AS A big-bodied midfielder who would be going head-to-head with some of Australia's best junior footballers, WA draft prospect Clay Hall knew this year's National Championships were his chance to step up as a player and test himself.
The hard-working teenager from Binningup in WA's south-west had watched surfing buddy Reuben Ginbey do the same in 2022 and bolt into the top 10 of that year's National Draft, so he tapped into the West Coast midfielder for some advice ahead of the crucial period.
The result was a four-game block that cemented Hall's draft credentials, including an impressive performance against young Vic Country star Harley Reid in a head-to-head stoppage battle that provided some valuable lessons.
The 18-year-old took those lessons and kicked on to play several strong WAFL games with Peel Thunder and is now viewed among the likely second-round selections at next month's National Draft.
"I spoke to Reuben about how he prepared for the Champs and I was fortunate enough to watch him last year and how he prepared and went into games," Hall told AFL.com.au.
"I'd say we were in similar positions in that not many people knew about us, but he bolted up the ranks a lot more than I did.
"The step up in the level of football and seeing how I handled myself at that level was a very enjoyable experience.
"You're going up against the best 18-year-olds in the country, so to hop in the midfield and test myself was good."
Hall's first challenge was against Allies star Ryley Sanders, who had the better of Hall, but the young WA midfielder led his team's bounce-back in the following match against South Australia with 33 disposals, nine clearances and seven inside 50s in a best afield display.
It was a performance that enhanced his reputation significantly before a clash with No.1 prospect Reid in WA's third game of the Championships, holding his own in that two-point loss with 26 disposals and six clearances.
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"After the first quarter the coach told me to man up Harley Reid at all the stoppages and it was really cool to go head-to-head with him and see how he handled himself through the game," Hall said.
"I have a notebook I take with me everywhere and after a game I'll write down a page of notes on what I did well and what I didn't. Then when I'm a bit more clear-minded I'll reflect on those and see what I can put into place for the next game.
"I wrote down straight away a few things he did that got the better of me in close around stoppages.
"If I was matched up on him again, I probably wouldn't have stood so close to him so he couldn't use his power on me, and I also wouldn't have worried about him so much."
Hall's impressive season didn't stop when the Championships finished in July, with the midfielder returning to Peel's league team and taking the lessons he learned against Reid and putting them into practice.
His highlight was a 21-disposal, two-goal performance against East Perth's dynamic midfield, which includes former AFL-listed trio Mitch Crowden (Fremantle), Angus Schumacher (Carlton) and Sandover medallist Hamish Brayshaw (West Coast).
Hall's dedication to his football has been evident for a long time. From Harvey Brunswick Leschenault football club, he graduated to the South-West Futures talent program, which led him to the Thunder.
He'd cram into a car with four or five older teammates from the local area to drive about 50 minutes to training when he was 15, and this year moved to Perth for four months, living with WA teammate Koltyn Tholstrup to ease the travel burden while he played with WA and Peel.
"Binningup to Optus Stadium is about two hours, so to do that three times a week would have taken a massive toll, but moving in with Koltyn was great fun," Hall said.
"I started cooking a lot more than I was at home, and I picked up those basic life skills that everyone has to learn at some point."
He has since returned to his "cruisy" coastal home in Billingup, where he has lived since he was 12. He grew up in Mooroopna, near Shepparton in Victoria, before a two-year holiday driving around Australia with parents Danni and Derek and younger sisters Greta and Ivy led them to the west.
Derek enjoyed a 76-game AFL career with West Coast and Geelong from 1993-2000, but Hall said his humble father had tried not to be an overly heavy influence on his junior football.
"He would say himself he has liked to take a step back and watch the game, then if there's something I'd like to talk about with my footy he'll wait for me to bring it up," Hall said.
"Being able to look at his history in the game and where he was, and where I'm aiming to get to, it's something where I'm striving to make him proud.
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"He's really humble and never brings up his career with anyone he talks to. If a video comes up every now and then he'll show me what he used to be like, but he keeps a lot of that stuff to himself.
"The clubs he played for would be great to play for, but any club would be great to play for if I'm able to end up on a list. I'd go anywhere in a heartbeat."
Hall has spoken to 14 clubs as he keeps busy with a weekly structure of four gym sessions, three running sessions and helping maintain the horses and yard on his Pop's property in the nearby town of Harvey.
There is a mix of nerves and excitement about what could be possible come the draft on November 20-21, but he has some idea of what to expect from Ginbey.
"I went surfing with him a couple of times this week and it was good to catch up with him and still be able to talk footy, but also just relax," he said.
"We had a 20-minute drive to the surf break, so we spoke a bit of footy on the way. He was curious to know about my year and how I went, and it was great to chat to him about his year in the AFL.
"He's great to talk to knowing that I'm in a position now that he was in 12 months ago."