HUNTER Clark had it all worked out. The emerging St Kilda midfielder's 21st birthday fell on March 26 – between rounds one and two – and in the lead-up to the opening game of the year he texted a group of his mates.
"I wasn't going to have a party, but I was hoping to get a crew of my mates to come to one of the first two games, as we were playing on Sunday afternoons and after that go to the pub," he told AFL.com.au.
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"I sent a message out to about 15 mates saying I'd try to get them to the first game against North Melbourne and then a day later they announced there'd be no crowds at games. I had to send another one, 'Look boys, we'll find another time."
After the Saints' first round loss to the Roos, the players were told immediately that the AFL season had been stopped indefinitely due to the spread of the coronavirus.
Three days later, on his birthday, Clark headed back to his family's place in Mt Martha, enjoying a quieter celebration than originally planned.
"I had a few beers here with mum and dad, my brother and sister and my sister's boyfriend. That was it, had dinner, played some card games and stuff like that," he said.
Clark has been based with his family since then, navigating the social distancing period in various ways.
There's been training. "We have about three runs a week – so Tuesday, Thursday and on the weekend. I've been trying to do a few weights, three or four body sessions a week, and a few boxing hits with my brother," Clark said.
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Then there's been other things. He's been reading The Lord of the Rings (then as a family every couple of nights they've been watching the films), completing some sudoku puzzles and keeping busy without being busy.
"I probably would never have done those things if this didn't happen. I haven't read a book since year 10 I reckon, I usually can't focus on it, but I've been loving it," he said.
"I've had a few days where I've looked back on the day and I don't even know what I've done, but it's good they've been going quick."
Clark is naturally low-key, quietly spoken and determined, thoughtful and considered.
But there has been a genuine buzz growing around the skillful and tough Saint as he entered his third AFL season as one of the club's best young talents.
The No.7 pick from the 2017 NAB AFL Draft had a challenging 2019. He was left out of the Saints' first two games, was brought into the senior side, before being dropped back to the VFL.
A chat with Saints assistant coach Aaron Hamill saw a change in his approach.
"But I spoke with him a fair bit and he said to just have fun. I pretended VFL was local footy, and just enjoyed it. I was putting too much pressure on myself.
"I had some pretty good form in that three weeks and I carried that into the AFL, and my mindset coming into the games was to just try and have fun. It's an awesome job so don't work yourself up or put too much expectations on yourself."
Clark came back into the Saints' line-up in round 13 and held that spot for the rest of the season, averaging 22 disposals in that time. His breakout game came against the Bulldogs, when he kicked two goals from 26 touches in the Saints' win.
Clark's focus continued to be on improving his running and his strength over the pre-season, goals he ticked off. Building his body was a clear focus, keen to alleviate the fatigue that had come late in games.
"I'm still a bit skinnier I terms of size compared to some of the blokes I play against and with," he said.
Clark knows the gravity of the COVID-19 situation, and football's place within that, but it's hard for him not to think about the impact of a long layoff.
"On a personal level it's pretty annoying. I got a fair bit fitter and stronger, and that's what I'm trying to do every year. It's not for nothing, because we'll hopefully go back to games at some stage, but in a way it feels a bit frustrating that it could go to waste," he said.
Having gathered 18 disposals and three clearances in round one against the Roos, played in front of an empty Marvel Stadium, Clark has found a greater appreciation of the roar from the stands while at home.
"I've found watching a few old games on TV that I'm noticing the fans more now listening to the crowd," he said.
"Although in the short term there might be games with no crowds, if it wasn't for the crowds and our fans there wouldn't be a game. You take that a little bit for granted."