Saunders focused on team success ahead of 100th game

Friday, August 4, 2017 - 12:25 AM by Chris Pike

HAVING originally come to South Fremantle for opportunity, Ben Saunders couldn’t be more passionate and dedicated to the Bulldogs and that's why he's turned himself into the ultimate team player in the hopes of achieving premiership glory.

The Mt Barker native began his career at Claremont coming through the ranks as a supremely talented goalkicker capable of kicking big bags, kicking the impossible goals and taking spectacular marks.

The only problem was he was trying to break in to begin his league career at the wrong time at Claremont. 

Beau Maister, Ian Richardson, Gerrick Weedon, Lewis Broome, Chad Jones, Tom Lee, David Crawford, Lewis Broome and Jack Bradshaw all occupying spots in the Tigers' forward-line of the premiership year of 2011.

That meant that despite kicking 68 reserves goals that season including 11 in Round 23 against Peel and then five in the grand final win, he had only managed to play two Foxtel Cup matches and three league games at Claremont.

Clearly he was too good a player to be at reserves but with Paul Medhurst joining the rest of those forwards in 2012 as the Tigers geared up for back-to-back premierships, Saunders felt it was time to look for opportunities elsewhere.

South Fremantle proved the destination and now in his sixth season the move couldn’t have turned out much better. 

Saunders has kicked 259 goals in 94 games at South Fremantle since arriving for the 2012 season and along the way he has won the Bernie Naylor Medal in 2012, 2014 and 2016 while representing Western Australia on three occasions where he has kicked 16 goals and won the Simpson Medal earlier this year in the historic win for the WAFL over the VFL in Melbourne.

He will now play his 100th game this Saturday as South Fremantle looks to further consolidate second position and try to win a seventh straight game in the clash at Fremantle Community Bank Oval.

While Saunders is happy to be reaching 100 games, it's the 100 with South Fremantle to book his name on the No. 24 locker that will mean even more.

"It's one of those things you'll look back on when you stop and to say you've played 100 WAFL games is a pretty good achievement but for the time being I'm focused on the task at hand and it will be just another week really," Saunders said.

"I love South Fremantle and what the club has done for me has been massive. To notch up 100 games here will be a massive honour so hopefully when that times comes around all things going well, I'll be very proud of that moment."

Saunders raw goalkicking numbers are impressive with the 259 in 94 South Fremantle games, but it's the growth and development he has worked hard for to turn himself into an all-round forward that has been most impressive during his Bulldogs journey.

He arrived as a natural goalkicker who perhaps didn’t offer a lot else. But now in his sixth season at South Fremantle, you are just as likely to see Saunders chase down an opponent and lay an inspirational tackle as you are seeing him take a huge mark or kick the miracle goal.

He could very well be the best pressure forward in the competition now and that has only happened through his hard work and dedication to make it happen, which he deserves all the credit in the world for.

"My role has changed a little bit this year and I've tried to focus on playing team footy, and as you get older I guess the importance on wanting to help the team win games rather than kick bags yourself takes over," he said.

"I would rather not kick any if we win as opposed to kick a bag and we lose. I don’t know if that's a change personally or the way the culture is set up here and the way we've moved as a club, but as long as the team is successful and I can play a role that helps the team I'm happy.

"I've always been a natural at kicking goals and I don’t necessarily cover a lot of ground, but I seem to get into the right positions to kick goals. 

"But as I've progressed I've tried to improve my game to benefit the team and everyone I've talked to said that pressure is the way to do it and if you can chase and tackle, and lock the ball in and put the pressure on the defenders it makes everything easier for the team up the ground.

"That's been my biggest focus since I've started to up my defensive game and I think each year I've got better and better at it."

Saunders has had three brilliant seasons with South Fremantle kicking 66 goals in 2012, 59 in 2014 and 59 in 2016 to win his three Bernie Naylor Medals. The other two years were only hurt by injuries but the best thing about the South Fremantle team of 2017 is the other avenues to goal.

Saunders is again playing well in 2017 having kicked 38 goals to date, but with Blaine Johnson (48), Cory Dell'Olio (40), Mason Shaw (33), Haiden Schloithe (24) and Tim Kelly (19) joining in, it's no surprise South Fremantle is proving so hard to shut down. 

