Ryan Lester will sleep well ahead of game day this week, poised on Saturday night to take another big step in one of the great reinventions of an AFL career of recent times.
The 31-year-old defender will play in the Lions’ qualifying final against Port Adelaide at the Gabba after a really solid and team-first back end to the home-and-away campaign.
It will be his first start in a final since 2020 and a huge personal bonus after it looked 11 months ago and again earlier this season that his AFL career was starting to run out of juice.
The 13-year veteran played only three of 25 games in 2022 – Rounds 8-17-22 – and was overlooked for the first six games of 2023, albeit due in part to a niggling minor injury.
With the excellent 2023 form of 19-year-old Darcy Wilmot and 23-year-old Jack Payne and Keidean Coleman in the defensive group it looked, at least from outside, like opportunities might be scarce for one of the club’s most popular and respected players.
But since a recall in Round 7 Lester has missed only once – when left out for the Round 13 loss to Hawthorn at the MCG – and after winning an immediate recall has been an important member of the most frugal defence in the League in the run to September.
He’s been rarely beaten one-on-one, can play on opponents of varying size, and his organising capabilities, too, have been key.
It’s another chapter in a career of extraordinary ups and down for a player who, with confirmation of Daniel Rich’s pending retirement on Monday, will become the longest-serving player on the Brisbane list in 2024 after signing a one-year contract extension last month.
Among all the numbers that detail the journey of the former Oakleigh Chargers utility, drafted by the Lions with pick #28 in the 2010 National Draft, one is quite astonishing. He has been out of the side no less than 32 times since his debut in Round 1 2011.
That’s not an error. While playing 171 games he’s missed 114 games after being listed 32 times at selection as ‘omitted’ or ‘injured’. Or some other phrase which confirmed he was not in the side.
In one of the more bizarre statistics, Lester’s list of consecutive games from a re-start after time out of the Lions side reads 3-6-7-2-4-1-11-7-5-5-3-6-1 through to the end of 2015.
From 2016 it was 10-4-30-2-8-2-5-4-7, and since 2021 it’s been 17-1-6-1-1-1-1-5-11. So only twice in 11 years has he played more than 11 games in a row. Yet he’s never been known to complain, and is always 100%-plus when playing in the reserves.
It’s certainly enough for the word ‘resilience’ to be stamped in large print across his #35 locker, especially in comparison to Wilmot, who will play his 27th game in a row from debut this week.
That Lester will play in the first final on Saturday night will mean a lot to him after he’s been forced to watch six of the nine Lions finals during his time at the club. And start as the sub in a seventh.
A long-time member of the leadership group despite being so quietly-spoken in his early years he was known as ‘Humphrey’ and despite not always being a fixture in the top side, he was not selected for the Lions’ first two finals under coach Chris Fagan in 2019. He made his finals debut in his 140th game overall in the 2020 Gabba qualifying final win over Richmond.
After backing up a fortnight later in the Gabba preliminary loss to Geelong, he’s played only 51 minutes of finals football since then – in the 2021 Gabba semi-final against the Western Bulldogs when he came off the bench in the third quarter.
That was after he was overlooked for the 2021 qualifying final loss to Melbourne in Adelaide, and before he missed all three finals in 2022 against Richmond at the Gabba and Melbourne and Geelong at the MCG.
With the recently-confirmed 2023 retirement of eight players from the 2010 draft – Tom Jonas, Tom Hickey, Isaac Smith, Paul Seedsman, Andrew Phillips, Jon Ceglar, Sam Menegola and Ed Curnow – the veteran #35 will be among just 26 ‘survivors’ from the original 158 first-time draftees of 2010. Possibly less.
While he’s played 177 games Sydney co-captain Luke Parker, who debuted seven weeks later in Round 8 2011, heads the Class of 2010 games list at 282 and is one of 20 200-gamers from that year.
Yet if there was a reunion of the 2010 draftees Lester would have bragging rights over five players still in the AFL system - West Coast’s Jeremy McGovern (172), Port Adelaide’s Trent McKenzie (163), Gold Coast’s Sam Day (150), Port’s Scott Lycett (144),and the Western Bulldogs’ one-time cricketer Alex Keath (104).
Keath was part of the start-up Gold Coast list with McKenzie and Day ahead of their entry to the AFL in 2011 but never joined the club. He played first-class cricket from 2010-15 and only returned to the AFL with Adelaide in 2016.
Since becoming player #245 on the all-time Brisbane list Lester has seen no less than 101 players debut for the club, with Jaspa Fletcher having become player #346 this year.
Only Rich of Lester’s first side in 2011 is still at the club, while his first captain Jonathan Brown is nine years into retirement and so long out of the game he was elevated to ‘legend’ status in the Lions Hall of Fame last week.
Claye Beams and Rohan Bewick, who debuted with Lester against Fremantle at the Gabba, played their last games in 2016 and 2017 respectively.