Is this the O&M's most improved player?

SHANE Gaston didn’t know what he was about to hear.

As Paul Maher wandered over during pre-season training, the enigmatic Wangaratta Rovers’ big man was still unsure where he stood with his new coach.

Karl Norman had left the club, opening the door in the ruck, but Gaston had heard whispers the Hawks were still looking around for someone else to replace him.

But what Maher said next was exactly what Gaston wanted to hear.

“He told me I was going to be the No. 1 ruckman this year,” Gaston, 25, recalled this week ahead of his 100th game.

“I was pretty rapt.

“There was a bit of talk we were going to find another one when Normo left, so it meant a lot to have that faith put in me.”

It’s fair to say Gaston hasn’t let Maher down.

The athletic big man has taken his game to another level this season and is undoubtedly in career-best form.

It’s hard to think of a more improved player in the competition.

“It was probably about time I started getting a kick,” Gaston said.

“It’s definitely the best footy I’ve played, yeah.

“Paul has been really good.

“I’m not pinned down and able to go and get the ball.

“I suppose I’ve had a lot of doubters, I probably still do. I know I’ve still got a long way to go.”

Up until this year, Gaston had been thrown everywhere and anywhere on a football ground since making his debut under John McNamara as a 17 year old back in 2007.

Whether it was filling a hole down back, or playing key target up forward, Gaston has spent most of his career away from the familiar surrounds of the ruck.

He’s had to fight plenty of injuries, too. But he’s not bitter about it.

He says it’s all made him a better player.

“Normo was the best ruckman in country Victoria, so it was always going to be hard to knock him off,” Gaston said.

“You’ve just got to wait for your turn and I learned a lot from him.

“Every position I’ve played, I’ve taken something out of it.

“I’ve been able to work on my entire game, instead of just one part.

“Down back your defensive skills obviously get better and up forward you understand how you want the ball kicked to you.”

He’s left the W.J. Findlay Oval only once, to try out with South Adelaide in 2010, and it’s fair to say Gaston is in no hurry to do something like that again.

“It’s an honour to play one game at this club, let alone 100,” Gaston said.

“You see the names on the walls here and it means a lot.

“You don’t realise how good this club is until you leave.

“I speak to a lot of people who have left and they still say they wish they never did.”