Career : 2009 - 2013
Debut : Round 14, 2011 vs West Coast, aged 20 years, 322 days
Carlton Player No. 1135
Games : 3
Goals : 0
Last Game: Round 23, 2012 vs St Kilda, aged 22 years, 27 days
Guernsey No. 20
Height : 187 cm (6 ft. 1 in.)
Weight : 80 kg (12 stone, 8 lbs.)
DOB : 8 August, 1990
In 2013, there were two players with the nickname/acronym of ‘ROK’ playing at AFL clubs; All Australian Ryan O’Keefe at Sydney, and rookie Rhys O’Keeffe at Carlton. Sydney’s Ryan was an accomplished veteran of more than 200 matches, while Carlton’s Rhys had fought repeated injury, and managed only three senior matches in five seasons with the Navy Blues.
A South Australian, O'Keeffe came to Princes Park via selection 65 in the 2008 National Draft. His first junior club was Kilburn, before he joined SANFL club North Adelaide in 2006 to play for their Under-17s. Two years later he was a regular senior footballer for the Roosters, while also representing SA in the Under-18 National Championships. A strongly-built defender who was hard at the contest and a booming kick on his preferred left foot, Rhys was judged his state’s Best and Fairest at the championships, and selected in the Under 18 All Australian team.
When O’Keeffe joined Carlton his ambitions were at full rein, but disappointment lay in wait. After only a handful of games for the Blues’ VFL affiliate, the Northern Bullants in 2009, he was cut down by that most insidious of football injuries; osteitus pubis – what the old timers called a ‘strained groin’. Then in 2010, complications after surgery restricted Rhys to just two matches in the VFL. He was out of contract at the end of that year, and many youngsters in the same situation are not retained. However, the club was convinced that he had a future, so he was delisted, then re-drafted to Carlton’s Rookie List for 2011. Eventually back to full fitness, he began to justify the clubs’ faith and raised eyebrows again in a succession of excellent matches for the Bullants throughout the early rounds.
In June 2011, Andy Collins suffered a shoulder injury that forced the ex-Richmond recruit on to Carlton’s long-term injury list, and swung the door of opportunity open for Rhys at long last. Within days, he was elevated to Carlton’s senior roster, and selected to make his debut for the Blues against West Coast at Docklands Stadium in round 14. O’Keefe was named as Carlton’s substitute on that Sunday afternoon, and the team went into the match looking for a fourth straight win. But unbalanced by injuries to key players and two late changes, the Blueboys went down to the Eagles by six goals. Wearing guernsey number 20, Rhys was injected into the game when full-back Michael Jamison was subbed off with a leg injury a few minutes before half time. Playing across half-back, he weathered a second-half onslaught and collected eight possessions.
O’Keeffe returned to the Bullants after that baptism of fire, only to be dealt another huge blow when an Achilles tendon problem in his left heel flared up and wiped out the rest of his season. He was forced to endure the surgeon’s scalpel, and didn’t resume full training until well into 2012. Happily, his body held together throughout the latter stages of a tumultuous year for the Blues, and he earned a welcome recall to the seniors in round 20, when Carlton took on Brisbane at Docklands on a Saturday night. Again the substitute, Rhys replaced Eddie Betts in the last quarter, and celebrated his first victory at senior level. Three weeks later, he started on the ground at half-back in the last match of Carlton’s year against St Kilda at Docklands. Rhys matched up on Saints star Brendon Goddard at various times - and no doubt learned a lot - as Carlton’s awful 2012 culminated in a 15-point defeat.
In an interview prior to his second match, Rhys was candid when he summed up his years of disappointment like this: “I’ve always tried to stay pretty grounded. I’ve thought about this year, and not wanted to put too many expectations on myself - or get too disheartened, because everyone has bad days, and I’ve had some dark days since I’ve been here. But I’m a better person for it now.”
The emphasis on hope and determination in those words was timely, because while Carlton looked toward 2013 with similar aspirations, Rhys suffered another crushing blow when he was diagnosed with a serious infection in his problem heel. At first it was thought that he wouldn’t play again all season, but more surgery and intensive rehab got him back on the field in the latter half of the year, and allowed him to play 6 games for the Northern Blues.
Still, given that his rookie contract at Carlton concluded in 2013, O’Keeffe’s future with the Blues was always tenuous, and there was emotion from both player and club when he was delisted at season’s end.