YOU COULDN'T blame Sam Walsh if at some stage during next Monday's game for the NAB AFL Academy the young midfielder gets a little star struck.
Walsh, an exciting prospect who is eligible for the 2018 NAB AFL Draft, will be in Wellington playing for his country against a New Zealand side that includes one of his childhood heroes: former Brisbane Lions star Simon Black.
The three-time premiership player, Brownlow Medal winner and Norm Smith medallist is likely to roll through the midfield of the all-ages New Zealand squad, and Walsh isn't sure how he will go if they're competing for the same touch at a stoppage.
"It's going to be surreal. I barracked for Brisbane growing up so I watched a lot of him so it'll be awesome to be out there against him," Walsh said. "I'll have to pinch myself a bit.
"But even just picking up the little things he does will be really valuable for me. Any time spent on a player of that calibre is pretty amazing for me."
The game at Westpac Stadium on Monday is the centerpiece of the level one Academy's five-day camp in New Zealand, which will be taken for the first time by head coach Luke Power, another of Walsh's Lions idols.
"Luke's been incredible. He's a really approachable guy and I'm learning heaps off him. He's been awesome for my footy and the same for all of the boys," Walsh said.
That Walsh can't be drafted until next year hasn't stopped him from gathering attention so far this season. The athletic Geelong Falcons product was one of a select group of bottom-agers to play in the 20th anniversary of the Academy celebration game at the MCG, when he gathered 19 disposals and looked at ease against and alongside older company.
The 16-year-old, who stands at 182cm, didn't appear out of place. He seems likely to make Vic Country's squad for the upcoming NAB AFL Under-18 Championships, which will give him more exposure to this year's pool of prospects.
"The level two boys made us really welcome before that game so that made it more comforting getting to know everyone. But playing on the 'G was pretty amazing, especially walking out there and soaking it all in," he said.
"It was just good to play that level of footy and see how you go against players who are potentially going to get drafted this year.
"Hopefully I can get into that Vic Country squad and play as many games as possible. I've watched a fair bit of the under-18 carnival over the past few years and some of the younger boys who have come in have done really well."
Walsh isn't the only under-17 player keen to make his mark this season.
Nick Blakey, who is eligible to join North Melbourne and the Brisbane Lions as a father-son pick and Sydney as an academy choice, has starred in the under-18 academy series for the Swans, while possible Western Bulldogs father-son Rhylee West also impressed at last year's under-16 carnival.
The King twins – Ben and Max from the Sandringham Dragons – shape as two of the leading talls in next year's group, while Jack Lukosius leads the way as South Australia's best talent at this stage. All will head to New Zealand as members of the NAB AFL Academy.