Island Park will be sprinkled with some AFL greatness this weekend as Casterton Sandford welcomes Geelong premiership trio Max Rooke, Brad Ottens and Mathew Stokes into the A Grade team for this Saturday’s huge Bendigo Bank Western Border Football League battle with Millicent.
It will be something of a fairytale for Rooke in particular, who grew up as Casterton Cat many years before he became the cult figure at Kardinia Park.
Geelong recruited the utility player straight from Casterton 20 years ago and he went on to play 135 games at the highest level plus playing in three consecutive AFL Grand Finals.
Despite reaching the holy grail with the Cats twice in 2007 and 09, Rooke said his junior football club has always remained close to his heart and he wanted to lend a helping hand.
“Obviously it is where we I started my career and looks like where I am going to end it as well,” he said.
“I played one game for Casterton back in 2013, but I have always loved the town and the people, so after COVID and not being involved in the AFL system anymore, I have a bit more time up my sleeve.
“Earlier this year I went back and helped out and when I drove away I felt like I needed to help out even more, so hopefully we can create a bit of excitement back into the town.” Although Rooke has coached at Geelong, Gold Coast and Melbourne since he hung up the boots in 2010, he managed to entice premiership team mates Stokes and Ottens to come out of retirement and wear blue and white hoops of a different kind.
South Australia played a part in Stokes’ journey to the big league when he starred for the Woodville-West Torrens SANFL side before being drafted as mature aged player in 2005.
His goalkicking prowess and roving skills meant he was formidable force kicking more than 200 majors alongside the likes of Gary Ablett Jr, Jimmy Bartel and Paul Chapman.
Just like Rooke, Ottens is a member of Geelong’s hall of fame and was a journeyman of the AFL.
Ottens hailed from the Glenelg Football Club and played 129 games for Richmond between 1998 and 2004.
But he took his career to new heights as a ruckman and the 1000th player to wear the Cats jumper at Kardinia Park and played a key role in the 2007 flag which ended 58 years of pain.
Rooke said he was thrilled to hear the pair were keen to play along-side him again to support the Kane Forbes’ men.
“I am pretty lucky to be close with most of my team mates from the Geelong era, but I knew that if it was just me I would not change much,” he said.
“Obviously the club is battling a bit at the moment, so I just gave them a phone call and I was not expecting them to say yes, but they both did straight away.
“Mathew played two years ago, but Brad and I have not played for around six years, so I hope everyone is not expecting us to set the world on fire.
“We are not going to be the AFL players we were that is for sure, but it is not about that for us, it is about doing what we can to help the club and country footy.
“The Western Border is not the same league as I what I remember growing up.
“I was probably one of the last to be drafted straight from the league without going through the TAC or SANFL, so I want the league to be as strong as it can be and hopefully young kids still have that opportunity.
“But more than anything we are there to help the players, share our knowledge and give them a bit of extra motivation for the rest of the season and beyond.” The injection of 580 games of AFL experience will give any country football team a boost, but no club needs it more than Casterton Sandford.
The new-look side has suffered a horror 2021, losing every game whilst being ravaged by injuries.
However, Rooke’s support behind the club has only grown as the pain grew with the former AFL star presenting jumpers to juniors, working behind the scenes and even running a clinic focused on mental health.
“Dylan (Ayton) contacted me earlier in the year and since I have left the AFL system, I have put a lot of time into learning about mental health because I have gone through a few things myself,” he said.
“One of the similarities I see is just how much the club means to the town at Geelong and Casterton.
“So it got to the point I wanted to start helping other people in anyway I could, so did a five-hour workshop with the team about things I have learnt to open up their eyes to a few things.
“It was really positive and I have a had a fair few chats with Kane about the little things I have seen at training and games because I am keen to give back to the town that gave me so much.
“I looked up to the senior players of the time at Casterton and they helped me a lot, so I want to return the favour and pass it on to the next generation.” The Cats were also lucky enough to spend time with former Western Bulldogs coach Brendon McCartney taking over training on Wednesday night.
On the field Casterton Sandford showcased some improvement with a promising first half against North Gambier before going down by 68 points.
But with Millicent becoming the first team to defeat South Gambier in 2021, the Saints will be a tough challenge for the Victorians.
However, expect Casterton Sandford to be reinvigorated from the wealth of AFL knowledge and put on a show for a huge crowd at Island Park.