He’s the leader of the goalsneaks, but Eagles forward Jamie Cripps can’t help but feel like a student when he watches bubblegum duo Willie Rioli and Liam Ryan weave their magic.
Cripps has played an important mentoring role for Rioli and Ryan, helping develop the talented Indigenous pair into two of the most exciting small forwards in the game.
Ryan and Rioli highlighted their importance to the side with star displays in last week’s 55-point elimination final demolition of Essendon.
Rioli finished with one goal and two score assists from 15 disposals.
Ryan booted three goals in another flashy performance.
Cripps, who booted four goals himself in the rout, says it is a joy playing and working alongside Rioli and Ryan.
The trio are set to play a key role in Friday night’s semi-final against Geelong at the MCG.
“It’s awesome to learn a few things off them, and awesome to try to help them out,” Cripps says of Ryan and Rioli.
“Being the older one of the small forwards, I try to show leadership to them. I’ve enjoyed playing with them.
“It’s exciting, because you don’t know what they’re going to do half the time. It’s unpredictable. It’s good to watch them.
“I’m glad they’re on my team.”
Rioli and Ryan have the knack of always looking calm and relaxed even during the most intense moments.
Their secret? Bubblegum.
Ryan has been chewing gum during games for most of this year to relax himself.
Rioli has chewed gum on and off in the past, and has taken it up again in recent weeks.
“Me and Liam say the chewing gum is our mouthguard,” Rioli says with a laugh.
“Generally when I have the chewy it’s because I can’t breathe properly with my mouthguard. I’ve been on it for the last few weeks.
“I just need something in my mouth to help. If I do get hit, at least I’ve got chewing gum to kind of stop the impact.”
Rioli had to lose a staggering 16kg just to get his chance on an AFL list.
The 24-year-old credits Cripps for helping him and Ryan develop into bona fide AFL players over the past two years.
“The reason we’re playing good footy is because Crippa’s been helping us a lot off the field, putting us in the right spaces and showing us how to run,” Rioli says.
“A lot of people (outside the club) probably don’t rate him as much, but he’s one of the best at our position.
“We’re just learning from him. I couldn’t ask for a better mentor. He’s always there when I need him.”
Cripps was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes just before the 2010 national draft.
He kept the diagnosis a secret until the Saints snared him with pick No.24.
Cripps was traded to West Coast two years later, and he has steadily improved to the point where he is now among the elite small forwards in the competition.
“When I got here he was still pretty young and raw,” Eagles coach Adam Simpson says.
“Everything he’s got to now is just through hard work.
“He’s been a massive asset to Willie and Liam.
“They have the talent, but now they’ve also got the work ethic. That’s off the back of Jamie and what he leads with.”
Cripps is often mesmerised by Rioli and Ryan.
And he feels the same way when he watches ruckman Nic Naitanui in action.
Naitanui has missed the past three finals series through knee injuries, but made a successful return from an ankle setback in last week’s win over Essendon.
At one stage, Naitanui reached a speed of 31.7km/h to run down Essendon speedster Adam Saad.
“Nic would probably be the quickest in our team,” Cripps says.
“It’s good to see him get a bit of speed up after the injury.
“He was awesome competing in the ruck, hitting it down the mids’ throats.
“You just stop and watch him sometimes.”