PERSONALITIES OF THE VAFA

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Robert Heath 

Justin Quill is the Manager of Football Operations at the University Blues Football Club.  Since about 2005, he has served regularly and faithfully as the runner for the club’s senior team.  He graduated from St. Patrick’s College, Ballarat at the end of 1991.  He moved down to Melbourne in 1992, taking up a place at Monash University. His connection with the club began at that time. 
How did he come to get involved with the University Blues?
One of his good friends from school, Dan “Crazy” Hayter, was living at Newman College and playing for the Blues.  Simply, Justin went down to watch his mate playing at the University Oval.  Justin was a very handy kayaker, winning a VIS scholarship in 1993.  He was looking for some sort of exercise beyond his kayaking sessions on the Yarra.  One Saturday afternoon, when he was standing outside the Pavvy watching his friend playing for the Blues, someone threw him a water bottle and asked him to keep the senior players hydrated.
After a few years of running water out to his mates and listening to Grant Williams inspire the players, Justin continued his kayaking career at the AIS.  His goal was a place in the Australian kayaking team for the Atlanta Olympics and later at the Sydney Olympics.  Unfortunately, the selectors could not find him a place.  Having missed national selection, Justin came back to Melbourne and threw himself back into life at the Blues.  He played in the reserves in 2000 and, over the next few years, he combined kayaking and football.
The years leading up to the Athens Olympics he had his eyes set on a place in the national team.  However he did not persuade the national selectors to send him to the Athens Games.  The loss of the national kayaking team was a gain for the Blues.  Justin got back into footy, playing in the successful club XVIII team in 2004. 
“It was a golden year for the Blues”, he explained.  “In his first year as coach of the seniors, John Kanis led the team to a big victory against St. Bernard’s in the A-Grade Grand Final.  It had been 44 years since the Uni Blues had won the big one.  There was a massive feeling of exhilaration, joy and relief accompanying that win.  The reserves and the clubbies also got up in their respective grand finals that year.  It was a huge time at the club.”
In the following year, Justin became a runner for the senior team.  
Justin has become a seasoned and experienced runner – so much so that the Richmond Football Club took him on as one of the senior team’s runners.  His running career at Richmond covered 2009 and 2010 – the end of the Wallace era and the beginning of the Hardwick era.  So great was Justin’s commitment to Uni Blues that the Richmond Football Club released him from running duties on Saturday afternoons.  This enabled him to continue his running duties for the Blues.
Justin has become a subtle and deft communicator in his capacity as a runner.  Depending on the demeanour and attitude of the player to whom he delivers the coach’s message, Justin sometimes needs to “translate” that message.  This is a euphemism for softening the message.  Here is what Justin said about this concept on relaying former coach John Kanis’ meessages:
“John might not know about this.  On many occasions, he beckoned me to join him in the dugout or near the bench.  He launched into a massive spray, the subject of which is some bloke who dropped a mark or could have gone harder at a contest.  He can get pretty stroppy.  You’ve seen the footage of Ron Barassi, dressed in a skivvy and corduroy jacket, shouting down a telephone in the coach’s box at the MCG in the 1970s.  You know what I mean when I say that John sometimes gets uptight or ‘animated’.  Once he finishes the message, I nod in acknowledgement.  I spin around and begin my sprint to the intended recipient.  As I run towards the player, I keep an eye on the play and I work out the terms in which I’m going to deliver John’s message.  When I reach the player in question, it’s common for me to say something like this: ‘John wants me to give you an absolute serve. He is not happy with the last effort.  He knows you can do better. He wants you to do better.  You can do better.’  Whilst I am faithful to the gist of the message, it is expressed in different terms.  The player has to keep playing.”
“There’s no way I could deliver the message word-for-word, and in the same way it was given to me.  The basic message reaches the player, but it’s not delivered in a harsh or aggressive manner.  It’s my job, in part, to motivate and encourage the players.  I’m almost certain that all coaches understand this point, and respect the way in which I go about my job as runner.  In my last year as one of the Richmond runners, Damien Hardwick had a very similar approach.  Like John Kanis, he seemed to understand implicitly that players tune out or get despondent when they get berated.”
Is the job confined to running messages?
Justin was reluctant to say too much about whether he ever sledges or distracts other players. But I don’t think that he has any cause for concern about this role.  His record is quite mild compared with the record of David “Possum” Rutherford, the Blues runner in the 1970s.  The “Possum” was also a former captain of the team.  According to “Black & Blue – the Story of Football at the University of Melbourne”, the “Possum” got knocked unconscious by the centre-half forward playing for North Melbourne Old Boys.  Jim Sharpe was playing at centre-half back for the Blues that day.  He gave this account to the author of the book:
“Apparently there was bad blood between Spurling and Possum going back to their playing days and every time Possum ran passed us, Spurling would hurl abuse at him, which Possum would return in good measure.  The unfortunate thing for me was that each time that this happened, Spurling vented his spleen by thumping me in the ribs after Possum had run away.  On one occasion, Possum ran a little too close to us and Spurling king-hit him, knocking him out.  To top it off, the Possum was reported and rubbed out for 5 matches for verbal provocation.”
