In his nine years in the AFL Ward has established a reputation for his full-throttle, kamikaze style of play, hitting packs harder than the local constabulary raps knuckles on a drug dealer’s door. His teammates at the Dogs promptly nicknamed him Cement Head.
“As a young kid I was always small so I’d get thrown around like a ragdoll,” he laughs. “I just used to get up because my dad told me to. Now I’m playing with the bigger boys it’s just something I do naturally.”
The style suits a man eager to lead from the front. It’s probably just as well because while Ward was naturally suited to leadership’s on-field demands, when he moved up to the Giants back in 2012, he felt unprepared for just about every other aspect of his new job.
“I was still trying to cement my position at the Dogs so to come up here as a 21-year-old as captain, I just thought there’s no way I’m ready for that,” he says. “It meant more responsibility, more media, more pressure, more everything.”
He may have been apprehensive, but as Ward was to learn, leadership is one skill best learned on the job. In this respect, it almost doesn’t matter where you start, as long as you’re committed to getting better.
“At the Bulldogs all I cared about was playing as well as I could to stay in the team,” he says. “Now, as a captain, you have to care so much more about everyone else than you do about yourself.”
It’s a heads-up should you ever find yourself in the hot seat. But if you’re worried the external focus might mean your own performance suffers, remember that not being obsessive about your game or your work may not be a bad thing. Your hang-ups can evaporate, Ward says, because you simply don’t have time for them. Captaincy certainly didn’t hinder Ward’s on-field output. He was the Giants' Best and Fairest in 2012 and polled 15 Brownlow votes in 2014, the most in the club’s short history.
TRUST THE PROCESS
Ward is sitting on a wooden bench in the Giants’ change room, rhythmically tossing a Sherrin above his head. The dressing room looks like something from a US sports movie. Long orange lockers are stamped with each player’s name, the club’s secret team code mounted on the wall. The aura of professionalism extends to the gym where each individual weight plate bears the team logo.
If you wanted proof the AFL came to the rugby-league heartland of Western Sydney with a war chest, it’s right here in this glittering facility. It’s also apparent in the astonishing playing list the club has assembled from the cream of the national draft. The Giants are a club that can’t afford to fail.
Which is precisely what they did in their first humbling years, enduring some fearful drubbings as boys just out of high school attempted to take on grown men. Inevitably morale suffered, leaving it to the club’s few wily veterans and the green-behind-the-ears captain to be the voice of hope.
“You’d get smashed on the weekend and have to turn up on Monday and be the one with a smile on your face saying, ‘Boys, this is all part of the process’.” The message, Ward says, was all about the future, the ethos focused squarely on improvement. So it remains.
Now, after a better-than-expected 2016 that ended in a pulsating home final against Ward’s old club and eventual premiers, the Bulldogs, the Giants find themselves in the unfamiliar position of being premiership favourites. For the first time, the club faces the weight of expectation and the pressure to perform. Is Ward worried? Hardly. Rather, he seems like a man whose been waiting his whole life for this.
“I’m a bit funny about the word pressure,” he says, smiling. “I feel like you’re only really under pressure if you haven’t done the work. If you’ve done everything you can to prepare to the best of your ability you should be right.” He pauses for a moment before adding: “This pressure, it’s only external. The only pressure I’m really under is internal.” And as Ward knows better than anyone, outside voices don’t matter if the one in your head is sound.
Build a Giant Upper Body
Use Ward’s upper-body blast to get huge in a hurry
ARMS: triceps pull-down, biceps curl, skull crusher
CHEST: bench, dumbbell fly, push-up
BACK: rowing machine, lat pull down, chin-up
>Do sets of 10-12 for each move (30 seconds on the rower) for each body part, rest 1 minute and repeat twice, before moving on to the next body part.