THE SEASON shutdown earlier this year was good for Charlie Ballard, and not only because it gave him time to settle into his the home he had recently purchased in Gold Coast.
"It was all renovated inside so I didn't have to do anything there, it was more just the lawns and gardening," the Suns defender said. "I got my lawns pristine."
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Ballard's real bonus of the AFL's suspension of games was giving him extra time to return to fitness after a shoulder reconstruction in February threatened to rule him out for up to half of the 2020 season.
The injury he suffered during the pre-season saw him require surgery and miss round one and had the season progressed normally, Ballard would likely have missed games until June. But after a three-month pause due to the spread of COVID-19, by the time the Suns lined up for round two against West Coast, Ballard was ready.
"Looking at things before coronavirus I was probably only playing half of the season with my shoulder so that was a bit of a blessing in disguise so I was able to come back and slot into the side," he said.
"It was probably my first real long-term injury so I looked at it like I was coming back round six or seven and that was still a pretty good result considering there was still at that point 22 games in the season.
"It gave me extra time to rehab it and get my confidence up."
That belief has been obvious as Ballard has become one of Gold Coast's most crucial players in a much-improved side. The key defender is the Suns' intercept king in defence, regularly jumping in front of, across and amongst the opposition's best forwards to haul in marks.
After playing 11 games in his debut 2018 season, the 21-year-old played 21 last season and was thrust the responsibility in the backline with an injury-struck Suns line-up.
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"A lot of times I was playing that third role and late in the year with those injuries I was pushed up to more of a second key defender role. I took that in my stride and was learning a bit of a different craft," he said.
"I just didn't want to become complacent in my position and I wanted to become a really good player and a really important player for the side.
"I wanted to work on my strengths which I believe I have done with my intercepting and reading the play, but that comes with defending in general."
Ballard has averaged nearly five marks in his 11 games so far this season and grown – literally – into one of the competition's best young defenders.
It wasn't always looking that way. The Suns drafted Ballard with pick No.41 in the 2017 NAB AFL Draft, the selection they received alongside Lachie Weller in the trade that sent pick No.2 (Andrew Brayshaw) to Fremantle.
But they chose him as an athletic wingman who could mark above his head, not anticipating he would add a couple of centremetres in his first year at the club and now stand at 197cm.
"When I got drafted I was going to be a flexible player going forward and a little bit of wing and back in my first year so I think I was comfortable to do whatever. In my second year I fell into that spot as a third tall," he said.
He will have his hands full again on Friday night as the Suns face Carlton at TIO Stadium to open Sir Doug Nicholls Round. Gold Coast will be looking to break a five-game run without a win, while the Blues, spearheaded by key forward pair Harry McKay and Levi Casboult, are aiming to get on a run with an eye on a finals spot.
"It's my first time ever in Darwin and I've been lucky enough to be in the last two Indigenous games as well, so every year it's a privilege to put the jumper on and represent the Indigenous boys," Ballard said.