Nick Coughlan’s statistics don’t always leap off the page the way they do for some of his fellow defenders - or, for that matter, the way Coughlan himself leapt off the turf of Avalon Airport Oval for a genuine mark-of-the-year contender against Collingwood in round five, a moment now “immortalised” by his Werribee teammates through a blurry still taped to his number-five locker.
But it’s not all about the numbers, as Coughlan’s key-defensive partner-in-crime Sam Collins understands well.
Collins generally dominates discussion when it comes to Werribee’s backline given he leads the VFL for both contested and uncontested marks, but he knows it is largely thanks to Coughlan’s lockdown work that he is able to take the game on the way he does.
“He understands the structure and the intricate parts of the game and all the right spots to run to,” Collins says of his key-defensive foil.
“Personally, I know when I roll off and get the mark, it’s usually ‘Coggo’ out there holding down his man.”
Werribee senior coach John Lamont shares the sentiment, rating Coughlan alongside Collins as the most important of his club’s new recruits for 2018.
Having observed Coughlan’s performances with Sandringham through his two seasons on St Kilda’s rookie list, Lamont had originally earmarked the 21-year-old for the so-called “third tall” role in Werribee’s backline but soon realised he had a genuine key-defensive prospect on his hands.
“In an era where the defence moves around a lot, ‘Coggo’ is the full back, and he’s playing well, so those boys who are further up the ground can probably attack a bit more knowing that they’ve got him out the back,” says Lamont.
“He actually plays a bit taller than I first thought, so he’s definitely a key defender. He can play on bigger blokes, so it suits our setup to have he and Collins as the two talls and then the likes of Ryley Barrack and Matthew Brett as third talls.”
While Coughlan’s role may by nature be a more understated one than that of Collins, he is nonetheless beginning to turn heads beyond the occasional screamer attempt.
With 20 disposals and seven marks in last week’s tough loss to Collingwood, he was clearly his side’s standout down back, collecting nine disposals and taking two important intercept marks in the first quarter alone as he held firm against a Magpie siege, while his two final-quarter goals against Frankston in round 12 after being thrown forward late highlight his swing-man capabilities.
Lamont expects to see those sorts of eye-catching performances from Coughlan more often given he has now finally put behind him the hamstring issues that plagued him during his time at St Kilda and lingered through his early days at Avalon Airport Oval.
“We’re learning about Nick because of his injury history,” Lamont explains.
“He’s had a tough couple of years, but he’s getting some great continuity now, and he’s really enjoying his football as a result.
“He played round one but didn’t actually get through the game. We had to ice him.
“He then missed rounds two and three getting his body right and did a sort of mini pre-season, so now he’s getting great continuity, and we’re starting to see some really good footy.
“He’s looking more and more athletic every week, so it’s a credit to him but also to [high-performance manager] Simon Anning and [physiotherapists] Jack Price and Joel Martin.”
For Coughlan himself, the chance to build some consistency at Werribee for the first time in his career has made all the difference in the world.
“It took me a while to get over the hamstring, and I really just needed some confidence with it,” he says.
“Over the last couple months, I haven’t had anything holding me back, and just being able to train fully and go full tilt at every opportunity has really helped, and I think that’s been seen in the way I have been playing.”
Less than a year out of the AFL system, Coughlan seems to have settled in well to life at Avalon Airport Oval.
He has been impressed by the setup at the new $11.75 million facility, which he describes as “really, really professional”, but the former Albury junior and Murray Bushranger says Werribee’s ability to balance that elite environment with a relaxed community-oriented feel akin to that of a country football club has been the aspect he has enjoyed the most.
“I went to school with Dom Brew and was living with Brydan Hodgson, so it’s been really good to be back with all those boys who played in the bush and came through together and see those familiar faces at every session,” he says.
“It’s pretty daunting coming into a new club and not knowing what to expect, so when you see 10-15 blokes you know, it helps a lot in that initial phase.”
Having endured the stress of spending long stints on the sidelines in a full-time AFL environment, Coughlan has also appreciated the opportunity to find a focus outside of football through his accountancy studies at Victoria University, though he appreciates how tough the juggling act can be at time for his teammates involved in more labour-intensive pursuits.
“It’s good being able to balance [study] with training two or three days a week, but I have a hell of a lot of respect for the boys who are able to be on the tools from 6am until knock-off and then giving it their all at training,” he says.
“In an AFL environment, you complain a little bit that you have to go to training and lift weights and all that, but these blokes go to work all day and then come in at night and give it their all still, so it’s quite incredible.”
With his injury issues now appearing to be behind him, Coughlan isn’t ruling out the possibility of another shot at the AFL, but he’s committed to continuing to don the “big W” and play good-quality football for as long as possible should that fail to eventuate.
“You never know how long you have to stay at the highest level for,” he says.
“I’ll be able to go back and play local footy when I’m 25, 30, 35 – whenever it is.
“I just feel like while I have the capabilities to play at the highest level, I should try to strive for that.”
They’re welcome words for the Werribee faithful, not least of all Lamont, who perhaps best captures Coughlan's value to the team with a simple summation.
“Fundamentally, I think he’s a good footballer,” says Lamont.
“He’s got good football sense, his football IQ is good, and, he knows how we want to play.”