For much of Sydney defender Nick Smith’s 12-year AFL career, his name was put on the magnet board next to the opposition’s most dangerous small forward without hesitation by coaches Paul Roos and John Longmire.
He would then duly square off against the likes of former schoolmate Cyril Rioli, Steve Johnson, Eddie Betts, Toby Greene, Robbie Gray, Stephen Milne, Luke Breust and Mark LeCras – all stars of the game in their own right.
And, as Longmire noted on Wednesday during a press conference to announce Smith’s retirement, that daunting assignment often took place in the defensive goalsquare, which he described as the “loneliest” place on the football ground.
It required significant mental strength, but Smith was more than up to the challenge.
“There wasn’t even a discussion or debate – he had that much trust in the coaching staff and the players,” Longmire said.
Smith said the Swans’ 2012 premiership, which saw him realise a “boyhood dream”, was the highlight of his career.
“I feel a connectedness to the guys who I won that with,” he said.
“And I’m looking forward to the reunions in 10, 20, 30 and 40 years’ time because it was something really special for that group.”
Smith also looked back fondly on all those heated one-on-one match-ups, despite the obvious pressure.
“It wasn’t easy, but there’s that healthy respect and I enjoyed the competition against them,” he said.
And perhaps the greatest battle, Smith said, was with Rioli, his ex-Scotch College teammate, whom he helped keep goalless in the 2012 decider.
“Usually I went in with a plan that I felt confident I could execute,” he said.
“I’d watch vision the week before, (but) some of the stuff Cyril did, I’d watch that and think…I can’t stop it.”
A fortnight ago, Sydney champion Jarrad McVeigh announced this campaign would be his last as an AFL player while Smith’s fellow defensive stalwart Heath Grundy called time on his career earlier this year.
Another key member of the 2012 flag-winning outfit, midfielder Kieren Jack, could also hang up the boots at season’s end.
This would leave Josh Kennedy, Luke Parker and Sam Reid as the last three premiership Swans at the club in what Longmire recognised could be the start of a new era.
Smith’s retirement was prompted by a serious hamstring injury which required three rounds of surgery.
The 2014 All-Australian tore the hamstring tendon off the bone in round 21 last year and has suffered numerous setbacks during an ultimately unsuccessful bid to return to action.
Smith played 211 games for the Swans after joining the club as a rookie in 2007, with his debut coming the following year.