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Aussie Rules

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Two master the dark AFL art of tagging

One master of the AFL's dark art of tagging got there by nagging.

Another got there by denying his natural instincts.

And common threads tie the journey of GWS's Matt de Boer and West Coast's Mark Hutchings to their status as master taggers.

Both will be tasked with vital tagging jobs in this weekend's semi-finals: Hutchings will likely follow Geelong's Brownlow medallist Patrick Dangerfield; de Boer will shadow Brisbane ace Lachie Neale.

Both de Boer and Hutchings were initially rookie draft selections. Both were delisted by their first AFL clubs.

Both were recruited by their current clubs with lowly draft picks.

Both then craved more midfield minutes. And both would do anything to get them - even tagging.

De Boer's lightbulb moment came while watching Hutchings in last year's grand final.

The Eagle tagged Collingwood spark Steele Sidebottom, who entered the decider in a rich vein of form - 41 disposals in a preliminary final win; 31 in a semi-final; 27 in a qualifying final.

But in the grand final against Hutchings, Sidebottom had just 14 disposals - his Eagle shadow had 15 and collected a premiership medal.

Hutchings' success was duly noted by de Boer, who was drafted by Fremantle with pick 19 in the 2009 rookie draft. He was delisted, after 138 games, at the end of the 2016 season.

The Giants recruited de Boer as a bargain basement draft pick 58.

De Boer spent 2017-18 as a pressure forward for the Giants. But entering the 2019 pre-season, he wanted midfield minutes.

So the 29-year-old spent the summer hassling Giants midfield coach Lenny Hayes, asking to become a tagger.

"It was the only way I was going to get into our midfield," de Boer told a Giants podcast earlier this year.

"I pestered Lenny ... planted a few seeds, after seeing what West Coast did last year with Mark Hutchings."

It wasn't until the last week of pre-season that Hayes buckled and put de Boer on star GWS onballer Stephen Coniglio at match simulation training.

"I did that and tried to harass him as much as possible," de Boer said.

"And then we tried it in week one (of the premiership season) and we have stuck with it ever since."

De Boer has also stuck with elite opponents since, carving a reputation alongside Hutchings as the best taggers in the business.

They're both outliers, bucking a league-wide trend of most coaches who refuse to deploy out-and-out stoppers.

Hutchings was taken by St Kilda with pick 20 in the 2010 rookie draft. He was delisted at the end of that season without playing an AFL game.

He returned to the WAFL and, in 2012, was selected by West Coast with pick 60 in the national draft.

Hutchings played 39 games in his first three years with the Eagles and was recast as an onball tagger at the behest of West Coast coach Adam Simpson.

But when Hutchings, now aged 28, went into the midfield, he went about trying to win possessions himself - until Simpson told him his role was to stop, not to start.

"It takes a little bit of time to digest that because growing up your aim is to get the ball as many times as possible and kick as many goals as you can from midfield," Hutchings said ahead of his 100th AFL game earlier this year.

"Once I fully embraced it (tagging) and understood what it meant and what they were looking for from me, it made it a lot easier for me to perform consistently.

"But it certainly took a bit of a transitional period because it is a massive change in mindset and sometimes it goes against your natural instincts."

De Boer studies his looming opponent in intricate detail "looking for modus operandi".

Then he forms his plan.

"Like Mike Tyson said: 'Everyone' has got a plan until you get hit in the face a couple of times' so within that you have got to be adaptable," he said.

"These superstar players, they've got a bag of tricks.

"So it's trying to combat them, and ... physically preparing well as well, because sometimes you'll play on someone who is super fit or super quick or super strong or a combination of all three."

--End of article--

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