THERE was a training session at St Kilda's Seaford headquarters late last year when the NAB AFL Academy players were pitted against each other in one-on-one marking battles.
In front of a group of recruiters, the group of taller prospects eligible for this year's draft went head-to-head. Aaron Francis won every contest he was in. "He's going to go very high," said one recruiter who was there watching.
Francis looks set to fulfill that prediction at November 24's NAB AFL Draft after a terrific season for his club West Adelaide and South Australia at the under-18 championships.
After being his state's most important player at the carnival, the long year caught up with Francis and he tired towards the back-end of the season playing school football. He also sat out testing at the draft combine with groin soreness. But he had already done enough to prove his credentials.
There are plenty of reasons why clubs with early draft selections will think long and hard about taking Francis, who might be the first player picked from his state. Francis is tough, talented and able to shape games.
Francis was a standout throughout South Australia's national carnival, playing in a number of roles and having an impact in each. His best spot is as an intercept-marking defender, who is able to play on various forwards and not only stop them but also set up attack.
Francis' aerial exploits are among the best in the draft. He can read the flight of the ball, has the courage to back into traffic or jump over packs and has the power to hold onto his grabs. He averaged nearly six marks a game in the championships, which saw him named an All Australian.
But Francis also moved into the midfield and was used in the forward line as well for South Australia, where he was dominant. In round two he took 12 marks (11 intercepts), and in round four kicked four goals from 21 touches in a commanding display.
Francis is quiet off the field but plays with the competitive fire that makes him one of the most exciting AFL prospects. He has tested in the elite category for agility, and his speed is also sound.
Despite playing in a range of different roles throughout the championships, Francis will need to build his aerobic base before becoming a midfielder at AFL level. At this stage it's not at a high enough standard to hold down a role at the top level as a midfielder.
There is also the question about what sort of defender he will be in the AFL, and whether he is tall enough to be a true key backman. At 191cm he fits in nicely as a third tall defender, but despite his leap and jumping, Francis doesn't carry the height to play on the bigger key forwards. He matched up against Josh Schache at stages late in the carnival and had trouble containing the 199cm prospect.
Each club will have its own views on how they see Francis now and what sort of player he will be in the future, but at his size he is unlikely to become a true tall backman capable of stopping big, powerful forwards. Recruiters will weigh that up.
Because he will start his career across half-back but has designs on moving into the midfield, it's no surprise Francis sees Brendon Goddard as the type of player he'd like to emulate. Like the Essendon star, Francis can impact the game in the air or at ground level and doesn't waste his touches.
Francis looks set to be a top-10 pick but it's hard to see where he actually lands. Somewhere from pick No.3-9 seems most likely. For a long time he was talked about as a possible top-two contender but that is unlikely.
Francis can control games like few others in the draft. He's aggressive and willing, but also plays with confidence and assuredness. His performances stack up and it's likely he will be playing a significant amount of AFL football next year.