped his side make the preliminary final for, you guessed it, the first time. But it started with a certain former Geelong forward turning up to play alongside him.
“It’s no coincidence what happened that year, once that old bloke had come along,” said Amon Buchanan, who coached the forward line back then, of Steve Johnson. “Stevie J is a footy nerd, he’s really competitive and he was obviously really crafty. In a lot of ways he’s very similar to Toby. And so Toby just got in his back pocket a little bit, starting picking his brains about running patterns ahead of the ball and was just constantly asking questions and looking at ways that he could use Stevie’s knowledge to help make his own game better.
“He had this great resource within his grasp to pick away at and learn from, and Stevie was the perfect person to come along at that time. We knew he was going to be good at winning his one on ones ahead of the ball, but he learnt more about how to reset, how to lengthen the ground, how to read cues around the contest and give himself space. And his chemistry with the mids and the other forwards just got better and better. It’s been a really good fit for him because what underpins all the brilliant things he does is his work rate.
“It’s the work he does off the ball to set his opponent up, or to just work an opponent over so that he can get into space. Yeah, he does some amazing things, and he’s got such a sharp mind, but it’s the work he does that sets everything up and that underpins every single thing he does.”
In his first three seasons Greene kicked 19 goals; in the five-and-a-bit since he has scored 155. In almost every season since making the move forward he has been needed back in the midfield for bits and pieces of time, and enjoys the chance to head in there. But 150 games in, he is happy with where he has settled and not looking to make another move any time soon.
“It’s a really different challenge to playing midfield,” he said. “It’s a lot different, but I like it a lot. When you play forward and you start to establish yourself as a dangerous forward, you get a good defender following your every move. You can be a bit dependent on what’s happening in front of you to play well, and you’re always just looking for a way to get into the game.
“When I go and play in the midfield now it’s like bloody heaven, with the freedom. But I like being down forward. You earn every kick in the forward line and you get to try and beat an opponent each week, no matter who they are. It is good to get back around the ball at times and something I’ve a bit of again this year, but I like it forward. I think that's going to be for a while."