The five best recruiting decisions of the last decade

Alfred Chan Columnist

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Brad Ottens was one of the trade heroes for the Cats (Slattery Images)

Due to an uneven balance in media focus between good publicity and bad publicity, recruiters are often overlooked in the general public despite scouting some brilliant talent which has altered the course of history.

Last week we looked at the five worst recruiting decisions of the past decade and this week, it is only fitting to mention three men who have dominated their industry for the past decade.

The first is Geelong’s head recruiter Stephen Wells who has consistently found exceptional talent in the later rounds of the national draft.

The second is Collingwood’s Derek Hine, who is still at the club.

Finally, we have Chris Pelchen – a key figure during Hawthorn’s premiership year and many of the decisions he made are still paying dividends today. He unfortunately departed the club under acrimonious circumstance in 2011.

While fans take the secret pleasure of knowing their superstars were steals in the draft, the sheer abundance of players drafted over the last decade in the third round and beyond makes it difficult to assess exactly who was the best.

For this reason we have avoided players were drafted for the first time.

Decisions made to acquire certain players via trades have completely turned certain teams around, some even winning premierships.

Other players were given lifelines as fourth of fifth round picks after being discarded from their old clubs and have gone on to spite their old coaches with illustrious careers elsewhere.

While teammates and the players themselves may exert more influence over the course of a career, it is the recruiters and coaches who made the decision to pay a certain price for a certain player when no other club would.

Players who just missed out on the list include: Scott Thompson, Darren Jolly, Luke Ball, Josh Kennedy and David Hale.

Let’s take a look at the five best recruits over the past decade to have been acquired via trade or handed a lifeline when no other team would. I have excluded players who were acquired via the rookie draft and any player who was drafted for the first time.

5. Stuart Dew

Retiring from football at the conclusion of 2006 as a premiership player at Port Adelaide, Dew did not play any form of football in 2007. During this time, he ballooned up to 120kg after spending extensive time in the United States in his year off.

Most people would be ridiculed for trying to recruit a 120kg half back flanker who stood just 183cm tall but list manager Chris Pelchen and coach Alistair Clarkson welcomed ridicule.

They believed he could slim down to a reasonable playing weight and could use his booming left foot as part of the team’s game plan. It took a few games for Dew to get back to match fitness having pulled his hamstring during his second game in the brown and gold.

By the mid-season Dew had slimmed down to 94kg as requested by the club and had secured his spot in the team’s best 22 in time for finals.

The third quarter of an AFL game is often referred to as the Premiership Quarter and Stuart Dew repaid the only team willing to recruit such a misfit.

A five minute burst from the stocky flanker which included one goal and set up two more, completely swung the momentum of the game in favour of Hawthorn who held onto their lead and claimed the 2008 premiership.

While Dew only played 26 games over two seasons for the Hawks, a fair argument can be made that Hawthorn would not have won on that day without Stewart Dew’s five minute burst.

4. Brent Guerra

The balding defender known affectingly as “Goo” has been a revelation since his arrival at Hawthorn, and I’m not taking about his cosmetically enhanced hair.

Drafted in 1999, Goo started his career as a small forward at Port Adelaide where he played 65 games over four seasons before being traded to St Kilda. Regarded as one of the league’s most hot headed players, St Kilda struggled to control him at times.

After two average seasons the Saints realised there was no need for both Guerra and Stephen Milne in the same forward line, and delisted him with 31 more games to his name.

During the first half of his career, he’d been type cast as a crumbing forward but was picked up by the Hawks with the third pick in the 2005 pre-season draft and remade as a running defender. Thriving under the guidance of Alistair Clarkson, Goo has played 136 more games in as a Hawk and is showing no signs of slowing down.

As the teams designated runner, he has been a critical cog in the team’s miserly defence and given the task against the opposition’s best small forward each week. His balance between defence and rebounding offence has been fundamental to Hawthorn’s success over the past five years.

In the first five years of his career as a small forward, Guerra averaged 8 possessions and just 0.8 goals per game. As a defender at Hawthorn, Guerra has averaged 19.6 disposals per game.

3. Shane Mumford

Following the 2009 season, the Sydney Swans made a mammoth bid for the big Mummy whose rookie contract at Geelong was about to expire.

He’d played 18 regular season games for the Cats that year but was replaced by Mark Blake (who was dropped for the 2007 Grand Final) in the finals and subsequent Grand Final which Geelong went on to win.

Despite missing out a Geelong’s premiership, things were great with Mumford and he was assured a spot of Geelong’s senior list the following year. That was until Sydney came out with a contract offer which no other club would match considering Mumford was just 21 AFL games into his career.

Due to Geelong’s strict salary cap restrictions while the club was trying to free up space for Gary Ablett’s upcoming contract, there was not much money around the club for the big Mummy. As a rookie, he was making roughly $35,000 a year and that would have jumped to anywhere between $150,000 and $200,000 the following year once he was promoted to the senior list.

