CLAREMONT wingman Ryan Neates will play his first league game at the redeveloped Claremont Oval on Saturday in what happens to be his 100th WAFL appearance but his focus is on trying to help the Tigers remain in the finals race.
While there have been injury troubles along the way that have delayed his reaching 100 games and cost him the chance to play in a WAFL premiership, Neates has put together an outstanding career not just with the 99 matches at Claremont but playing in the AFL for the West Coast Eagles and also representing Western Australia on three occasions.
Neates was always earmarked as a player of the future representing WA at both State 16s and 18s level before going on to make his league debut at Claremont in 2010 and finding himself listed with the Eagles.
He has battled injury troubles along the way that cost him all the premiership-winning 2011 season, the latter part of 2012 and significant time in 2013, 2016 and now in 2017 due to a knee complaint.
But when Neates has been on the field he has been one of the hardest running and most damaging players in the WAFL. Whether playing on the wing, having a stint on the ball or playing as a small forward, Neates has always been an outstanding contributor.
That hasn’t changed highlighted by his 27 possessions, nine marks and a goal on his return last week in the 99-point win against Perth in his first league appearance since Round 9.
It has been a journey with plenty of ups and downs along the way for Neates, but he's proud to reach 100 games.
"It's been an interesting journey and sometimes you wish you knew what you do now with your 100 games of experience when I had all my physical abilities when I was 20, but that's just part of the process and growing up," Neates said.
"I've been through some successful times at Claremont and over the last couple of years when we've been in a transition phase. I'm very thankful for the opportunities at Claremont and I don’t think I would have wanted to play anywhere else.
"I've learned a lot along the way and even though I wish I had a better run with injuries and I might have been able to notch up another 50 by now, I've got to 100 and I'm happy with what I've achieved."
Reaching the 100-game milestone might have taken Neates a little longer than he would have liked, but he's proud to get there this Saturday against South Fremantle at Claremont Oval in what will be his first league game since the opening of the Tigers' redeveloped home venue.
"I've been trying to rack it up for a couple of years actually and have been seeing blokes' way below me on the games mark go past me and get there before me, but that's alright I've dealt with injuries before and I'm not the first person to have a rough trot," he said.
"It's a nice achievement to get to and to get the name on the locker is something to be proud of. It's right up there as one of my proudest achievement in footy. I'm certainly appreciative that I've been able to get there and hopefully we put in a good performance this weekend and can celebrate with a win."
Neates has been happy to wear No. 1 as well and is looking forward to seeing his name go up on the new lockers at Claremont Oval.
"I was always the smallest bloke so I thought I would stick with No. 1 and make it nice and easy for everyone to figure out who I was," Neates said.
"The names haven’t gone up on our new lockers yet at Claremont so it will be nice and new and go up with everyone elses when it does, which will be good."
Neates couldn’t be happier that his milestone game happens to be at Claremont Oval and he will look forward to enjoying the occasion with some family and friends even though the focus is on the four points against the Bulldogs to keep the Tigers in the finals race.
"I was pretty happy that it coincided with a home game and we are in the new stadium. It will be really nice to see all the family there and to share it with a lot of other people," he said.
"Milestones are more so to recognise the efforts your family and friends have put in to support you and help you achieve it, so I like to think of it as a joint recognition for myself and everyone who has helped along the way.
"It's a bit of a tricky one because we are still trying to make finals so it's not going to make anyone try any more when we are already putting in our full effort. But hopefully it just adds to the day.
"Every game for us is like a finals game at the moment so winning is all that matters. From my point of view, it will be nice to see some family and stuff there, but then I won't think about it until after the game because our full focus is to try and knock off a pretty good South Freo team."
Neates was battling knee troubles through the early part of the season and after a month on the sidelines, he did return for games in Rounds 8 and 9. But it just wasn’t standing up so he needed more time on the sidelines and after trying to get it right each week, he realised he needed to give it a real rest.
That ended up working out and Neates was able to return in the reserves in Round 19 against East Perth and then was back in the league line-up on Saturday against Perth.
That was some relief after there being some moments of doubt over the past couple of months.
