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The case for the defence of feisty Sicily

Marc McGowan  August 13, 2017 10:00 AM

AFL 2017 Round 19 - Hawthorn v Sydney

Young Hawk James Sicily says he is making a conscious effort in trying to control his emotions, particularly towards umpires, which he acknowledges has been a problem

I probably do have white line fever ... but I'm a totally different bloke outside of football … and I kind of need to be

LOVE him or hate him, James Sicily – and whatever that name represents to you – is here to stay.

The gravity-defying Hawk with sure hands, elite kicking skills and confidence to match is playing career-best football as a defender, while peaking in the irritant and controversy stakes at the same time.

Therein lies the Sicily experience, one he promises won't change anytime soon.

Rounds 18 and 19 of the 2017 AFL season summed up this complex, intense – but quality – package better than any other sample.

By now, most football fans have watched Sicily's expletive-laden send-off to Taylor Duryea against Fremantle. His teammate dared try calming him down after a close-range 'Falcon' from Hayden Ballantyne ignited Sicily's rage towards the umpire, then Duryea.

A week later, Sicily was cheekily sledging Swans hard-nut Zak Jones, engaging in a fiery push-and-shove with Tom Papley, and going off at another umpire after a questionable-but-probably-there 50m penalty against him.

Hawks veteran Luke Hodge even wrapped Sicily in a bear hug during his latest umpire spray to prevent further verbal carnage. But what makes all this bearable is how well Sicily plays in this heightened emotional state – and intriguingly how composed he still can be.

"I'm not going to change how I am, and that's not me being naïve or anything as a young person," Sicily told AFL.com.au.

"At the moment, I truly believe I play my best footy when I'm on the edge and hopefully that (Duryea incident) doesn't happen again, but I can't promise it.

"I've made a little bit of a conscious effort on handling my temperament a bit, particularly towards the umpires as well, (because) I know that's been a bit of a problem. I'm a very competitive person, but I kind of do need to tone it down a little bit."

Sicily's switch from spectacular but inconsistent forward to intercepting defender was not a Liam Jones-like, seemingly overnight success, but rather one of persistence and opportunity.

Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson approached Sicily about the move – after testing him twice in defence last year – and the 22-year-old spent the pre-season learning the backline trade from the likes of Hodge, Josh Gibson and Grant Birchall.

He started round one there, but was a casualty of the Hawks' 25-point defeat to Essendon and was not sighted again at senior level until round four – and even then, he was used in a variety of roles.

Clarkson's want, and need, to mix things up, as well as Gibson joining the growing list of wounded backmen, saw him successfully thrust Sicily back into a defensive role against Adelaide in round 14.

That night proved a turning point not only for Hawthorn, but Sicily, too. A 14-point victory over the Crows triggered a surprising stretch when the Hawks won four games, drew another and lost just once – by three points to Geelong.

Sicily had 25 disposals (nine contested), 10 marks and six rebound 50s to announce himself as a genuine defensive option with star quality. The only time he had fewer than 22 possessions and seven marks since was when he spent time off the field with an ankle problem against Geelong.

At 186cm, Sicily can even lay claim to being the game's best small-medium defender in the past seven matches, after previously rating dismally this season as a forward in disposals, contested possessions, score assists, tackles and kick rating.

SICILY v SMALL-MEDIUM DEFENDERS SINCE ROUND 14

STATISTIC   AVERAGE     RANKING  
AFL Player Ratings  11.6 14th 
Disposals  24.3 1st 
Contested possessions    7.7  4th 
Marks 9.7  1st 
Contested marks 2.6  1st 
Intercept marks 4.6  1st 
Intercept possessions 9.1  1st 
Spoils 1.6  67th 
Rebound 50s 4.6  10th 
Metres gained 376  27th 
Kick rating +6.6%  24th 


"I wouldn't say I pictured it to pan out that way, but the Adelaide game gave me a huge confidence boost, particularly over there in a very hostile environment," Sicily said.

"The coaching staff and a lot of the leaders are backing us young guys in to back our talent and just play footy and not worry about mistakes or anything external. They have complete confidence in us to execute the role, and it gives you a confidence boost."

Those who know Sicily paint him as a person of contrast, as does the man himself. He will try to beat you at all costs on a football field, the golf course or even playing Pokemon Go, but is a more reserved, retiring – even nervous – figure in everyday life.

Sicily, a self-confessed home body, credits golf with playing an integral role in getting him outside and "raring to go" for weekends when he transforms into his football self.

"I probably do have white line fever. I think that's a bit of a rhetorical question," Sicily said with a laugh. "But I'm a totally different bloke outside of football … and I kind of need to be."

The cut and thrust between Sicily's on-field emotions have been present since his junior days. Then Hawthorn recruiter Gary Buckenara, who campaigned for Sicily to join the brown and gold, loved the ex-Western Jet's competitiveness at TAC Cup level despite conceding it was "a bit of his undoing".

"He often lost his focus, because he was frustrated by his opponent and would work out how he could get back at him physically rather than get back by winning the footy," Buckenara said.

"It even went to the degree that clubs worked out how to annoy him and get under his skin … but what really stood out to me was he could do some (special) things with the footy off one step.

"He's a brilliant, penetrating and long kick and can get the ball there really quickly, and you always look for that in midfielders and players who are really good kicks."

Jets talent manager Shane Sexton, who encouraged Buckenara's interest in the player drafted 56th overall in 2013, remembers Sicily as a "very talented" kid with "fantastic game sense" and "a hard edge".

Sicily is out of contract at season's end and his purple patch of form is sure to attract external interest, but he said he would "ideally" remain at the Hawks.

He is still developing his rapport with Clarkson, who publicly defended the fiery backman after the Swans win. Sicily described their relationship as a "work in progress", only because of the relatively limited time spent together.

Sicily looms as a vital plank in the remodelled Hawthorn line-up, alongside fellow under-23s Ryan Burton, Daniel Howe and Blake Hardwick. They all bided their time to varying degrees as the Hawks' 2013-15 flag three-peat wound up and down.

"It definitely gives you a bit of a fire in the belly, because you want to taste that success and you see all the emotion and jubilation that those guys playing in the premiership sides have," Sicily said.

"It makes you very envious and I think that's why when a lot of the younger guys have come into the side this year they've really grabbed it with both hands because we all want to be a part of that and we want to win silverware."