AFL

For AFL recruiters, scouting future footy stars is tough at the best of times. Now coronavirus has made the usual game of speculation and conjecture that much trickier. By Peter Hanlon.

AFL draft recruiters and the pandemic

Greater Western Sydney Giants recruiter Emma Quayle.
Credit: AAP Image / Michael Dodge

In keeping with that ubiquitous 2020 trend, Simon Dalrymple pivoted when the pandemic hit the fan, put his duties as the Sydney Swans’ national recruiting manager on hold, and became a teacher again for the first time in 18 years. It amused him greatly when his pre-coronavirus job followed him into the classroom.

“One kid googled me and found me on the internet,” Dalrymple says. “And he said, ‘Can you ring [Swans coach] John Longmire and tell him about me?’ He was a bit of a character, but he could misbehave so I used that to keep him in line. I told him, ‘Look mate, if you’re naughty I’ll be telling John!’ ”

In the futures business of AFL talent spotting, the Epping primary schooler would be a speculative selection indeed – not to mention a decade too young to be drafted. That he and his classmates weren’t even able to kick a football in the playground this winter gives him some commonality with much of the best eligible talent in the country, who Dalrymple and fellow recruiters saw little or nothing of through the strangest of years.

While the best under-18 footballers in South Australia and Western Australia squeezed in truncated seasons as their states drove down Covid-19 case numbers, Victoria – which produces roughly 60 per cent of draftees each year – was a football wasteland. Without the TAC Cup or Associated Public Schools competition to help craft their wish list, the army of recruiters who help chart the future of AFL clubs will enter Wednesday’s national draft working more blindly than ever.

“There’s more speculating this year – less evidence, less pure performances on the board,” says Emma Quayle, who became the game’s first female recruiter when she left The Age and joined Greater Western Sydney Giants in 2017. Dalrymple calls it an increased risk in terms of assessment, “especially for players who are the later developers, who basically didn’t get seen because we had no games”.

Jackson Macrae is a compelling example. A Dalrymple find when the recruiter was at the Western Bulldogs, Macrae didn’t make the Oakleigh Chargers’ team in his bottom-age (17-year-old) season, yet 12 months later was taken with pick six. If the pandemic had struck in 2012, a key member of the Dogs’ fairytale 2016 premiership who has played 159 games and been an All-Australian might not have been drafted.

Recruiting is a mix of evidence-based research and “projection”. Every AFL talent spotter has a “watchlist” of kids who showed promise in their bottom-age season, and use it as a starting point entering their draft year. The problem in 2020 is that for so many young talents, 2019 is where their dossier ends.

Quayle watched the year crawl by from her inner-Melbourne apartment. She watched endless vision of young footballers, either live streamed from interstate games or on file from her watchlist. She watched the calendar, the clock and a lot of Netflix. As lockdown bit she watched homeless people set up camp in an adjacent undercover car park.

About the only thing she didn’t watch was live football.

“I drove to Ballarat in the middle weekend of March and watched a Geelong Falcons versus Greater Western Victoria Rebels practice game,” Quayle says of her last “real” football experience. “I remember chatting with other recruiters in the break, ‘Will this be the last time we see these kids play?’ ”

Like Dalrymple, she’s grateful for her previous career to fall back on. As others in the Giants’ Melbourne office were stood down, the former journalist switched to writing stories and producing podcasts two days a week for the club website. “They weren’t even playing in SA and WA then, so there was no recruiting to do,” says Quayle. “It was like the longest pre-season ever.”

David Walls was luckier than most. Fremantle’s newly appointed head of player personnel is also Melbourne-based, but when the Dockers entered a Gold Coast hub as the AFL rebooted in June he was allowed to drive north to join them. After six weeks in Queensland, Walls accompanied the team back to Perth, and eventually on to SA.

His schedule typically amounts to “probably 100 flights a year”, seeing as many as seven games a week in person. This year his frequent flyer points barely budged. There was upside to the isolation; as he watched Perth schoolboys and colts games from empty terraces, his phone would ping with messages from other club scouts who were live streaming on the other side of the country. “I knew there were a lot watching, but I was the only one watching live.”

This could provide an advantage, but as Quayle cautions, if you see a lot of a few you can potentially overanalyse them and draw a distorted conclusion. Yet firsthand insight trumps watching “vision” in so many ways, such as being able to move around the ground and observe players’ running patterns, their defensive efforts, even the way they communicate with teammates.

“I’m a live watcher,” says Neville Stibbard, a veteran of the futures caper who now works for the Gold Coast Suns, but who started with North Melbourne in the 1980s under instruction from coach John Kennedy not to pick any “weakies”. Projection is his sweet spot, having been enlisted by the AFL a decade ago to identify the best 15- and 16-year-olds who would eventually underpin the expansion teams’ lists.

Stibbard foresees several impacts of the pandemic on the draft, not least fewer Victorians being picked, and clubs giving the stocks they already have another year to improve rather than delisting and regenerating through the draft. Where 65 new players were drafted in 2019, this year there could be fewer than 50.

Home visits have been another Covid-19 casualty, a vital piece of the puzzle that Walls says can’t be replicated virtually. “Being in the lounge room for a couple of hours with the whole family, the guard is down, nothing beats it.”

Tanner Bruhn is acutely aware of this, having been the focus of Zoom meetings with 17 clubs. The 18-year-old epitomises the 2020 draft dilemma – rated by many a top-10 pick, he has played barely a handful of games in the past two years because of a now-resolved knee issue. “For the clubs it’s about getting to know me, more about my character,” he says of virtual meetings. “There’s no footy, so that’s the only thing they can judge you on.”

Bruhn began the year with Geelong Falcons and Geelong Grammar “just hoping to have a healthy season and put my case forward for the draft”, yet added only a couple of intra-club school practice games to a wafer-thin recent CV. He threw himself into school, surfed to combat the frustration, and with a strength coach’s help put four kilograms and a couple of centimetres onto his frame.

“Some people might say, ‘We haven’t seen him in a while, he lacks exposure,’ ” Bruhn says. “But going off the under 16s, that’s only half what I’m capable of. I’ve grown, my body’s developed. I think I can provide much more than what anyone has seen so far.”

Stibbard rates Bruhn “a really impressive young man”, which ticks one key box. Yet on draft night, like so many prospects, he’ll tantalise recruiters as a football embodiment of Donald Rumsfeld’s known unknowns. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 5, 2020 as "Rough draft".

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Peter Hanlon is a former Age sportswriter turned freelancer and bus driver.