TOBY Greene returns to action for the first time in 237 days at Manuka Oval on Friday night in a game the whole football world has been waiting for – many for one reason.
The Greater Western Sydney superstar was hit with a three-game suspension last September for making contact with umpire Matt Stevic in the elimination final win over Sydney in Launceston, before that ban was doubled in October after the AFL challenged the verdict.
Since that moment, the Giants have lost a semi-final to Geelong and four of the first five games of 2022. The two-time Therabody AFL All-Australian has also been elevated to co-captain alongside Stephen Coniglio and Josh Kelly since then.
It has been a long seven months. But now Greene returns against St Kilda in the nation's capital, in a match that feels as important as any home and away fixture in the history of the League's youngest franchise, given the precarious position the club is in at 1-4 and the increasing pressure on out-of-contract coach Leon Cameron.
Not many have found themselves in a similar position as Greene right now, but GWS assistant coach Steve Johnson has. Before he was looking after the forwards at the Giants, the three-time premiership Cat was one of the best forwards in the business, one of the biggest drawcards in the AFL.
But before Johnson became a force in 2007, the triple All-Australian was forced to train away from Kardinia Park and banned for the first five rounds of the season after another off-field indiscretion in the early stages of his career threatened to end his time at the Cattery.
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Johnson returned in round six and quickly repaid the faith, kicking 49.33 from 20 games to lead the Cats to their first premiership in 44 years, winning the Norm Smith Medal and All-Australian selection in the process.
There are plenty of similarities between two of the classiest forwards of the 21st century. Johnson knows better than almost anyone how Greene is feeling and what he can do to help make amends for his self-inflicted absence.
"I don't think it's too dissimilar to his situation," Johnson told AFL.com.au at Manuka Oval on Thursday night.
"I was suspended until round six and just that burning feeling across a three- or four-month period where you're setting your sights on the game you're going to be returning in. It really burns in your guts.
"He's like me: we just love our footy. He would have been just sitting there in his chair just hating watching the last five weeks and given the form we are in. He'll be wanting to come in and make a massive difference, not only for himself and to change the narrative around himself and play well, but to lift this club that he loves so much."
While there has been plenty of attention focused on Greene ahead of his return in Canberra – a game that was provided a Friday night slot for obvious reasons – Johnson believes the Victorian will relish the box office nature of his return.
"I don't know if he reads too much or listens too much, but I know that he will understand that there will be an expectation, there will be an enormous amount of attention coming towards him. He will embrace that, channel it in the right way, knowing that it is a big audience for his return. I think that suits him to a tee," he said.
Tom Green has emerged as a star of the future across the first five rounds of the season, averaging 29 disposals, 14 contested possessions and 6.6 clearances, producing such strong performances that Giants fans have voted him the club's most valuable player in every game so far in 2022.
Green, 21, is confident Greene will thrive under the bright lights of Friday night football and make a significant impact for the Giants in his first game since August 28, 2021.
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"I think to some extent he relishes it. He is used to being in the spotlight being a good player over a long period of time," Green said in Canberra on Thursday.
"That's something that he's used to and would have understood when he misses the first five weeks of the season, the game that he is back is going to be circled. I think he is handling it fine and he is just really excited to get out there.
"Obviously he is one of the best players in the comp, so it's a massive bolster for the side. He is also a really inspirational leader as well. We all know how Toby plays – he will be ready and raring to go – it's also exciting having one of the best players in the competition back in the side."
Greene, like Johnson in 2007, missed five games in the home and away season last year and still earned All-Australian selection for the second time. The circumstances are very different this year, but Johnson believes Greene has the capacity to replicate what he did 15 years ago and earn another blazer, coming off a season where he kicked 45.41.
"I think he was the best forward in the comp last year if you look at his numbers and the attention the opposition put into him. There is certainly no reason he can't be (an All-Australian this year)," Johnson said.
"Having said that, I do expect him to make some make some mistakes that he wouldn't normally make early, particularly [on Friday] night when the heat is going to be on. I've got no doubt if he stays fully fit, he will be one of the best forwards in the competition again."
Get your popcorn ready. The Toby show is back in business.