IT WAS the St Kilda trade decision that likely cost West Coast drafting Dan Curtin last week.
In the lead-up to the first round of the AFL Draft last Monday night, all attention centred on Curtin's landing spot and Greater Western Sydney's pick No.7. With Curtin projected to slide, the Giants had multiple offers from five clubs for the pick.
One was from the Eagles, who were willing to trade their future first-round pick for the Giants' selection this year.
The Giants looked at all options but had decided they wanted to prioritise drafting small forward Phoenix Gothard. They proposed a trade with the Saints, which would have seen the Giants give up pick 16 and a future second-round pick to take the Saints' pick 13.
That would have put the Giants ahead of North Melbourne, who had a level of interest in Gothard, as well as the Saints, who were also in the mix for the Murray Bushrangers prospect, and all but lock GWS in to grab the goalkicker.
If that deal had gone through, the Giants would then likely have accepted the Eagles' offer of their future pick – which could be a top-three pick next season – and allowed West Coast to couple Harley Reid with a Curtin coup. But the Saints said no to the Giants, conscious that a slide of three spots would risk their access to Darcy Wilson given Adelaide and North's interest after their selection. The Giants moved in a different direction, leaving Adelaide to swoop on Curtin.
It was just one of countless sets of sliding doors moments in last week's first round, as the draft continues to evolve as a tactical and strategic battle. This is the inside story of the first 29 selections in the 2023 draft – the countless offers and deals that didn't happen, the 'what ifs' and maybes, the players who were in each club's sights, the bluffs, the bids and proof that every draft pick is connected to the next.
HARLEY Reid was in demand. In the Trade Period, Hawthorn offered pick No.4, its future first-round pick and Tyler Brockman to West Coast for its No.1 pick to take the Bendigo Pioneers star. The Eagles knocked it back.
North Melbourne had three different goes at the top choice after making the No.1 pick a trading target. The last offer – one of the Roos' top-three picks and two later first-round picks, with something coming back – came after the Trade Period but didn't make the Eagles budge. Neither did Melbourne's offer of picks No.6, 11 and 42 this year as well as a future first-round pick.
Two weeks out from the draft and the feeling had become mutual: rivals knew the Eagles were unlikely to budge and the Eagles knew the offers were unlikely to increase. Reid was their man and they grabbed him as their first No.1 pick since Michael Gardiner in 1996.
Behind Reid, the Eagles had two talls ranked closely – Gold Coast Academy talent Jed Walter and Curtin, with the local key back still in their sights in coming picks.
North Melbourne had been locked in on its group of four players for some time: Reid, Colby McKercher, Walter and Zane Duursma. After attaining pick No.3 as free agency compensation for losing Ben McKay to Essendon, the Roos had looked at ways to either get up to pick No.1 or also trade for Gold Coast's pick No.5, which was on sale at the start of the Trade Period as the Suns hunted points to match their four Academy bids.
A deal had been floated between the Demons, Roos and Suns that would have seen North finish with a hand of picks 2, 5 and 6, the Demons shift up to grab pick No.3 and the Suns amass a stack of picks this year and next. However, the Roos didn't want to jump out of the top three, mindful at that stage they were still pursuing pick one.
The Demons came hard again in the days before the draft, offering pick No.6 and a future first-round selection to North for pick No.3, when Duursma and Nick Watson would have been available. North did its extra work on Curtin late in the piece, including coach Alastair Clarkson spending more than two hours at Curtin's Perth home a day before the draft, in the knowledge that if it took the Melbourne offer, it would be Curtin in its sights at pick 6.
A final check on the versatile centre half-back's openness on moving to Victoria was done in the very minor chance the Kangaroos decided to shift down if Melbourne upped its offer on draft night.
That didn't happen, with the Roos holding on to picks 2 and 3, selecting premium midfielder McKercher, bidding on Walter (which was matched by Gold Coast at pick No.3) and then drafting Duursma, the forward/midfield highlight reel.
Melbourne had also put the same deal to the Hawks for their pick. In not accepting the trade, it became clear to rivals that the Hawks had zeroed in on small forward Watson ahead of Curtin and key defender Connor O'Sullivan. If the Hawks had prioritised either of the defenders, they could have accepted the offer, slid back two spots, landed a free future first-rounder from the Dees and grabbed their player, safe in the knowledge Melbourne wanted to take Watson and the Western Bulldogs - with its pick 6 - were settled on midfielder Ryley Sanders.
On the clock, the Hawks looked to see if the offer could be boosted, with the Demons' remaining chip being pick 11. But Melbourne wasn't going to give three first-round picks to move up just two spots. So the Hawks held and took Watson, who had trained at the club in recent seasons and will add spark to their forward line.
