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'He does things I've never seen': Why Shai Bolton stands out

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 08: Shai Bolton runs sprints during the NAB AFL Draft Combine at Etihad Stadium on October 08, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Adam Trafford/AFL Media)
Shai Bolton shows off his blistering pace at the Combine
He does things on the football field that I've never seen another player do
South Fremantle player development manager Jason Pedulla

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SHAI Bolton is one of those players who will regularly bring the crowd to its feet.

The wiry West Australian draft prospect is blessed with blazing speed, a supreme confidence in his ability and a natural instinct for the game.

"He does things on the football field that I've never seen another player do," South Fremantle player development manager Jason Pedulla says.

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One of those audacious things he attempted was a handball behind his back to a teammate for his colts side early in the WAFL season.

It was the round three game against East Perth when the ball became lodged behind Bolton's back when he attempted the unthinkable. 

"To even think about trying to do something like that is rare and to pull something like that off is even rarer – he's extremely enjoyable to watch," Pedulla says. 

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Those special attributes were on display in the NAB AFL All Stars game on Grand Final eve, as Bolton collected 16 touches, seven inside 50s and a goal in a standout performance.

Anyone who was watching from the Punt Road Oval stand that afternoon saw Bolton leave opponents in the dust with his run and carry and use his spring to haul in a footy he had no right to mark. 

It was a performance that put him in top-20 contention in this year's NAB AFL Draft.

"As soon as I get the ball and I have space I try to take off," Bolton says. 

"You've got to play to your strengths and that's mine."

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Bolton, who turns 18 in December, followed that up with bags of four goals in two straight finals games for South Fremantle to end the season.

The 177cm small forward, who can also push onto the wing when required, also kicked seven goals from 20 disposals in round 22 to further underline his talent. 

He also demonstrated mental resilience to bounce back from stress fractures in his back that kept him sidelined in his bottom-age under-17 season. 

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Bolton, who lived in Mandurah in 2016 after originating from Forrestdale just outside Perth, has a strong football pedigree. His father Darren played two matches for Fremantle in 1999, which he feels has been helpful as he prepares for his own football journey.

Despite his standout showings at WAFL level, Bolton – even by his own admission – was a little down on his output when playing for Western Australia in the Under-18 Championships. 

The unassuming youngster still kicked five goals for the carnival but won just 27 per cent of his possessions contested – the second-lowest percentage of any player to play at least three games in division one.

Even still, AFL talent development manager Michael Ablett has watched Bolton play regularly this season and believes clubs would be silly to pass on such a talent.

"You've got to take the good with the bad," Ablett says.

"He's going to do some things where he might cost you a goal and then he might kick four in a quarter and win you a game too.

"That's what makes those guys so valuable and that's probably why they go a little bit earlier in the draft than what they maybe should."

To confirm his standing in the draft, Bolton ran 2.95 seconds in the 20m sprint test at the NAB AFL Draft Combine and placed second in the running vertical jump test (94cm off his left leg) behind only top-pick fancy Andrew McGrath.

Pedulla stressed to Bolton throughout the year to keep the natural flair in his game, but also to focus on doing the team things like chasing and pressuring the opposition.

"He needs to do the little things week in, week out and the flashy things are going to follow," Pedulla says.