TRINITY Handley allayed any fears that he could recapture his best form with a superb display in Claremont's hard fought win over Subiaco on Saturday and he will now tackle the rest of 2011 with plenty of confidence after a year out of the WAFL.
Handley emerged as one of the very best players in the WAFL in 2009 when Simon McPhee took over as coach of Claremont and played him through the midfield and up forward.
While he had played strong football the previous five years in the back-line, Handley showed his truly quality in an outstanding 2009 season but then his life took a twist and he took up the challenge of heading to Warrnambool in country Victoria.
While there he helped set up a Clontarf Academy and played with Port Fairy, but that wasn’t quite WAFL football. Upon returning in 2011 to join a Tigers team coming off a superb season, he had confidence that he could recapture his best form, but still had to go out and do it.
He certainly did that in spades in Saturday's six-point win over Subiaco at Leederville's Medibank Stadium as he spent much of the game through the middle, even a little in the ruck and up forward. The 27-year-old veteran of 125 games was delighted to show what he's still capable of.
"The personnel and game style has certainly changed in the short time that I was away. Coming back I knew that it was always going to take me a little while to get into it, but as long as I had a good fitness-base and learned the game style I knew I'd get back into it," Handley said.
"It was really nice to play a role where I was able to use some of my strengths in terms of working up the ground and working back. I even had a stint in the ruck there, which I'm more than happy to do if that's what the team requires of me.
"I've always said I'm happy to play any role, but obviously if I can utilise my strengths which is using my running capacity and being able to play forward or back, then I'm happy to do that."
Handley now has no doubt that his performance on Saturday will give him plenty of confidence going forward that he can continue that form for the rest of the season. He finished the game with 25 possessions, seven marks, five hit outs, seven inside-50 entries and a goal.
"I'd be lying if I said it didn’t give me some confidence. Even when you just spend a year out like I did you have a couple of question marks as to whether you can play the same football that you did before you left," he said.
"Like anyone I had those question marks within myself. Deep down I knew that I could do it, but you do wonder if you can end up doing it."
In that 2009 season when Handley had such a big impact, McPhee was the coach and he still is now, but Claremont went from finishing eighth two years ago to dominating in 2010 and only missing the premiership by a point. Handley's definitely noticed plenty of changes from when he left.
"Macca was still the coach when I left and I could just see the enthusiasm that he brings to the role. I knew that the boys would have a good season last year even though I probably didn’t think they'd play off in a grand final like a lot of people," he said.
"There's a quality coaching staff and playing list, though, so it's not that much of a surprise that they did end up making it. The group has definitely changed."
Claremont had won well in the opening four games of the 2011 season over East Fremantle, Swan Districts, Peel and East Perth, so to be fully tested on Saturday by a Subiaco team that played well gives the Tigers plenty of heart.
Even more so considering Andrew Foster, Ian Richardson and Luke Blackwell didn’t play, and Brett Jones, Alroy Gilligan and Andrew Browne got hurt during the game. Handley was proud of the group's effort to fight out the victory.
"As much as it's nice to win comfortably those really tight games can really make a season. That was really important for us that win. We really set ourselves with this block coming up to the Foxtel Cup game and we wanted to win all our matches. It was tough, but a good win in the end," he said.
"We really set ourselves for this contest, and obviously so did they because they came out firing, but it's fair to say they certainly had the better of us in the first half. We got together and spoke about how if we were to win that it would be a real hard slog, it wasn’t going to come easy.
"I suppose one of the strengths of our group is that we know even if we lose a couple of players through injury during the week or in the game, we have guys who can step in and do the job."
As for his year in Victoria in 2010, Handley enjoyed the challenge and experience it provided him, but in the end the call of home in Perth and his friends, and teammates at Claremont was too strong and he was keen to return even if it meant giving up a terrific job.
"It's a great life experience and I was probably at a stage where I was just thinking about different options for myself. Moving to Victoria was something that came up and I thought it would be worth a shot, but in the end I missed home a bit and certainly missed footy back here and my mates. In the end it was an easy decision to come home and I'm rapt to be back," Handley said.
"I knew coming back that there wasn’t going to be a Clontarf job for me. There's not a lot of Clontarf opportunities in terms of employment just because it's such a fantastic job and most of the guys that are working in it like to keep onto their jobs. That's fair enough. Certainly I'd be open to any opportunity if it opens up, but unfortunately I'm not working there at the moment."
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