"We have so many more avenues to score and it's hard for a team to shut down a forward-line where you have six or seven players who can step up to kick a bag," Saunders said.

"That definitely helps the team and just the feeling around the club as well because instead of having one person feeling good about themselves any week, you have five or six who are feeling good every other week. 

"That just makes the club a good place to be and there's a nice feeling around the club that makes you look forward to come down here on training nights. Which for me hasn’t always been the case in the past."

Saunders saw firsthand what premiership teams looked like at Claremont and while he starred in the reserves flag of 2011 while the Tigers league side triumphed as well, it's not quite the same.

His first four years had some good individual moments but without a finals appearance were frustrating but he enjoyed his first taste of finals at league level last year and is now confident the Bulldogs have sufficiently improved to go even further now in 2017.

"I think we are in a pretty good spot and that we've grown as a team on last year. You learn from every game you play and although we got touch up a bit in that prelim to Peel, we can take a fair bit out of that and prior to last year a lot of us hadn’t played finals footy and I was one of them," he said.

"I'll take a lot out of last year and with the year we've been through since and everything we've worked on is geared on working come finals time. Hopefully everything goes well and we can execute."

"It would be massive if we can achieve this. It's not so much putting in a bit of work and achieving it, this is my sixth year here and we weren’t successful early on and it was hard. To build a culture like we have from where we've come from has been massive. This is the reason we play footy for that cup and it would mean the world to me to get my hands on that."

The decision to leave Claremont was the most difficult one Saunders has had to make in his career and there's certainly been no regrets because there was no guarantee he would have broken in to be part of that premiership team of 2012 and the Tigers have struggled since 2013.

Once he got to South Fremantle and was able to hit the training ground alongside the likes of Toby McGrath and Paul Mugambwa, he knew he was where he wanted to be.

"I was a young bloke and it was a pretty big decision to make. I spoke to a lot of my closest friends and family members, and everyone said to go for it," Saunders said.

"It was a hard decision to make and once I made the decision it got even harder because there was a month or so when I wasn’t able to train with anyone and there was some fairly aggressive phone calls going back and forth. 

"That's the ugly side of training but I was still contracted so it had to happen for me to move. But the second training session I was here I lined up on McGrath and chatted with him, and ran out next to Paul Mugambwa and after that I felt at home here. It's such a good club and I'll never look back. It has been the best decision I've made."

Saunders might take great pride in his pressure acts these days, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t still love kicking goals and taking the high marks.

He has taken some of the best screamers in recent years and it's hard to go past his Mark of the Year effort on Anzac Day in 2015 and then his stunning effort earlier this year where he basically stood upright on the shoulders of Peel and Fremantle defender Griffin Logue to grab it cleanly.

"I don’t think I have any favourites, I just like taking any marks off the ground really. I did it a bit when I was younger but then I got injured and got heavier and that made it a bit harder to get up off the ground," he said.

"But the last couple of years I've lightened off a little bit and Curls has given me permission to fly for them without being stupid about. I still like the derby one a few years ago because it was one-handed which was nice, but there was one earlier this year that got some air time that I liked because it was nice and clean because I got it at the highest point. I probably can't split those."

Derbies against East Fremantle were something that Saunders had never spent too much time thinking about before arriving at South Fremantle in 2012.

He quickly realised just how real and passionate the rivalry is and some of his best games with the Bulldogs have come against the Sharks, and he's looking forward to bringing up his 100th WAFL appearance against them this Saturday.

"I love a derby and especially when so far this year we've played good footy in them. It never really matters how you are going in derbies and that anything can happen on the day so everyone lifts that little bit more and you always want to play in the bigger games. I'm definitely looking forward to it," Saunders said.

"I'd always heard about them but until you are part of it you don’t realise how significant they are and how strong that passion is. When I first got here we had guys like Toby McGrath and he spoke so strongly about the hatred we had for East Freo.

"That makes it a massive game and I didn’t realise the rivalry was so strong until we had a massive crowd here in my first year. That's still the biggest crowd I've ever played in front of and once I saw that I was impressed by the derby rivalry."