LEVI Casboult was always going to play football in 2022, it was just a matter of where. For a period, it looked like it would be in the bush, chasing envelopes full of cash. It has ended up much better than that.
The 32-year-old has emerged as one of the best value recruits of the off-season across the first nine rounds, producing the best patch of his career after arriving at Metricon Stadium via pick No.3 in the NAFL AFL Rookie Draft last December.
Gold Coast wasn’t the only club to express interest, but they were always the keenest. Suns list boss Craig Cameron had tracked Casboult for a long time and made that interest known when it became apparent Carlton wouldn't offer him another contract after 154 games across 12 years.
Six months on, that piece of list management has reaped the kind of rewards no one thought was possible. Casboult has kicked 20.11 – only the third time in his career he has kicked 20 or more goals in a season – and hauled in the sixth most contested marks in the AFL.
"There was a couple of other clubs that were sniffing around, but Gold Coast was always the most interested. I spoke to them early before the end of the season, but it was a wait and see game to see how their list panned out. It all worked out in the end," Casboult told AFL.com.au this week.
"I still love footy and I still feel like a kid who loves running around and playing footy, so that was definitely the plan. I'd spoken to clubs all over the place about what that looked like. I didn’t know where it was going to be.
"If the AFL lifeline came along, that was obviously always the preference. the whole reason for going on was I felt I had more to offer. I guess it's good it's going well. I still felt like I could play."
When budding star Ben King tore his anterior cruciate ligament at training in February, Stuart Dew's forward line was in disarray and Gold Coast's season was in tatters before a ball had been bounced.
The Suns had suddenly lost the future of the franchise for 12 months – a player who had kicked 47 goals in a breakout 2021 campaign – and were forced to rely on a 'break glass in case of emergency' signing as part of a makeshift attack.
"You never like to see anyone going through something like that. Twelve months is a long time out of the game. You wouldn’t wish that upon anyone," Casboult said.
"Part of footy is that creates opportunity for others. I'd be lying if I said it didn’t open up an opportunity for me. There was a spot there and I had to do my bit and make the most of it.
"I don’t expect to replace him; he kicked 47 goals last year and he is a quality player. It was always going to be the sum of all these parts to replace him. Hopefully I'm playing my part and doing enough to play some footy with him next year."
With King in the early stages of rehabilitation, Casboult has combined with another recruit, Mabior Chol, to form one of the more damaging – and unlikely – key forward pairings in the AFL. Chol has 19 goals on the board, combining with Casboult for 39 to help Gold Coast remain in the hunt for a maiden September berth at 4-5.
Chol and Casboult aren’t household names, but only Geelong's Coleman Medal winners Tom Hawkins (27 goals) and Jeremy Cameron (25 goals), Carlton young guns Charlie Curnow (23 goals) and Harry McKay (20 goals) and Richmond premiership pair Tom Lynch (31 goals) and Jack Riewoldt (16 goals) have kicked more goals as a key forward pairing in 2022.
"I'm really enjoying playing with him, he is such an exciting player," he said. "It's a bit unbelievable some of the things he can do. it's still a work in progress, just like it is for the whole team. Same as the whole team is trying to gel, I'm enjoying the process of doing that with Marbs and learning every day.
"We didn’t get the chance to train together too much in the pre-season just through him coming back from his shoulder and then I had to play a lot of ruck in match sim because there wasn’t anyone else out there to do it."
Life in the sunshine state is vastly different to the Melbourne football fishbowl. No one stops Casboult in the street to dissect the Blues’ form or to analyse his set shot routine. It is a welcome respite after 12 years at Princes Park.
"It's a different world up here. We've definitely got a passionate supporter base up here but it’s a pleasant change from the big supporter bases down in Melbourne and actually being able to escape from footy and switch off," he said.
"You can't really walk somewhere in Melbourne without meeting a Carlton supporter. The club up here have done a great job of embedding in the community. Hopefully we can keep putting in performances like we have been and growing that interest."
Casboult departed Carlton on good terms at the end of last season, grateful of the opportunity to play for the club he supported as a kid for more than a decade.
"I loved my time at Carlton. Twelve years is a long time. I'm a childhood Carlton supporter, so I'll always have a soft spot for Carlton. No ill feelings for how we left. Sometimes that's just the way things go. Life moves on, they were ready to move on," he said.
"They've got some young key forwards there that are doing a great job. It was time for them to come in and play their role. It's been refreshing coming up here and playing in a new environment. I'm loving it."
Cameron, who relocated to the Gold Coast from Melbourne earlier this year, is yet to hear a knock on the door from Casboult. Neither has head of football Wayne Campbell. That time will come. Casboult signed a one-year deal when he arrived at Gold Coast but hopes to play beyond this year.
"I'm still loving footy, my body is holding up well. I'm only 32 and if the opportunity arises I'd love to go around again," he said.
"That’s a conversation to have with the club and my wife. I think that's something that will take care of itself later in the year. I'm just enjoying my time and loving playing footy on the Gold Coast."
2022 has panned out far better than Casboult first pictured. And it might get even better.