The AFL Draft is becoming bigger event every year. It’s hard to believe how much it has changed since my draft year, back in 1993. It was the first time it was televised, and I remember not wanting to go – I was more nervous about not being picked up. Only being 17 at the time, I was a bit naive; looking back on it, I was probably invited for a reason!
But in the moment, you don’t think that way. I was elated I was picked up early, by the Bulldogs with the 11th pick, so I could enjoy the rest of the draft. I got the tap on the shoulder to talk to Sandy Roberts on stage. I was wearing the worst shirt in Australia, I reckon. What was I thinking?
I had no preparation for that experience. It’s not what the young kids get today through their clubs. I’m involved with the AFL Academy, so I see how the guys are preparing themselves for the draft. I also helped devise a drill that they use at the draft combine for the prospects, which is called the Brad Johnson goal-kicking test: a couple of set shots, snaps left and right, and then a goal on the run when they break 50. We made sure we put a time on it, just to add that little bit of pressure; one minute to do the test. That last shot, they’ve got some fatigue in their legs.
From what I see in these kids, there’s no question the skill level in their games has gone through the roof. Clubs will sit there and maybe expect more at times – it is case by case, but these days, the guys we’re involved with that end up being drafted are at the top end of skill level.
The thing I see that needs to improve the most is skill level on the opposite side of the body. They spend a lot of time mastering their dominant side, which is great. But I think some attention needs to go back to the opposite side, and the coaching through the ranks needs to push that again. We were drilled fanatically that we needed to be excellent on our dominant side, and you had a good opposite you could use. That’s where the shift needs to come back to, rather than tactics and structures – go back to skill development.
I’m impressed at how better-prepared young footballers are, which is why I think 18 is the right age for the draft. These teenagers have been coming into the AFL, holding their form and staying in the side. They’re more ready; some still have to play a year in reserves, because you’ve got guys coming from all over Australia with different experiences. You’ve got guys from WA and SA who have played senior football, against men. You’ve got the TAC Cup. Maybe some of the northern states are just playing against kids their own age and have to make the step up.
I suppose that’s where the argument goes backward and forward. Is 18 the right age? It is for some, and 20 is the right age for others. But 18 is the right age to be in an elite environment – even if it takes guys a couple of years, they’re getting the best chance because they’re getting the best training.
When I joined the Dogs at 17, I still had to complete year 12. But what I was told, and I think it’s true for every draft pick, is when you walk in, you can’t wait for things to happen. Train with the best, find some guys who are a bit older, who have played some senior football and who can help you understand professionalism. You think you know it all at 18. But it’s a whole new world.
I’ m impressed at how better-prepared young footballers are, which is why Ithink 18 is the right age for the draft.