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'A lad' to a Rising Star: Docker makes his mark

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PERTH, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 05: Luke Ryan of the Dockers marks the ball during the 2017 AFL round 20 match between the Fremantle Dockers and the Gold Coast Suns at Domain Stadium on August 05, 2017 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Will Russell/AFL Media)
Docker Luke Ryan marks in front of star Sun Tom Lynch

LUKE Ryan's former Maribyrnong Park coach was glad – in a way – about the rookie Docker's one-match ban last month for a drinking indiscretion. 

Robbie Castello, also the ex-captain of Werribee's VFL team, was disappointed his uber-talented, one-time protégé had found trouble in his first season as an AFL footballer. 

Ryan already had a reputation as "a bit of a lad" who enjoyed a big night out with his mates. Some AFL clubs even dodged him because of that, and recruiters constantly rang his Coburg VFL coach Peter German last year asking whether they could trust him. 

But there's something Castello and German knew about the 21-year-old, that others missed – and what Fremantle looks set to benefit from for the next decade or more. 

Hidden behind the off-field problems was a hardworking kid always keen to rectify his missteps, which, in reality, were never serious. 

Castello believes the suspension setback – for drinking alcohol with teammate Brennan Cox after the Western Derby, only six days before the next game – happening early in Ryan's AFL career will be a blessing in disguise.

Ryan told AFL.com.au it was just a coincidence he had produced his two best performances in the fortnight since returning to senior level, but he has certainly paid the Dockers back. 

There were 25 disposals and 14 marks against Greater Western Sydney, before an extraordinary 28-possession, 16-mark showing at Gold Coast's expense on Saturday night. Nine of his marks were intercepts – one short of the record – and his effort was rewarded with the round 20 NAB AFL Rising Star nomination.

 

"I wasn't really shocked (at the suspension). It's team standards and things we live by and I breached those," he said.

"I've moved on and worked hard and I've learned from that and it will never happen again." 

Ryan's incredible rise has taken many twists and turns. His form for Marby Park in 2014 was so good that TAC Cup club Calder Cannons begged for him to be part of their finals campaign.

But early the next season, he had quit the Cannons to return to his Essendon District league side. An AFL career could hardly have been further away, with Ryan instead devoting himself to 4.30am starts as an apprentice carpenter.

"Calder was trying to get him down there, but he didn't want to commit, because he didn't think AFL was within his reach," Castello said. 

"He just loved playing for fun, and didn't think he could make a career out of it." 

Slowly, Castello and co.'s urgings for Ryan to take his football seriously made an impact. But after spending the 2016 pre-season training with Essendon, he was one of the last players cut. Fortunately, Coburg called a day later with an offer to play there.

The whispers about Ryan's "recklessness" reached German and he kept a close eye on him, without noticing anything initially. Then he began to note Ryan's apparent disinterest in team meetings and pulled him aside. 

Ryan insisted he heard every word, and his form and actions on the field – including his VFL debut of 29 disposals, 12 marks and 10 rebound 50s – suggested he was telling the truth.

"He's just different, and I think people didn’t understand that he was a bit different, and his learning and mannerisms were different to other people," German said. 

"On our Monday night meetings, I'd make sure there was an empty seat next to me, because he had to sit there all the time and it became a bit of an in-joke, but he was always there and ready to go.

"As I kept saying to all the recruiters, work with him, and you'll have a player."

Ryan went on to win the Fothergill-Round Medal as the VFL's most promising player, despite a dislocated left shoulder ending his season at 10 games. He eventually joined Fremantle with pick 66 in the NAB AFL Draft, after a lot of clubs inquired about him.

Ryan's response to what had surprised him most about AFL life was "how many meetings we have" – followed by a laugh. He's the same, knockabout person Castello and German came to admire, but also understand. 

Ryan is thriving out west, living with 67-gamer Tommy Sheridan and already buying into the Fremantle culture under coach Ross Lyon. 

"He's hard but fair, which is nearly every coach," he said. "I love learning from Ross – he's one of the best coaches in the business – and I'm (trying to) learn off him as much as I can."

NAB AFL Rising Star hub: news, nominees and past winners

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