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A Q&A with VFL captain Kris Pendlebury

Collingwood's VFL captain Kris Pendlebury was crowned the team's Best and Fairest player when he was awarded the Joseph Wren Memorial Trophy at the Copeland Trophy dinner earlier this month.

The 26-year-old was named at full back in the VFL Team of the Year and received his second Victorian jumper in the space of three seasons.

Pendlebury spoke to about his season, his role as captain of the VFL team and his burning desire to be drafted onto an AFL list.

You can watch Pendlebury's season highlights on CTV in the video above.

Luke Mason: Did you have any expectations heading into the Copeland Trophy count where it was announced that you had won the JR Wren Trophy?
Kris Pendlebury: No, I had no idea. I knew I had a good year. (I was) pretty consistent, but I didn’t have any expectations going into the night. I just wanted to get there and enjoy the night with all the other guys. It was a bit of a shock when they called out my name but it was good at the same time.

LM: How would you describe your season?
KP: I suppose it was a little bit different to previous years. I was able to play up the ground a little bit more because we had a few bigger bodies. Shae McNamara was down there and Corey Gault was down there at the end of the year and I thought he was pretty good. It meant I was able to get up the ground a little bit more so I was able to be a bit more creative when I had the ball instead of being on that last line so I wasn’t stuck there. I enjoyed that and towards the end of the year I was back towards goal through injuries and whatnot.

LM: What sort of opponents were you playing on?
KP: Last year I had a few big ones like Barry Hall and Fev (Brendan Fevola) and all those big boys. It was more the up and coming guys this year, to be honest. Last year, Tarks (VFL coach Tarkyn Lockyer) called me before the Williamstown game while I was walking the dog and he said ‘you’re going to play on Barry Hall tomorrow’, and I said ‘thanks for the heads up mate, I probably won’t get any sleep tonight’. But there were no real big marquee names (this year).

LM: You also played in the Victorian team down in Tassie in the State of Origin. What did you gain from that experience?
KP: That was my second time around. The first time we played the WAFL over there. The Tassie game was a bit of a one-sided affair. We ended up winning by over 100 points. It was a good experience to get away with all those guys and learn how they go about it. You learn a lot from the coaches (including Victorian coach Gary Ayres) even though you’re only with them for two training sessions and a weekend. You learn a lot and take a lot away from them so it was a worthwhile trip. The training sessions weren’t too dissimilar to training with the AFL guys. I’ve been lucky enough to train with them a little bit while I’ve been here and the skills have been pretty pristine. The ball doesn’t hit the deck too much and it’s pretty clean. They’re just short and sharp with high intensity so even training with them you just improve with each session, so it’s really good.

LM: How difficult has it been playing at full back in a team that has won only eight games over the past two years?
KP: I suppose you can look at it two ways. I look at it as if I’m lucky to be playing there because it’s down there a lot so I get the opportunity to get the ball. It’s been frustrating at times because you win the ball and get it out but it comes straight back in. I think there’s been a few games where we’ve had 60 or 70 inside 50s against us so you’re forced to defend and you’ve got to be on the ball straight away because if you’re slacking off for two seconds it’s going to be a goal. So in that regard it’s been good, but from a team perspective, it’s probably not the best result.

LM: Describe your role as the captain of the VFL team: How much time do you spend at the club during the week? Is your place in the team (form and injury permitting) guaranteed each week?
KP: It’s been a bit different this year. In past years, if there were no spots, I wouldn’t get to play, but since Tarkyn’s taken over in the last two years, it’s changed so that if you’re in form, you’re going to play. I’ve been lucky enough to play almost every game in the last three years, really. The VFL guys we’ve had come in the last few years have played pretty well, and they might have played a bit better than some AFL guys. It’s good in a way because sometimes I think AFL guys can take it for granted that they’re going to play next week no matter how they play, whereas for us guys, you’re sort of sitting on the razor’s edge not knowing whether you’re going to play next week no matter how well you play so you just go out there and put everything on the line and do what you can.

LM: You’re often in and around the Westpac Centre during the week. What do you get up to in there?
KP: It’s just the way I approach it. I get in here every day. I do rehab on the Monday. I do extra weights or bike or running on a Tuesday. We’ll train on the Wednesday and Thursday’s our day off, usually, so I’ll come in and do rehab, ice baths and that sort of stuff. Then Friday’s our main session. Obviously on the weekend we’re playing and then we’re back here for recovery. I treat it as my full time job. Some people might not but that’s the way I prepare and get ready to play and get the most out of myself. With the facilities here, you’re crazy if you don’t take advantage of them.

