The following article was published on the AFL Players website.
Perhaps it was the searing stab from 52 metres against the breeze to gift North Melbourne an early lead against West Coast at Optus Stadium on Monday night.
Or maybe it was the towering mark over Andrew Gaff, as the Roos nervously exited defensive 50 only minutes later.
When most players were struggling to negotiate the wet and slippery conditions in hostile territory in Perth, midfielder Tarryn Thomas had the ball on a string.
His early wizardry set the tone for a remarkable upset win over a West Coast team contending for finals.
But in another world, he might have gearing up for tomorrow night’s third State of Origin rugby league clash between New South Wales and Queensland.
Long before any AFL recruiter heard word of Thomas’ talents, he was making a name for himself as a rising rugby league prospect in the Penrith Panthers’ academy.
A New South Wales native, dreams of dashing down the wing and sliding past the try-line in the echoes of a roaring sky-blue Sydney crowd were not all that far from reality.
“But next minute, we moved to Tassie,” Thomas told aflplayers.com.au.
In the sudden absence of rugby league, he tried his luck at the more congested rugby union.
“I was smaller than everyone else, so I was getting smashed most weeks,” Thomas recalled. “Then I moved to Aussie Rules, and ever since then, I’ve loved playing it.”
In North Launceston, he uncovered his AFL potential.
“A couple of years later I started to make the state sides, so when I was 15, that’s when I knew [I had potential],” he said.
Three years later, Thomas was packing his bags bound for Arden Street.
He knew he had the talent on the turf, but needed to refine his off-field expertise.
Aaron Hall and his partner Sophia came to Thomas’ aid.
“When I moved out, I was still 17 or 18. I didn’t really know about those life skills that would move me through life,” Thomas said.
“But when I moved in with Aaron, he taught me everything. Him and his partner were so good to me. Professionalism on the field, off the field, recovery, what to eat, literally everything.”
If you believe what you read in previous articles, his pre-game preparation even entailed a bowl of Fruit Loops.
“No, no, no, that was just a joke! That was a stitch-up — one of the boys stitched me up there,” Thomas laughed.
But despite Hall’s efforts to ‘stitch up’ his protégé in the media, the pair have remained close since Thomas moved out into his own home.
“I’m really close with his daughter now, too. Obviously, I see him every day at the club, but I go to his house for dinner and all that sort of stuff. I still catch up and see the babies — he just had another baby, so I go and see them when I can,” Thomas said.
Hall is not the only senior player to have tricked Thomas under the media’s watchful eye.
Benched with injury alongside Ben Cunnington in a game against the Bulldogs last year, Thomas’ one-way chat with the notoriously taciturn Roo became the subject of wide amusement.
“In my second year, I was on the bench talking to him and he was giving me nothing (while the cameras were on us). That stitched me up.
“He was talking to me for the rest of the time, but when the camera was on him, he was like, ‘Don’t talk to me, don’t talk to me’.
“He talks to me heaps. When there’s a camera he gives me nothing, but behind the scenes he loves a talk.”
And it’s the behind the scenes where Cunnington has helped transform Thomas into a menacing midfielder.
“He’s taught me about body positioning, because I’m smaller than him and most other players,” Thomas said.
“I’m a different player, so if I’m stuck in that position, he’s taught me when to use my body, when to hit, timing, the smart running patterns he does in his game.
“He sits down in my review and talks me through everything.
“Even on the ground, he believes in me and puts trust in me to do my job. Ben has helped heaps, like all the other midfielders. Jed Anderson, he’s been massive in that area, too.”
It’s been a breakout season for Thomas, but it’s also proved a relieving one.
After three coaches in three years, the 21-year-old has benefitted from the stability coach David Noble has brought to the club.
“It’s been a whirlwind the last three years, but [Noble is] the right fit for the job and I get along with him really well. He’s built heaps of relationships, on and off the field. It’s good to have him here,” Thomas said.
“He’s just rebuilding everything. Our values, our training standards, everything. Around the club, we’re just building each week. We trust him and the path he wants to go down, and the direction the club wants to go to. We’re all behind him.
“It’s been good to play with guys around the same age. We’re building a good culture at the club with ‘Nobes’ and all the new coaches, so I’ve been loving my time at North and training and playing with all these lads week after week.”
Thomas still keeps a close eye on rugby league, and has used his time in Melbourne to form friendships with Melbourne Storm stars Josh Addo-Carr and Nicho Hynes.
And when quizzed upon whether any factors of big-city living remain a challenge, Thomas gave a typically jovial response.
“I love my sleep ins, so waking up early when it’s cold, probably that,” he joked.