There are few harder tasks in footy than trying to lock down the competition’s best key forwards.
But that’s the challenge Ryan Gardner was presented in 2020.
The 23-year-old spent three years on Geelong’s list without playing a game, before joining the Bulldogs in last year’s mid-season rookie draft.
An AFL debut followed within a week.
This year, Gardner had a full pre-season under his belt and played 10 senior games – including his first taste of finals footy.
His efforts were rewarded with a one-year contract extension for 2021, and a growing belief that he has what it takes to succeed at the top level.
“I started the year in the team which itself was an achievement – to play round one,” Gardner told westernbulldogs.com.au
“To come out of the team was pretty disappointing because I don’t think I had played my best footy. I definitely wanted another opportunity at it.
“When I came back in, it wasn’t easy again. I didn’t think I played my best in the first couple of games, but it was good to hang in there and know that I had the ability to play that position.
“To be able to work my way through it and play some really good footy towards the end is what I’ve reflected on and will keep reflecting on and take into next season.
“The more I play, the better I’ll get. That’s what’s been happening over the journey of my career.”
By season’s end, Gardner had become an important player for the Bulldogs, alongside Alex Keath and Zaine Cordy in the key defensive posts.
He spent the year learning on the run, against the likes of Geelong superstar Tom Hawkins and West Coast Eagles duo Josh Kennedy and Jack Darling, just to name a couple.
“You learn so much,” Gardner said of taking on the competition’s elite.
“Every player has their own different strengths and the more I play on those guys and the more I watch vision of them and see how they play, it’s going to make me a better player.
“It only takes the smallest mistake and they’ll kick a goal on you.
“The step up from VFL to AFL is there. You notice how much if you make the smallest mistake, how quickly the ball has gone or something happens. It’s been a really good eye-opener for me.”