AN absent friend will be just as important as the 21 mates alongside Brent Macaffer as Collingwood runs on to the MCG for its elimination final.
Saturday night’s game is just two days before the first anniversary of the death of John McCarthy, one of Macaffer’s best friends.
That the Pies will play Port Adelaide, the club McCarthy spent his final season, is just one of those “quirky little things that could occur” Macaffer says.
It is also the first time the two clubs have met in Melbourne since McCarthy’s passing on an off-season trip to Las Vegas.
The clash of dates dawned on Macaffer last week when he was walking laps at training with defender Nathan Brown, another of McCarthy’s good friends.
It was acknowledged, but quickly pushed aside.
The emotion is still raw.
Such was the bond between the former housemates, Macaffer got a tattoo on his left bicep that simply says “JMAC 1989-2012″ to honour his mate.
Collingwood players played with heavy hearts throughout last year’s finals series after the death of McCarthy, who played 18 games for the Magpies between 2008-11 and 21 at Port Adelaide, and again their former teammate and his family will be in their thoughts this September.
“I don’t think you can help but get a bit emotional about it,” Macaffer says.
“There’s not much we can do about that and leading in to the game there’ll probably be a little bit of talk about it.
“We’ll reflect on it and all get together and get around each other, contact his family and wish them all the best as well. But I think once the game starts we’ll be able to focus on the game. It’ll be a good way to take our minds off the J-Mac situation.”
Macaffer says both Collingwood and Port Adelaide have handled such a difficult situation extremely well.
So well, he says, that Port has become his second-favourite team.
A bond has been formed with Power players he did not know 12 months ago simply because they share a common understanding, while Macaffer says he has also kept in contact with McCarthy’s family.
Time has made things slightly easier.
“But early on I was still dealing with quite a few things and issues,” Macaffer says.
“Even simple things like watching a movie where someone passes away I’d get quite emotional. Automatically you’d reflect on it the way I did with J-Mac.
“It was quite hard to deal with and I still think about him all the time. But as time has gone on it’s getting easier to deal with.”
Macaffer will achieve a personal milestone when he runs on to the ground on Saturday night.
In making his 22nd appearance of the season, the 25-year-old will surpass his previous season-best of 21 games in the premiership season of 2010.
After being dropped for the Round 3 game against Hawthorn, Macaffer could have been headed for another frustrating season after foot and back injuries restricted him to just four games in 2011 and a knee injury ended his 2012 campaign before it had even got going.
That was until the name of his coach, Nathan Buckley, flashed on to his phone as he was sitting at home watching TV a couple of nights before Collingwood’s Round 6 clash with St Kilda.
“Bucks just said ‘you’re playing on a back-flank and when (Nick) Dal Santo goes and rests forward we want you to take him there’.
“Half an hour later he rings me back and goes ‘yeah, look, we’ve had a change of plans, we want you to go with him the whole way and have a crack at tagging him’.
“I was just in a bit of shock, I was thinking ‘where’s this come from? We’ve never done this at Collingwood and I’ve been so used to playing forward’.
“He just said he wanted to give me first crack it at and see how I go.”
The result was a turning point in Macaffer’s career.
In 89 minutes spent on the champion Saint Macaffer held Dal Santo to just 13 possessions while managing to collect 15 of his own.
The laid back Kilcunda Bass lad knew that becoming a run-with player would do little for his popularity and he admits he suddenly had a new found respect for Fremantle tagger Ryan Crowley.
But the seed had been sown and Macaffer would then go on to tag the likes of Joel Selwood, Josh Kennedy, Pearce Hanley, Ryan Griffen, Chad Wingard, Dyson Heppell, Kieren Jack, Sam Mitchell, Andrew Gaff and Daniel Wells.
His best game, he says, was keeping Hanley to just 10 possessions in Collingwood’s big Round 10 win over the Brisbane Lions, while the most eye-opening experience came against Griffen in Round 13 when the Western Bulldogs’ gun ran him ragged.
“He really got a hold of me,” Macaffer says.
“But I took a lot out of that game. I’d tagged four or five times and had a lot of success and that just really brought me back to earth to sort of say `hey, you’re not just going to go out every week and keep every player to 16 or 17 touches’.”
He also learnt a lot from a physical Round 21 duel with Hawthorn gun Sam Mitchell.
That, he says, was the best a team has “looked after someone I was tagging by far” and made him acutely aware of what he can expect throughout the finals.
“I’ve really noticed in the past few weeks that I’ve started to get a bit more attention, getting whacked a little bit and verbally abused from other guys as well. But it’s a bit of fun and I enjoy that sort of stuff.
“In finals you’re coming up against the best teams that have dealt with it for years and years so it’s to be expected.”
In what is essentially just his second full season of AFL footy, Macaffer says his body — and most importantly his knee — has “held up really well” as the business end of the season approaches.
When he played his 50th game a couple of weeks ago he said that milestone “probably meant more to me than it does to most other guys” because of what he has had to go through to get there.
He was on just a one-year deal when he went down in the opening round of the NAB Cup last year, had just bought a house with his girlfriend and feared his days at the Westpac Centre may have been numbered.
Macaffer is again of out contract at the end of the season, but this time around doesn’t harbour the same anxieties.
He’s “proud” to be a Collingwood player, loves Buckley and his teammates and speaks highly of his relationship with midfield coach Robert Harvey.
So committed is he to staying on at Collingwood next year that Macaffer has already resolved to keep wearing the No. 3 jumper.
That number had belonged to McCarthy during his time as a Magpie and was offered to Macaffer by Buckley in January.
“Absolutely, I’ll stick with that,” he says.
“I’m pretty honoured to be able to do that and wear his number. It’s something I want to keep doing.”