The fairytale stories of long undrafted WAFL players Tim Kelly and Marlion Pickett being plucked out of South Freo and thrust into the AFL spotlight only to shine far more brightly than their much more highly fancied first-time drafted teammates are not going unheeded in 2021.
Accepted wisdom in AFL recruitment circles gets continually tipped on its head, yet every year at draft time all the buzz is about untested teenage talent while the best of the State Leagues are most often overlooked.
It took a global pandemic, list size reduction, cancelled and disrupted junior schedules in addition to recent success stories for recruiters to shift gears in 2021 in search of ready-made mature-age players and reclamation projects.
Back in the preseason, clubs began to reveal their 2020 national draft strategy of leaving list spots unfilled, moving to top up and replacing long-term injured players.
The supplemental selection period (SSP) allowed clubs to trial players with the carrot of a last-minute rookie spot, whether they were mature agers, undrafted or delisted free agents, with eight clubs ultimately taking 12 players in the preseason.
Adelaide picked up unwanted GWS Academy graduate Nick Murray, Hawthorn signed Williamstown’s Lachlan Bramble, Richmond contracted Woodville-West Torrens grand final winning player Rhyan Mansell, all of whom played AFL this season.
The Bulldogs and Tigers VFL programs have become renowned for producing mature-aged players, so when Footscray’s Anthony Scott and Richmond’s Derek Eggmolesse-Smith were upgraded it continued a long line of players to do the same in recent years, although the latter got delisted again in October.
AFL journeyman Paul Hunter got a call up from St Kilda when they had a ruck emergency, finally making his debut in 2021 and playing seven games after four years playing SANFL on the Crows list, although he has since been delisted and will be of interest as clubs scour ruck prospects in the coming months.
The undeniable reclamation project of the year was Alec Waterman, whose battles with adrenal fatigue and injury had seen him delisted from West Coast where his father had played in two flags, only to gradually claw his way back into health and form to earn a place on Essendon’s list.
The mid-season rookie draft (MSRD) came along and 15 clubs placed selections for 22 players, of which 14 were mature-age players from the State Leagues, seven from the VFL, four from the SANFL and three from the WAFL, with eight undrafted NAB League players given an opportunity after not playing in 2020.
Notably, Ash Johnson became the third mature-age recruit from his own family in Halls Creek, being taken by Collingwood after impressing for Sturt, after Jy Farrar was drafted to the Suns and Shane McAdam got to the Crows after the trio decided to pursue footy careers having seen their cousin Sam Petrevski-Seton drafted in 2016.
Hawthorn promoted their own Box Hill product Jai Newcombe, GWS upgraded James Peatling, Sydney listed Rugby convert Lachlan McAndrew, Carlton added their ruck project Alex Mirkov, while the Bombers poached VFL Tiger Sam Durham and the Blues pinched Footscray’s Jordan Boyd.
Richmond gave Matt Parker a second shot at the AFL after showing form with South Freo, Brisbane took the sixth ruckman of the MSRD with Kalin Lane from Claremont, while West Coast stayed local with Will Collins from Swan Districts and Connor West from West Perth (although Collins was delisted).
Werribee defender Kye Declase has had a season of giddy highs and dispiriting lows, having been recruited midseason by the Demons and coming within a Steven May hamstring of doing a Marlion Pickett and playing his first AFL game in the grand final, only to then be delisted from the premiership club.
Cooper Sharman made the most of his mid-year elevation to St Kilda’s rookie list, playing five games and earning another year, which continues a trend for the Saints to take a risk on older players who often end up working out.
Free agency was kind to a pair of delisted players who had been unable to win a place on a list all year, with ex-Tiger and Crow Tyson Stengle finding a third club at Geelong under Eddie Betts after playing in Woodville-West Torrens’ flag winning side, while ex-Lion Sam Skinner finished a strong season for South Adelaide with a list spot at Port Adelaide.
The national draft was still in its first round when GWS dialled up mature age Central District standout Leek Aleer, whose draft year and subsequent top-age year were wiped out by a horrific ankle injury that has only come good this year.
Essendon once again went to Richmond’s VFL program to select Garret McDonagh to add some age and experience to their young list, while the Dogs gave a chance to previously undrafted Luke Cleary.
By far my favourite story of this draft was Greg Clark, who spent six drafts going undrafted and this year finally took the pressure off himself by refusing to even nominate for the MSRD, going on to be the best on ground in the WAFL grand final and giving West Coast ample reason to unwrap their Christmas present early.
The rookie draft was just two picks old when Collingwood snapped up Williamstown’s Charlie Dean, while Geelong pulled the smoky of the day with Old Grammarians’ Ollie Dempsey who has a long basketball history and only came through the school system in footy.
The Western Bulldogs proved yet again that their strategy of recruiting mature age players is a winner, giving Footscray stalwart Robbie McComb a chance at playing AFL at age 26, as well as taking a shot on late-bloomer Charlie Parker out of Sturt.
After all the recruitment windows for 2021 have closed, it is plain to see that the appetite for mature age players is stronger than ever. Clubs have left ample space on their lists with an average of two empty places per club, with early reports that undrafted players are already being courted to train over the summer in search of a contract.
It is on for young and old.