This was also the point where West Coast started to re-enter proceedings, putting forward its future first-round pick to try and grab Curtin. However, with the Hawks not holding a second-round pick this year and not wanting to miss out completely at the top end, they held firm.
The Dogs had been something of an island in all of the discussions.
Because of their move up to the Suns' pick in the Trade Period to a) get into the top echelon of the draft and b) get inside a bid for father-son Jordan Croft, clubs knew they weren't going to budge positions.
In making the deal with the Suns, the Dogs knew one of McKercher, Duursma, Sanders or Watson would be available. Sanders would have been taken ahead of Watson if both were on the board, with the Dogs prioritising their midfield growth over a small forward option. Their trade with Gold Coast had paid off, with a breakdown of the trade showing they essentially gave up pick 10 and a future first-round pick for pick four (which became five and then six after the compensation pick and bid) and then have their pick 17 be split for future picks and points, which they needed.
Melbourne had been fans of Caleb Windsor's run and gun for some time and he was its choice at pick 7. Hawthorn, having knocked back the last Demons offer, called with a future first on the table so they could grab Curtin or O'Sullivan, while West Coast also put its future first-round pick up for grabs. But the Demons wanted a top-line addition this year and chose the exciting Windsor.
That decision then left the Giants with the biggest call of the draft.
Days earlier, it had become clear there was a growing chance Curtin would be available at their pick. But did the Giants want another tall defender? And how much did other clubs want the tall defender?
West Coast offered its future first-round pick. Hawthorn offered its future first-round pick, with a future third-rounder coming back. Essendon offered its future first-round pick, with another offer of its top pick and a future second-round pick. Adelaide put forward different scenarios using its first two first-round picks. All were plotting ways to be the Curtin raiser.
North had thought about getting involved with a future pick but didn't, nor did Geelong, who held the pick behind the Giants.
Only hours before the draft, the Giants decided they wanted to retain a pick in the top part of the draft, thus ruling out the West Coast and Hawthorn future pick offers. The Giants had come off a preliminary final berth with a very quiet Trade Period so wanted to use the draft to add to their list and not stand still.
The only way they would have done that was the St Kilda offer to shift up to pick 13 from 16 and all but guarantee Gothard's availability, which then would have seen the Giants trade the pick to West Coast, who would have selected Curtin. But the Saints weren't moving, either.
It left the Giants to deal with the Crows, with GWS swapping what had become pick 8 and 17 for Adelaide's picks 11, 15 and a 2024 second-round pick. That appealed to the Giants because it allowed them to retain two first-round picks but be confident Gothard would be available.
The Crows, meanwhile, had prioritised Curtin. It was only days before the draft that Adelaide sensed Curtin could be in play, with the late wheeling and dealing showing the value of DI (draft intelligence).
West Coast had another crack with Adelaide, hoping the Crows would prefer the Eagles' future pick instead of Curtin, as did the Hawks. But the Crows wanted to bolster their here and now in the key backs department by choosing the Claremont product. It was almost a sign of the next evolution of the draft: the Giants, and then the Crows, were not trading the pick - they were trading the rights to Curtin. Greater Western Sydney had become holder of the player, not the pick. Some clubs feel it represented the first step towards clubs being able to trade just drafted players during the event itself.
The Cats came after the Crows, placing a bid on Suns Academy star Ethan Read. They contemplated another bid on fellow Sun Jake Rogers but instead weighed up their call. While taking their five minutes, they received an offer from the Bombers to trade back one position for a second-round pick (which turned out to be No.36, used on VFL star Shaun Mannagh).
Essendon was eyeing forward Nate Caddy, who the Bombers ranked in their top five players, and the Cats knew they could take O'Sullivan a spot back as well. So the first ever live trade for a top-10 pick (the Giants and Crows deal) was quickly followed by the second as Essendon executed the move up, choosing Caddy ahead of Tasmanian James Leake, O'Sullivan and Koltyn Tholstrup.
West Coast had a final dip by using its future first-round pick to tempt clubs while Caddy was on the board, also knowing his tight relationship with Reid. But once the Bombers drafted the key forward, the Eagles put their future pick back in safe keeping for 2024.
The Cats chose O'Sullivan, having had interest from Adelaide and Melbourne in their selection in the lead up to the draft but never enough to shift spots. Geelong's decision also closed out Hawthorn's interest in trading their future first-rounder while Curtin and O'Sullivan remained live options.
After that, the Giants breathed their sigh of relief and took Gothard, who they ranked at No.7 in the available pool. If they had held at their pick, it would have been Gothard ahead of Leake and O'Sullivan, whose appeal as a key forward was also tempting for clubs.
