THE RISE AND RISE OF SHANE GASTON

It’s feverish inside the Rovers rooms. Balls are being flicked here and there, dinky foot-passes are thumping into the bread-baskets of moving targets. You have to keep your wits about you, else you could be wearing a stray footy in the scone.

And the usual gibberish is being enunciated. Some prefer to take a quiet moment to compose themselves before the big game; others stir themselves into a frenzy. “We’re in it together”.”Big test today fellas”.”Make all those disposals count”.”Work hard off the ball”, and so on.

One bloke who’s been having a bit to say breaks off. Next thing I’m distracted by a wierd cacaphony of noise in the toilet. I glance in and see the large frame of number 15, his head buried in the toilet bowl, bringing up this morning’s breakfast……

Not long after, he’s back in the group, prancing around.”It’s about time we beat these bastards”, he yells.”Let’s do something about it.”

……………………………………………………………………………………
There is a truism in football that big men take time to mature. That certainly seems to be the case with Shane Gaston.
I like Gatto’s style. He’s a hard-worker in the ruck and covers a bit of territory. There was a time when he was more words than action. True, he‘s had his injury setbacks, but he’s really turned things around this year.

Someone reckoned the other day that he’s morphed from an ugly duckling to a graceful swan in the space of a few months. That might be a bit harsh on the big fella’s previous career, but right now he has few peers in the competition.

He came up against Brandon Symes last week and they waged a good battle. The general consensus was that he lowered his colors to Yarrawonga’s premiership ruckman, but there wasn’t a lot in it.

Overall he’s had a fine season and stepped most capably into the breach left by the abdication of his ‘mentor’, Karl Norman. He has been dominant at the centre bounces at times and is picking up more kicks around the ground than he ever has.

At 26 he’s now one of the ‘elder statesmen’ of a side that is very light on for experience. And if that means passing on some pearls of wisdom to the young blokes, well, the confident Gatto is always prepared to that.

Of the Rovers’ seventy-nine 100-Gamers, only five – the recently-departed Norman, Mick Nolan, Michael Brenia, Brian Condon and Barrie Henderson would have been classified as genuine ruckmen. The Hawks have always bemoaned their inability to nurture big men whom they could build the side around.

So you can imagine the elevated eyebrows when a gangling, slightly uncoordinated 197cm beanstalk wanders into the Findlay Oval for pre-season training with the Thirds in 2005. Gatto was the tallest of a clump of boys who stood 190cm or more.

With Ben Reid, Brent Newton,Brad Bell, Gatto and Kyle Simpson, coach Paul Maher had a bunch of junior skyscrapers at his disposal. They led by 10 points going into the last quarter of the Grand Final that year but were over-run by Wodonga in the dying stages.

An injury crisis plagued the Rovers the following season and the 17-year old was plucked from the Thirds and blooded for two senior games.

He alternated between the Seniors and Reserves in 2007- taking another step in his gradual development. With the Two’s enjoying a great season, he was able to qualify for their finals series and shouldered the ruck duties as Bob Murray’s boys scored an emphatic win over Albury in the Grand Final.

Gatto impressed with the way he handled the responsibility of being the king-pin in the centre square and played a fine game, as did Tyson Hartwig, who was named best afield. It was the Hawks’ first Reserves flag since 1984 and was celebrated in style, particularly by the big lad, who has long been of the belief that he is obligated to be the last man-standing in off-field activities.

Big things were expected of Gatto in subsequent years, but he marked time. Jamie Bell was ahead of him in rucking duties and he was tried in a couple of different roles, without making a significant impact.

He blossomed late in 2009 and finished the season with a string of standout games, including a strong performance against Albury’s highly-regarded Cal McLay.

“Has he arrived?”, Hawks fans mused expectantly.

Then they had to deal with the disappointment of his decision to try out with South Adelaide in 2010. No-one was more distraught than Rovers coach Matt Allen.

“He wants to start taking his football seriously and breaking into the SANFL is his goal at this stage. You have to support players who want to test themselves at a higher level. We’d love to have him back at some stage”, Allen said.

As a consequence of homesickness and lack of opportunity, Gatto returned after 10 Reserves games with the Panthers. He  was slotted straight back into the senior side by a relieved Allen.

Stress fractures in the foot and an aggravating groin problem ruined his next two seasons and it became a familiar routine for his training to be restricted to gym work or handball exercises with another injured player.

It must have been devastating for him, amidst the Barry Hall pizzaz, with the Rovers storming towards the 2012 finals and a potential premiership, that he was on the sidelines. He played injured for several weeks until his worsening groin didn’t permit him to go on. Even so, it was a tribute to him that he remained his ever-buoyant self.

There is little doubt that his ascension to the role of number one ruckman in 2014 has brought out the best in “The Frenchman”, as he is dubbed by the 2AY commentary team.

It has been a long journey of nine years, but Gatto finally joins the elite Rovers ‘100-Game Club’ when he leads the boys out against Corowa-Rutherglen next Saturday.

Pivotal to the Hawks’ chances of success in the game (and for the rest of the season), will be the performance of the lanky number 15.

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