By the end of next week, many of the country’s best young footballers will be living their dream and getting ready for life as an AFL footballer.
The hard work at junior elite levels will have paid off for the young guns who will have caught the attention of recruiters well before their selection in the AFL National Draft.
Most will have performed strongly at state under-18 level to earn their selection while others may have missed out in previous drafts but excelled at senior-level in state competitions to earn a second shot at joining an AFL club. There may also be a few left-field selections but most will have been on at least a few clubs’ radars.
The art of recruiting has evolved with the rise in the game’s professionalism. Players are still recruited because of their football ability but an increasing emphasis is being put on their athletic attributes – and how they stack up in interviews with recruiters and top-level coaches.
This testing moves up a notch in the days after the AFL Grand Final as clubs turn their attention from the season that has been to the seasons to come. This year, about 80 elite boys and 45 girls were put through their paces in a series of tests at the AFL Draft Combine at Margaret Court Arena.
Federation University student Russell Rayner, who is completing a PhD in strength and conditioning and is also the High Performance Manager for the Greater Western Victoria Rebels under-18s, was among the testers at the combine.
His involvement with the Rebels continues a long-standing relationship between the club and the university which has played a leading role in the Rebels’ fitness program. That relationship has grown with the Rebels’ expansion which saw a team join the under-18 Girls competition in 2017. Three members from this year’s team – Sophie Molan, Ella Wood and Nekaela Butler – were recently recruited by Richmond’s AFLW team.
In the lead-up to this year’s combine, Rebels players had access to the university’s new state-of-the-art sport science centre where they ran through the same tests that would be repeated at the combine. It provided the ideal environment for potential draftees to hone their skills and the techniques needed to shine in the tests.
“The players are invited on the recommendation from AFL clubs, so the clubs will say which players they want to have a look at if there are enough clubs that identify a player, the players with the most interest will be invited,” Mr Rayner said.
“The combine goes over four days, with anthropometric testing completed on the first day – so this is height, weight, skinfolds and body composition – and the rest of the testing, interviews, and medical screens occur after that.”
Success at the combine is no guarantee for a place on an AFL list but a standout in any one of the tests could give a player the edge among a group of youngsters who may be difficult to split on playing ability alone.
Rebels player Jay Rantall, who has also represented the Australian Institute of Sport's under-18 basketball team, smashed the 2km time trial record by 14 seconds and also had the equal best result for the Yo-Yo test. He has been touted as a potential draftee from this year’s crop of players.
The Yo-Yo test is a 20-metre sprint up and back, before players have a 10-second rest and set off again. The activity was designed to simulate the repeated-effort running players do in games.
Other physical tests include vertical jumps from a standing position and from a run up, alternating on both their feet, and an agility test which is running around poles in a certain pattern.
Coordinator of the Master of Strength and Conditioning program at Federation University, Warren Young, has also had a long involvement with the Rebels program and said the new sport science centre gave the young footballers access to a top-flight facility.
“We decided to do pretty much all the training in this facility which is something we haven't been able to do in the past. Previously we've gone to Mars Stadium and used the changing rooms if we needed to be indoors which wasn’t ideal and we've also had trouble getting access to the oval because it’s used for so many other things.”Associate Professor Warren Young
“To be able to use this fantastic space and get all these athletes into the uni has been great.”
The relationship with the Rebels will continue into 2020 with Mr Rayner’s assistant at the Rebels, Brock Freeman, taking over as the lead fitness instructor and Master of Strength and Conditioning student Lizzy Walsh taking up the fitness coach role for the Girls team.
But for this year, the Rebels’ goal was to get their players to perform as well as they possibly could in the combine to enhance their draft prospects.
“That's our job. But I've also talked to recruiters a bit over the years and they have an idea of who they're interested in well before the combine and sometimes I think they look at testing as a way of knocking people out,” Associate Professor Young said.
“Recruiters are looking at players for at least the season leading up to the draft but probably going back even earlier. They look at their playing ability, they know their strengths and weaknesses as a player inside out, so that ability to play remains the most important thing.”