Justin stressed that the delivery of messages is not a one-way street.  “I keep my eyes out on the ground and, if I see anything worth reporting, I pass it back to John and his assistants.  For example, I get a good view of stoppages and I can see how opposition teams set up and block.  I pass back my observations to John.”
Justin is responsible for implementing rotations during each quarter.  In each one of the breaks John previously and now incumbent coach Fergus Watts gives Justin a set of rotation instructions.  Throughout the following quarter, Justin manages the mid-field rotations in accordance with these instructions.  He might bring the players off or send them for a rest in a pocket and doesn’t necessarily consult with the coach on each and every occasion.  “This frees-up the coaches to concentrate on match ups and other technical matters.”
Justin has got pretty good at listening the pitch and volume of John’s voice, and modifying his behaviour accordingly.  Sometimes he hears the call (or scream): “Quilly! Quilly!”  In those circumstances, he needs to make a split-second decision.  “I listen to the tone of John’s call.  Sometimes it becomes obvious to me that I need to ditch the delivery of the previous message, and get back to the bench to get the new message. Things move pretty quickly in Premier games, and John’s priorities change quickly too.  I find that, if I keep an eye on the game, and listen out for John’s calls, I can predict reasonably accurately the nature and content of my next task.”
I asked him to give me an example.  He told me about a tight contest between the Blues and Old Scotch in 2009.  The story continued as follows:
I heard John scream my name twice when I was running towards a bloke on the back line.  I knew that job had to wait, so I span around and bolted back towards the bench.  As I sprinted back towards John, he said this ‘Go and tell him. Go and tell him.’  There was a pause in the instructions before John said ‘Just tell him!’  He didn’t say anything else.  He didn’t identify the player to whom I was supposed this ‘message’.  He didn’t say anything about the content of this ‘message’.  One of our forwards had been battling against his opponent and I decided very quickly that he was the intended recipient of this ‘message’.  I gave him a message, and that message conformed with the message that John himself had given to this player at half-time.  I assumed that I had read the situation correctly as John didn’t mention the matter again, and the forward began to lead to the pre-agreed area on the forward line.
I wanted to know whether some of the players “pushed back” or questioned the message from the coach.  Justin told me that, if the players do respond to the message, it is almost always by way of explanation.  If a player has deviated from the team rules or John’s instructions, and he receives a serve through Justin to that effect, the player sometimes provides a candid explanation for his behaviour.  “Sometimes I get an apology and then the player might say something like: ‘Tell John I decided to roll the dice’.   By and large, the players are honest and candid.  They respect John and his directions.  I know that John also respects their candour and endeavour.”
Justin does have one unorthodox method for “softening” messages for the players.  A few years ago one of Blues’ best players – Jack Watts – gave away unnecessarily a free-kick to his opponent.  It was a tight contest, and the Blues were battling to reel-in the opposition.  Kanis was furious.  It was a simple directive to Justin: “Get him off!”.  Justin had run about 10 metres on to the ground when John Kanis said this: “I’ve changed my mind.  He’s too good to take off, but make sure you put an absolute rocket up him”.  The recipient of the free-kick and 25 metre penalty scored a goal as Justin reached Jack Watts, he was dejected and disappointed.  “I gave him the spray, but I could see that he also needed a lift.  Having received the spray, he was flat and despondent.  I grabbed him and said: ‘But you know I love you’.  Then I leaned in and gave him a kiss on the cheek.  We managed to win the game that day and Jack and I had a good laugh about it afterwards.”
I asked Justin to explain the differences, if any, between running for a VAFA Premier team and running for an AFL team.  Here is a summary of his response:
He nominated the ground noise at AFL games as the biggest difference.  “You have to get close to players to deliver the coach’s message.  You also need to ensure that the player got the message.  It was my habit to get the player to acknowledge the message.”
Justin also said that many of the AFL players put themselves “in the zone” to play the game and that, as a result, he insisted upon getting an acknowledgement for each message delivered.  “The blokes in the ammos play a very good standard of football – but, by and large, they don’t approach the game in exactly the same way that the elite players do.”
Finally, Justin pointed to the complexity of the positional moves in the AFL.  “The messages and the moves got quite complex in AFL games.  Terry Wallace and Jade Rawlings liked to put four or five separate positional moves into the one message.  I’d write the message down as I got it.  My responsibilities didn’t end with the delivery of the message.  I had to keep an eye on the play.  If I had to move a bloke out of the back line, I had to ensure that another player was ready to push back to assist the remaining defenders.  I do the same thing when implementing positional moves for the Uni Blues.  You can’t leave the team exposed just to implement a move.  But there were two significant differences.  The game moved so much quicker in the AFL and I had to juggle complicated movements of 4 or more players.”
Justin is an ardent and passionate supporter of the Blues.  He is a member of the committee and, in addition to his match-day and training duties, he acts as the manager of the club’s football operations.  Moreover, he is a passionate supporter of the VAFA.  You sense this passion in his weekly VAFA reports for the Sunday Herald-Sun.  Put simply, he loves the club and the game.  He also has a special fan in Max, my young son.  At three-quarter time at one of the games a few years ago, Justin was handing around snakes and lollies to the spent players.  He gave a snake to Max.  After the game, he invited us into the rooms and lifted my son up so that he could see the players sing the club song.  It was a formative experience for someone being introduced to football.  It is the sort of experience that helps someone begin to love the game.