LM: Do you almost treat it as if you’re an AFL player in some ways?
KP: Yeah. Some people may treat it differently but that’s the way I look at it. As I said, you’ve got all the facilities here to get the most out of yourself so you’re pretty crazy if you don’t use them.

LM: Have you had much involvement with the AFL players away from training?
KP: I’ve done a pre-season here (with the senior list) but we don’t really have much away from the club because we’ve got to work as well as play football. So that makes it hard, but you’ve got to capitalise on your time in here and create that relationship with the AFL players because you’re going to be playing with most of them. That’s one thing that I focus on.
LM: How do you find the balance of having half the VFL side made up of AFL-listed players and half who are VFL-listed and therefore unable to play at the highest level?
KP: It’s a bit of a fine line. With their work, most of the VFL guys can only get here two nights a week or three nights a week if they’re lucky so it’s hard to build up that rapport with one another. It’s not like a local club where you know everyone’s name, what they do for a job and who their girlfriend is, so it’s hard to get that rapport. I think towards the end of the year, even though the results probably didn’t reflect it, I think we played a lot better as a team. It’s something we can definitely get better at as we move forward. I think the cohesion between the VFL and AFL can be a bit better and I think the results will reflect that.

LM: How hard is it getting used to the frequent changes to the VFL and AFL lists at the end of each season?
KP: It is quite hard. There’s such an influx of players with the rookies flicking over all the time so you’re adapting to new players and you’ve got to get to know them. They’re all very friendly and give you the time of day. Our goal is obviously to play well, and if we’re playing well, they’re only going to get more opportunity. If they take the time to invest in us, we’ll invest in them, and hopefully it can help get them to where they want to go to and also if we’re playing well (the VFL-listed players), we might get picked up or looked at somewhere down the line. It all helps.
LM: What can we learn from a team like Geelong, who has managed to keep its senior VFL players together over a long period of time?
KP: I think that’s the model that we’re trying to focus ourselves on. In their core group, there are five or six of them who are aged 26-27 who have stuck together. I think that if we stick together, in time we can definitely go close to achieving what they have.

LM: The VFL team will have a new coach next year in Dale Tapping. What do you think he’ll bring to the table? What impressions did you gain from working with him this year?
KP: I had a brief chat with him last week. Getting that cohesion between the two groups is a big thing. I’ve heard from a lot of people who had him as a coach at Sandringham (in the TAC Cup U18s) that he was very good at teaching young fellas how to play the game and the right way to play. I didn’t have much to do with him in 2012 because he was in control of the midfield but a part of his focus will be on making sure that everyone is on the same playing field.

LM: You’ve been involved in the VFL since 2005. What are the recent trends that you’ve noticed that have crept into the game in recent times?
KP: The full ground press was in vogue a few years ago and now it’s about the contested ball and trying to keep possession away from the opposition. It’s become a lot more skilful in trying to keep the ball off the opposition. And obviously the pressure these days is pretty intense. If you don’t have that tackling pressure and intensity at the ball it will cause turnovers for easy goals and you’re going to struggle. They’re the two things I’ve noticed and it probably mirrors the AFL and the way it’s going as well.
LM: Have you made a decision on your own playing future? What are your prospects for the November and December drafts?
KP: I nominated again last year, so I’m in there for another year or two. I’m not holding any hopes or anything like that. I’ve been in a position before where I’ve had interest and you get your hopes up but nothing happens. I’ve been through that probably two or three times and it’s not the best feeling. At the end of the day it’s only going to make you stronger. You can only control what you can control, so I’ve put everything into it and if it happens, it happens. If not, just move on.

LM: With that in mind, how do you plan for next year?
KP: I’ve still got plans for next year if it doesn’t happen but that can all change. If you play AFL, obviously you’ll take it with both hands but if you don’t, you have to have your back up plan with your job and your family.

LM: If you were able to sell yourself to a club, what would be your selling points?
KP: I could come in right now and play straight away. I’ve got no doubt in my mind about that. I’ve played on AFL-listed forwards every week over the last two or three weeks and I’d probably back myself in every week that I’d beat them. Anyone that’s lacking a defender, just give me a call. I don’t mind the number two (in light of full back Chris Tarrant’s retirement)! I played with him in a few games this year and I think we are pretty similar sorts of players: athletic, don’t get much of the ball but use it pretty well, strong and big bodied and can play tall and small. It would be a good swap, but who knows?

