Tough but right decision to retire for Saunders

Wednesday, January 30, 2019 - 4:07 PM by Chris Pike

A DECISION to retire is never easy but when relief is what you feel when you make the announcement it's usually a good sign even if it will be a shame for WAFL football followers that this decade's standout goalkicker Ben Saunders has called time.

Saunders has been one of the standout players this decade in the WAFL and while he always looked like an exciting talent coming through at Claremont as a teenager having made the move from Mt Barker, it was at South Fremantle that he made his mark.

It was quite the tough Tigers line-up to break into when Saunders was ready to come into league ranks with them claiming four straight minor premierships from 2010-2013 and winning premierships in 2011 and 2012.

He did manage five games for eight goals in 2011, including kicking five goals in the reserves grand final win, but opportunities were likely to continue to be tough so as difficult as it was a decision to make, he made the call to move to South Fremantle ahead of the 2012 WAFL season and never looked back.

It turned out quite the rollercoaster ride for the dynamic full-forward who was as natural a goalkicking forward there has been in the WAFL likely since Brad Smith at Subiaco.

Whether it was taking spectacular marks, kicking mercurial goals or racking up the bags of goals with three career hauls of seven while kicking six on seven occasions, five another five times and then four in 23 different games, he could do it all.

While Saunders had brilliant seasons in 2012, 2014 and 2016 with the Bulldogs where he kicked 66, 59 and 59 goals respectively to win his three Bernie Naylor Medals as the league's leading goalkicker, he also had injury ravaged seasons in 2013, 2015 and ultimately 2018.

But what he put together was an outstanding career for the Bulldogs which saw him book his name on the No. 24 locker by playing 109 games for 287 goals while being club and league leading goalscorer three times.

Then in playing for Western Australia, Saunders went to another level and in his three games kicked 16 goals, with two bags of six and another of five, while winning the Simpson Medal for his performance in the 2017 win in Melbourne over Victoria.

All in all, the 27-year-old achieved a lot and put together a tremendous WAFL career, but with his own work as an electrician, with a pharmacy business he and partner Tessa have bought into, and a desire to have more freedom that football commitments don't allow for means he feels the time is right to retire.

With South Fremantle having made three straight preliminary finals and Saunders frustrated with an injury-ruined 2018 campaign, he has made the decision to retire.

While he has no doubt it's the right call, that doesn’t mean it was easy especially when he had to tell his long-term teammates.

"It's a tough one because you invest so much time and effort into playing footy, and you try to play at the highest level you can get and WAFL footy has been such a massive part of my life," Saunders said.

"It's pretty much all I've known since I was 18 so the decision wasn’t easy but at the same time it kind of was if that makes sense. Everything was pointing in that direction with my body and life outside of footy so it was a no-brainer almost. But at the same time it was really hard to come out and say that I was retiring.

"I thought it would be easy and I didn’t rehearse my speech, but I knew what I wanted to get out and to say. It was probably about halfway through and I would always tease Hamsy about when he became a life member and he cried, and I thought I was tough and would never do anything like that. 

"As I was standing there talking to the group, there was no worries when I was looking at the faces of all the young guys, but then I started to notice blokes like Adam McIntosh, Jason Maskos, Shaun Bewick, Blayne Wilson and that's when I started to get a bit croaky. I tried to crack a gag and no one really laughed so I thought I was in trouble then but I got through it."

The fact that Saunders felt a sense of relief once he made the retirement decision is a good indication it was the right one for him to make as hard as it will be to walk away from a WAFL career that he put everything into, and got plenty out of.

"I feel relieved now having made the decision and I think that shows that it was the right decision to make," he said.

"I spoke with Curls pre-Christmas and he told me to think long and hard about it, and when we caught up he told me that you can convince anyone else of almost anything, but you can't stand in the mirror and lie to yourself. 

"I clearly remember Josh Head retiring when I first got to Souths and he just said that when he looked at young kids giving everything to play, he realised he didn’t have that fire anymore so he knew it was time and he made it clear he wouldn’t play anywhere else. 

"I feel similar to that and people say when you start thinking about retiring, then it's probably time and I've had those thoughts creep into my head. Once those thoughts come in, you're pretty much already there because you're not 100 per cent invested to what you're trying to achieve."

Saunders was never one to pass up on a good time either, so it wasn’t so much that he felt he was missing out on things because of his WAFL career. But it certainly does now open up some more free time during the week for other things as well allowing for some travel during the season.

Combine that with his ability to now focus even more on his work as an electrician with Tercel and then at the Safety Bay Pharmacy which he and partner Tessa recently bought into, and Saunders is looking forward to what his post-WAFL life has in store.

"Growing up footy is everything and all of your decisions are with football in the back of your mind. It's not until you get a bit older that you realise there's so much more to life than football and your priorities in life change," Saunders said.

"I can now focus a lot more on my career in terms of work now and where I'm going, and where our business is going, and then with the Safety Bay Pharmacy I can input wherever I'm needed and help Tessa with whatever she wants to do. 

"We are flying over to the Gold Coast next month for a pharmacy convention and it's those sort of things I can give my attention to and would probably miss if I had footy. 

"I've got a wedding in Canada this year too so I'll take three weeks off which I couldn’t do if I was playing footy because it's in June/July. I can just try and enjoy a different life now without the commitments that you have with WAFL footy."