For a player of Leigh Montagna’s ilk, it’s easy to forget the modest start to the decorated midfielder’s career. Under Grant Thomas, Montagna was forced to truly earn every minute of senior football and then more. In hindsight the tenacious wingman admits those early lessons laid the path to where he stands today.
And it is that path that has taken him to the 250-game milestone, which he will reach against Port Adelaide at Adelaide Oval on Sunday afternoon when his beloved St Kilda open its 2016 account at South Australia’s sporting cathedral.
“It was difficult early in my career. Grant Thomas was my coach and rode me pretty hard,” Montagna told saints.com.au ahead of his 250th game on Sunday.
“At the time it’s always frustrating, but looking back 15 years later it was probably a blessing in disguise – it made me a better player, it made me more resilient.
“I had a few little injuries as well, but only played 20 odd games in my first four years. And then got through that period and since then I have been pretty lucky with a pretty good run.”
Following his one and only game in his debut season in 2002 the 32-year-old, who is affectionately known as ‘Joey’, played 29 games across the next three seasons as injury and form kept him out of the side.
But by 2006, on the back of a strong finish to the previous year, Montagna established himself as starting member in St Kilda’s best 22. And from there he has never left, playing at least 20 games in every season since, except for 2015 where he managed 17 appearances after a knee injury hampered his start to the season.
Renowned for his meticulous preparation and recovery, Montagna credits his durability and longevity in the game to being acutely aware of his body and when he needs to be reined in.
“I think as you get older you understand your body a little bit better, you know when to push yourself and also when to back off and make sure your body is right,” Montagna said.
“But I think obviously my size and those sorts of things have helped as well and a bit of good luck too. It all adds up.”
Across 14 seasons in red, white and black, Montagna has ridden the St Kilda rollercoaster like few others. He’s climbed all the way to the Grand Final summit and plummeted back down the other side. As well as being everywhere in between.
The 2009 and 2010 Grand Finals stand out for the former third-round bargain draft pick, although the thrilling seven-point win over the Western Bulldogs to advance to his first Grand Final - the club’s first since 1997 - is Montagna’s most cherished football memory.
“Certainly playing in the Grand Finals is something you’re very proud of and winning the preliminary finals to get there,” Montagna said.
“The first preliminary final win against the Bulldogs was a nail-biting win. That feeling when the siren went to know you’re in your first Grand Final is something pretty special.”
On the eve of his 15th season at the highest level and with a deal tying him to the Saints for a 16th year, Montagna won’t look any further than his current contract. But if he remains motivated and injury free, there’s every chance 2016 won’t be his last.
“We’ll worry about this season and next season and then we’ll see from there. It’s really good from the club to show faith in me that my body’s going to last a bit longer,” Montagna said.
“It helps me stay motivated and stimulated to know that I’ve still got another season ahead of me this year. I know it’s a bit cliché, we won’t take it one week at a time; we’ll take it one month at a time.”
"As long as my mind stays motivated and stimulated I'll keep going for as long as I can." Joey— St Kilda FC (@stkildafc) March 22, 2016
St Kilda’s depth through the middle of the ground has increased in the last two seasons with a wave of youth beginning to establish themselves as bona fide AFL midfielders.
Montagna is buoyed by the current state of midfield affairs, confident the emerging flock of onballers will be able to take more of the workload off star midfielders Jack Steven and David Armitage as the Saints’ engine room bats deeper.
“It’s really positive, obviously we’ve got two elite players in there in Jack Steven and ‘Armo’,” he said.
“I think Seb Ross and Jack Newnes are guys that have been around for a while now and are ready to take the next step.
“And I think you’ll see a bit more of Jack Billings and Jack Lonie get a crack in the middle – they’ve both got a bit of class and even young [Jade] Gresham. So we’ve now got a bit of class and polish to add to the grunt.”