Anyone watching Isaac Heeney take down Mark Blicavs last Friday wouldn’t be surprised he learnt to tackle deep in the heart of rugby league country.
The young, comparatively pocket-sized Sydney star outpaced and outmuscled Blicavs, at one point jamming the Geelong big man’s arm in an unplanned “wrestling move” he admitted “felt a bit weird”.
It was one of seven tackles laid by Heeney during the 37-point preliminary final thumping, in a 28-possession performance that was close to best on ground.
The 20-year-old’s ability to hold his own against larger, older bodies was fostered on the family farm in the tiny NSW town of Stockrington, between Newcastle and Cessnock.
It was an upbringing tested by hardship but also one fondly remembered for backyard smackdowns with big brother Beau and father Adam, a former first-grade rugby league player.
“We would play rugby league, throw the footy to each other and it was biggest hit wins,” Heeney said.
“We’d start with touch and end up pretty competitive trying to put a shot on each other.
“I think Beau made me cry more than I made him.”
Heeney, whose mother Rochelle is a former elite swimmer, started his sporting love affair with soccer, scoring 68 goals in 12 games at an early age.
He then played up an age level in cricket with a batting average of 216 before the Swans academy snapped him up as a 12-year-old.
Heeney also scored five tries in the grand final of a school rugby league tournament, but that he only dabbled in the code was against the grain for a Novocastrian.
“Rugby league, being at schools in Newcastle, was massive,” he said.
“If you didn’t play it you got bullied a little bit – not that I got bullied much.”
No one would have dared, given that by 15 the laid-back blonde-haired surfer had already made his senior debut for Cardiff in the hard-as-nails Black Diamond League.
“It was pretty physical and I was able to play that top level – the Premier League – at a young age.
“Growing up with bigger bodies helped with that as well.”
Heeney made his AFL debut last year in the Swans’ forward line alongside the likes of Lance Franklin and Kurt Tippett, where his impact earned him the 2015 AFL Players’ Association rookie award.
In Saturday’s grand final against the Western Bulldogs he’ll likely be deployed further up the field, where he’s been thriving on the added physicality in recent weeks.
“I’m moving into the midfield and playing that wing role,” said Heeney, this year’s recipient of the AFL Coaches Associations’ award for best young player.
“With that I’m able to run defensively pretty hard.
“Our game is based a lot on defence so if I can get back and outnumber and support in defence it’s a massive contribution.”