Joining Bulldogs best thing Saunders ever did

Monday, March 4, 2019 - 4:53 PM by Chris Pike

THE biggest decision Ben Saunders had to make in his football career was leaving Claremont for South Fremantle, but as he reflects on his outstanding WAFL career now, it was the best thing he did and set the stage for plenty of great highlights.

After moving up to Perth from Mt Barker, the Claremont Football Club became a home base for Saunders and he thought that the Tigers would be his long-term WAFL home as far as he could see into the future.

He arrived at Tigerland at an era where breaking into the league team as a young player was anything but easy as they went through a run from 2010-2013 of winning four straight minor premierships, playing in three Grand Finals and winning two premierships.

TOUGH BUT RIGHT DECISION TO RETIRE FOR SAUNDERS

Saunders' last game for Claremont ended up being the 2012 reserves Grand Final where he starred kicking five goals to become a reserves premiership player on the same afternoon the Tigers league side made it back-to-back flags.

There were no guarantees spots in the Claremont forward-line was going to open up anytime soon as talented as Saunders was and as good a prospect as he obviously was at league level.

So with South Fremantle on the lookout to rebuild its own forward-line, then coach Paul Hasleby put in the work to recruit Saunders to the Bulldogs and the rest is history.

Saunders made an immediate impact at South Fremantle in 2013 and over the course of the next six seasons, he would kick 287 goals in 109 games winning the Bernie Naylor Medal three times as the league's leading goalkicker.

He would play three games for WA along the way as well kicking 16 goals and winning a Simpson Medal before deciding to announce his retirement making 2018 his final season with the Bulldogs.

While the decision to leave Claremont for South Fremantle might have been the most difficult of Saunders' football life, it proved ultimately to be the best one as well.

"That was a really hard decision and I remember calling my mum, my brother and spoke with Jezza, Darc and all my really close mates to see what they thought I should do, and what would they think of me if I moved clubs," Saunders said.

"The consensus was that if I thought it was the right decision and it was something I wanted to do, then absolutely do it. Paul Hasleby was the one that got me across and who did all the work, and he did everything he could to get me across and he helped me out as much as he could once I got to Souths. 

"It was a really hard decision but I feel like he invested his time and effort into me, and so did Pete Christie, and I always felt like the club would treat me well. They just said that once you make the decision, you have to stick with it and ride it out to the end, and we'll back you in no matter what happens. 

"The club gave me the support I needed in that process and then at the same time Claremont tried everything they could to keep me there with intimidation, scare tactics and all sorts of threats. That freaked me out a bit as an 18-year-old and made me think running back to Mt Barker might be easier, but the club was really good about sticking by me and looking after me. 

"Ever since then, I've never felt more at home at a footy club from those early training sessions alongside Toby McGrath when Paul Mugambwa would always sit on someone's head. It felt like a country club in the city which I really enjoyed and it was the best decision I've made with my footy. I loved every minute I spent at the club."

What Saunders quickly grew to realise when he spent more time at South Fremantle was that being part of a winning culture and a successful team had become significantly more important to him than feats of individual brilliance.

That doesn’t mean he ever stopped wanting to fly for the spectacular marks or kick the bags of goals, but what it meant was fully embracing everything the whole playing group was about and being willing to do whatever it took to help them win.

That meant that Saunders' defensive pressure that was once his great weakness, became one of his strengths and no longer would his opponents run and create off him, but he would find a way to run and chase them down.

There were a host of occasions where a Saunders chase down would inspire his team more than any of his marks and goals, and for the last three years the result has been a South Fremantle team knocking on the door of that ultimate success.

While it didn’t quite come with South Fremantle finishing second three years running and playing in three successive preliminary finals, Saunders enjoyed that feeling of fully embracing a team culture and being a senior player helping everything strive for success.

"I probably wasn’t as invested as an individual early doors and had different focuses, and didn’t mind telling Cooky and the leadership group where I thought they were going wrong as opposed to how I could help to fix it," Saunders said.

"Cooky played a big part in shaping me to change my views from pointing out what we were doing wrong to actually coming up with solutions on how we could improve and how I could help with that to get us to where we wanted to go. He was a major factor in that and so was Joshy Pullman. 

"He had a big influence on me outside of football because of the standards he set at the football club and in every area of his life. He set such a high standard but would live and die by what he committed to, he would never cheat the system or cut the corner. 

"It didn’t matter who he had to tell, but if he thought you weren’t living by what you had committed to and up to the standard we wanted to set, he would pull you up on it. 

"He's so honest and there have been times in my life where I've considered doing certain things, and I stop to think what Josh Pullman would do because he'd always do what was respectful, fair and honest no matter how challenging it was. 

"Those boys played a big part in my development and so did Hamsy, I can't leave him out, and I am proud to have had an influence on the club and hopefully helping the younger players develop in some way."

In a day and age where footballers' versatility is seen as a great positive, Saunders' stood out as being a natural full-forward in an era where precious few players have that natural instinct around goals and how to ply their craft inside the forward 50.

That's what made Saunders such a popular figure at South Fremantle because he was a master at his craft as a full-forward and provided his teammates such a reliable target.

While he wasn’t always a forward in his younger days, he quickly realised that's where he felt at home.

"I started out as a midfielder believe it or not. I was small growing up and a little bit lighter, but then I didn’t grow much taller and just put on weight," Saunders said.

"Once I put on a few kilos, I couldn’t really run out the midfield too well as I coming through the ranks so they threw me forward and I felt pretty comfy down there. I ended up getting a bit taller and just kind of stayed there ever since, and never really played anywhere else. 

"I get anxiety when I move outside the 50 and the arc was painted there for a reason I like to think, and I stay inside it for a reason unless I mark it close and go back outside for a set shot. I didn’t have the traditional height to play full-forward but it's somewhere I love to play and that's my position."

What the Bulldogs faithful will likely remember Saunders for the most is for his spectacular feats either in the air taking marks or kicking his spectacular goals.

There are some that standout especially for Saunders too now that he has the chance to sit back and reflect on what he did accomplish.

"There's a few that standout. There was one I took on Brock O'Brien that I got Mark of the Year for, the one-hander. Then I took one on Griffin Logue and Hamsy reckons that was the best mark he's seen live," Saunders said. 

"They are probably the two standout marks. I kicked a goal at East Freo in Cicco's last derby at East Freo and I remember getting fined for my celebration. 

"I think we were about four points down and I marked just outside 50, and wheeled around and it just kept going and sailed through with the siren going not long after. 

"That was probably the best goal I kicked I think but there's just something about kicking goals and taking marks that I've always liked, not so much the tackling and spoiling side of things."