"There was a little tough patch in the middle when my knee was stagnating and I wasn’t assured I'd get over it, and that can play on your mind a little bit when you are trying to get up every week and you keep hitting that wall to be setback another week," Neates said.
"It was a good thing that I made the decision to have a month off and focus on my rehab to get back, but I was lying if I said I knew I'd make it back and that thought did pop in a little bit. Thankfully I've been able to get back to notch the 100.
"It was great to get back out there again. It's not much fun when you stay in the injury group and you have to put up with all the rough and tough things that footy can throw at you without experiencing the good stuff.
"It was awesome to get back out there last weekend and the most pleasing thing was that we played like we know we can play after a tough month or so. That was fantastic and I'm just hoping we can carry that on this week. The feeling around the club has been pretty good considering we hadn’t won for a while but everyone is still really positive and that's a good sign that we are heading in the right direction."
Neates has had plenty of highs along the way in his career now about to reach the 100-game mark to go with his game for West Coast and three times representing WA, but playing in a premiership remains his ultimate goal.
Claremont went on a run for four years of winning four minor premierships, playing in three grand finals and claiming two flags between 2010-13.
Neates was playing with the Tigers in each of those four seasons and played in the losing grand final of 2010 to Swan Districts, but injuries robbed him of being there for the premierships of 2011 and 2012 before Claremont bowed out in the preliminary final of 2013. He did get to play in the 2012 reserves premiership though.
Trying to get back there is what is Neates' ultimate motivation.
"I'm part of the unlucky group who played in the losing grand final 2010 and didn’t get to experience the winning ones so that's definitely been driving me since then. It's unfortunate I missed out and it's something I am still striving to experience," he said.
"I like to think I've put everything into my football so I don’t have much else to give and that was out of my control, but it always sits at the back of my mind and it's still something I want to achieve before my career's out."
Neates was always seen as a player with the ability to play at the next level and that was highlighted by his time at West Coast where he did get to play an AFL game in 2012 against Essendon at Etihad Stadium.
That's one more game than most ever get to play and Neates will always be proud of that as well as being able to represent the WAFL in three state games so far during his career.
"I've been lucky enough to play a little bit of higher level football and that gave me a bit of faith in my ability. Even though I was always fairly confident that if I got a good run at it that I had enough ability to play at the highest level and that vindicates that a little bit," Neates said.
"I'm very thankful I was able to crack it for an AFL game and to be selected for a few state games. They are achievements that I'm proud of and it gives me some validation that at the top of my game I could go alright so they are nice memories I have."
Neates was around Claremont for that four-year stretch where they finished on top of the ladder in each season. Even though he missed the premiership, that was a time that he revelled in being part of.
After a tough three years since without a home base since 2013, Neates feels like the culture is back at Claremont in 2017 both with the team building something special again while also getting to enjoy their new facility.
"Even though we haven’t been winning over the past month everyone has still been really positive around the club. We also probably underestimated the impact not having a solid base and home had taken over the last few years as well," he said.
"Not being able to celebrate after games with supporters and each other at the club probably does take a toll on you and take some of the enjoyment out of it. You really just want your own clubrooms and not to have to sprint to the shower blocks in freezing cold winter nights and things like that.
"Already over the last couple of months back here it has felt like a real club again and that's what we had before they started working on the facility. Regardless if we play finals or not, Darren Harris and the rest of the coaching staff, and Darcy and the football department have put in the effort where we have a system in place that feels like a home again. It's a really good environment to deliver success going forward."
Being 26 would mean that Neates out in the business world is just about a rookie. But at a WAFL club, he's now starting to feel like an elder statesman and his body is beginning to tell him that too leading him to being unsure how much longer he can keep playing at this level.
"It's funny how the old football world works and it doesn’t take long until you are 26 and one of the old blokes where in the real world you're still a spring chicken. But I'm not quite sure about the future," Neates said.
"Work is starting to pick up a little bit and is taking over a bit more of my life and other things come into it too. The body is also getting older and copping more knocks, and it takes me longer to recover from games now.
"I haven’t really got to the point of assessing where I'm at in terms of next year, I'm just going to try and get to the end of this season, have a couple of months off and see if the passion's still there. I think I still have the ability to do it if my body holds together."