LM: Have you got a definite plan to stay here if things don’t pan out?
KP: I’m not sure, to be honest. I’d like to stay again. The VFL’s a year-to-year proposition because as you get older you get offers to go elsewhere. You might get metro or country footy clubs that throw around a lot of big dollars but I’ve played nearly 100 games in the VFL so I’d like to tick that off. I’m pretty confident that I’ll be here next year and hopefully help us climb back up the ladder.

LM: You mentioned that 100 game mark. Tell us a bit about the journey to this point in your career.
KP: I started with Bendigo in 2005. I had a little bit of interest from Essendon after the TAC Cup at Gippsland. They had three rookie picks that year and they said, ‘if we had one more, we’d take you’. They said that they were very keen to keep an eye on me so I went up to Bendigo and played up there for a year and I spent one day a week at Essendon just training with them and getting my head around what was involved at an AFL club. I spent half the time in the ones and half in the reserves in my first season at Bendigo.

I probably underestimated how big the jump is from the under-18s to the VFL standard. I played round one that year and I was blown away by how quick it was. That put me on the back foot but I got a taste of what was needed and towards the end of the year we made the Preliminary Final so I got to play in all the finals and was 19 at the time and played pretty well.

I was lucky enough to do a pre-season at Essendon the following year but it was the same story - I just missed out on being drafted. Then I moved to Melbourne and trained with the metro base of the Bendigo players. I played a full year there with a year in the seniors after doing another pre-season at Essendon and then the weekend before I was due to start, I was playing basketball back in Sale and did my shoulder, so that put an end to my season.

I caught wind through Scott (Kris’ younger brother) that Collingwood was starting its own team and it looked like a good chance for a fresh start at the end of 2007, and I’ve been here ever since.

LM: Reaching the Preliminary Final with Collingwood’s VFL team in 2009 would be the high point of your career so far?
KP: Definitely. I didn’t get to play in the first final because of the numbers situation (with too many AFL players available for selection). I got to play against Williamstown and then North Ballarat in the Prelim so from a team standpoint, that was the highlight no doubt. And to see all those guys from that team play in the flag the next year was pretty cool. In the backline we had Ben Reid, and Blairy was playing, Dawesy, Caffer, all those guys. You see them develop and it’s pretty amazing that one year they’re next to you in the VFL and then the next year you see them winning a Grand Final. It’s pretty cool.
LM: Having been involved in the TAC and VFL systems for nearly a decade, you must be involved in a strong network across the state…
KP: It almost feels like there’s a bit of the six degrees of separation going on. At Bendigo I got to play with Jobe Watson and Ted Richards, and all the guys here like Dids, Taz, Benny Johnson and Krakouer. It’s funny when you sit back and think about it. The network that you get from playing footy is just amazing. I’ve been pretty lucky. Even a few weeks ago I was watching Collingwood play Essendon and Scotty Watters (an assistant coach at Collingwood between 2010 and 2011) was sitting in front of me, so I had a good chat to him at half time. It’s just amazing with all the people you meet and the opportunities that it can potentially come out of it as well.

LM: With all that you have seen and done in the past eight years, you must have plenty of wisdom to pass on to players who are fresh out of the TAC Cup.
KP: It’s good because I’ve been through it all so I can tell them that if you’re there for a year, work your butt off, because you’ve got one shot at it. For us guys on the VFL list, we’d give anything to have that chance so it’s probably good in a way because I can provide a bit of leadership and tell them that as much as they think they’ve made it, they probably really haven’t, so do everything you can.

You don’t know what will happen at the end of the year. You could get elevated or you could go back home and play local footy. You just don’t know. That’s the way I’ve been brought up. Just do everything you can, not just what’s expected. At the end of the day, an extra half an hour of doing weights, or running, or touch is not going to kill you. It will only make you a better player. That’s one piece of advise that I could provide to anyone - do whatever you can whenever you can, because you don’t know who will be watching.

LM: You’re about to begin working in construction and you recently got engaged. Things must be looking up in life away from footy?
KP: It’s all happening. As you get older you’ve got to plan for life after footy. It’s not that I’m going to stop playing but getting married and the prospect of having kids not being too far down the track, you’ve got to keep one eye on the now and one on the future. You’ve got to plan ahead.