Sydney offered the big guy $1.2 million over four years, more than double what he would have made at Geelong.

With Mumford’s contract about to expire, the Swans were confident they could acquire their new ruckman with a late round draft pick in the national draft since no other club would be able to meet Mumford’s salary demands.

As a show of good faith, Sydney list manager Kinnear Beatson offered Geelong pick 28 (used on Mitch Duncan) in exchange for Mumford. It was the first year teams could trade rookie listed players.

Over the past three seasons, Mumford has become one of the league’s most dominant ruckman and played a vital role in Sydney’s 2012 premiership. Despite his size, his ferocity for the ball is unrivalled and he gathers contested possessions as if he were a midfielder.

Under Sydney’s unsociable style of football, few ruckman in the league can match it with Mumford in wrestling contests, allowing him to average 11.8 disposals (mostly contested) 29 hit outs and 4.7 tackles per game. He averages more tackles per game than any ruckman.

2. Leigh Brown

Under the right coaching, the 194cm Leigh Brown completely revolutionised the role of a modern day ruckman.

Originally drafted by Fremantle with the fifth overall pick in the 1999 national draft, Brown played 63 games over three seasons where he was tried both as a key forward and defender. At the end of 2002, he was traded to North Melbourne in exchange for pick 13 (used on Byron Schammer).

At North Melbourne he was trailed as a relief ruckman during his first two seasons to little success. He played the majority of his six season career at North Melbourne as a serviceable key defender until he was delisted at the end of 2008 in line with the clubs youth movement.

Collingwood saw enough in Brown to pick him up with pick 73 in the 2008 national draft even though Brown was entering the 2009 season as a 27 year old. Under the coaching of Mick Malthouse, Brown’s aggression was utilised and redirected into the ruck where he was given the task to make a contest and do everything to disrupt the opposition big man rather than tap the ball.

Brown’s relentlessness and versatility to play forward, back and in the ruck made him the new prototype for a team’s second ruck option. Since contributing so much in 45 games across three seasons at Collingwood, every key position player at other clubs are now also assessed on their rucking capabilities.

The days of playing two traditional ruckmen in the same side are gone, especially under the AFL’s substitute rule. The best of Leigh Brown was not seen until the final three years of his career where he was Collingwood’s most irreplaceable player in their 2010 premiership year.

1. Brad Ottens

Geelong finished the 2004 season fourth on the ladder but the club could not go any further unless they acquired a readymade key forward. At the time, Kent Kingsley had been their leading goal kicker for the past three seasons but his inability to take a contested mark saw the Cats look externally.

Fortunately for the Cats, Brad Ottens had been tossed up as trade bait by Richmond.

Selected with the second overall pick in the 1997 national draft, Ottens played 129 games for Richmond over six seasons where he also kicked 152 goals. Playing primarily at full forward with occasional ruck duties, Ottens was good but he was far from dominant.

Towards the end of 2004, the Richmond hierarchy had serious doubt over the longevity of Ottens who has torn his ACL, required spinal surgery and badly fractured his ankle on separate occasions in the space of two years.

Horrid injury histories are the most influential detractors when recruiting players from other teams but Geelong overlooked these issues and offered two first round draft picks in exchange for the injury prone forward. Richmond used those picks on Danny Meyer (pick 12) and Adam Pattinson (pick 16).

In his first season at Geelong, Ottens played as at full forward, doing everything that was asked of him. He was restricted to just 15 games, but Geelong had a widely successful season.

In 2006, Ottens played all 22 games but his 26 goals were far less than what the Cats had anticipated. Geelong took a long step backwards that season and missed out on finals. This led to the famous internal review of the Geelong Football Club who were stunned by how far back they went in the space of one season.

For the 2007 season, Mark Thompson moved Brad Ottens into the number one ruck role after accepting that Cameron Mooney was too short and Steven King was banished to the VFL to find form.

Ottens revelled, and so too did the Cats.

Over the next five seasons as Geelong’s number one ruck option, Ottens averaged 20.6 hit outs and 12.7 disposals per game.

The finest game of Ottens’ career came in the 2007 Preliminary Final against Collingwood when his dominant game in the ruck and around the ground led Geelong to a nail-biting five point victory. The following week, Geelong won the Grand Final which was the first of three that Ottens won during his time at Geelong.

The Cats took an enormous gamble to pay the price they did for a player with the injury history of Brad Ottens. Although he never played a full season during his seven year stint at Geelong due to ongoing injuries, his recruitment was a critical recruitment decision in what has come to be known as the Geelong Dynasty.

All five of the aforementioned players have been greatly influenced by the coaching staff at their new clubs where previous coaches failed to unlock and nurture their talents. Although winning in a premiership was not a prerequisite to make this list, winning a premiership is the ultimate redemption after being undervalued or discarded by another club.

When this happens, we often forget about the recruiter or coach who handed them a lifeline.

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