But their night didn't stop there. Having secured their main target, the Giants got busy again with Leake still on the board to land their next priority. They tried to woo Melbourne into shifting back three spots by using (what was) pick 16 and two future second-round picks. No deal. West Coast also had a crack at trading for Tholstrup when Melbourne was on the clock by putting forward a future second-rounder and their second-round pick this year, but Melbourne wanted to add the bullocking, high character forward to its mix.
Sydney was up next. It bid on Rogers and then Croft – the Swans rated the pair there and would have been happy to have them, but the bids also pushed out where the Swans would have to match a bid for their own Academy player Caiden Cleary later in the draft, a bonus that ensured the points they had to pay would be less.
It also gave the Swans time to assess their trade offers. Sydney had been busy in the lead-up to the draft, offering pick 12 and a 2024 end-of-first first round pick to most clubs after pick four. North Melbourne had also offered picks 17 and 18 for 12 during the Trade Period, but the Swans hadn't been interested in that move.
On the night, the Giants discussed packaging a future first-round pick with their next pick to get the Swans' selection and grab Leake, however the Swans were aware of St Kilda's interest in Will Green at the selection after theirs so weren't eager to move back. The Swans selected the young ruckman and will let him develop under trade recruit Brodie Grundy in coming seasons.
The Giants weren't ready to stop, though, with Leake surprisingly still available. Now only one pick off, they made a certainty of it by doing a deal with St Kilda to push up one spot and grab him. The Saints were set on Wilson and knew the Giants wanted Leake, so were comfortable shifting back the position, essentially grabbing a future second-rounder (the price they paid for Freo recruit Liam Henry) for the move.
The Giants, too, were happy to do the deal given a future pick had come their way as part of the earlier Adelaide trade. Like the Bombers' move of one spot, the deal was as much to beat other clubs from trading into the pick as it was to buy St Kilda's selection. And that was necessary, too, with North Melbourne and Adelaide interested in trading up as well while Leake remained available. For North, it would have been one of their fourth or fifth first-round picks plus a future second-rounder to jump the queue. However again the Saints did not want to slide back that far.
The Saints grabbed the hard-running Wilson ahead of Lance Collard, who they managed to secure later in the night at pick 28. Gothard was an option behind that pair.
It sets up an interesting alternative draft universe had the Hawks picked Curtin instead of Watson with their first choice. In the ultimate 'What if?' that order (not including bids) would likely have been Reid to the Eagles, McKercher and Duursma to North, Curtin to the Hawks, Sanders to the Dogs and Watson to the Demons.
Then, the Giants would likely have accepted Melbourne's offer of pick 11 and a future first-rounder for pick seven and the Demons would have swooped on Windsor, Geelong and Essendon would have still been able to secure O'Sullivan and Caddy respectively and then Wilson could have landed at the Crows. After that, the Giants would still have drafted Gothard and the Swans taken Green before Collard got to the Saints and Leake to the Crows.
And yet the mammoth first-round wasn't done there, with more tactics and targets to unfold.
After bidding on Hawthorn father-son Will McCabe, North had its first of three remaining first-round picks. Sandwiched between them was Adelaide, so the Roos decided to select SA ruckman Taylor Goad first in case the Crows were planning on going local.
North had set its objectives as taking two top-end players, two talls and then grabbing the best available with its fifth first-rounder, with ruckman Goad and key defender Wil Dawson joining alongside half-back Riley Hardeman. In between, the Crows took Charlie Edwards, who also had interest from North and other clubs in that range.
North had also considered shifting that last first-rounder back into the 20s for multiple picks given they had two list spots available. But half-back Hardeman was a clear choice; the Roos also had interest in Gothard in the chance he had been available, but with Hardeman still ahead.
Collingwood finally entered the fray after that, with the Pies making the bid on Cleary and then choosing Harry DeMattia. They had looked at tall pair Logan Morris and Archer Reid but DeMattia, who was ranked in the teens, had become available.
Adelaide made the seventh and final bid of the first round when Will Graham's name was called and the Suns matched it, before the Crows took medium defender Oscar Ryan to round out their strong haul. St Kilda grabbed Collard, who West Coast were hoping would get through to its pick 30, while Carlton closed the 29-pick first round by choosing Ashton Moir, who beat out Cooper Simpson, Mitch Edwards and Billy Wilson (the Blues grabbed Wilson with the fifth pick of the second night).
By Carlton's Moir selection, though, the phones had stopped ringing, with clubs saving their chips for the following evening when the draft reopened, with North Melbourne offering its future second-round pick to get back in for one more draft hit.
Such is the modern draft; an agile, ever-moving scale of decisions and targets, with huge cascade and ripple effects tied to each selection.
It comes with its own draft language – full of DVIs (the draft value index), bids, deficits, points, futures, slides, splits, groupings, tiers and more. But it also has its own draft drama as recruiters search to push up that potentially crucial one, two, three or four spots to land the players they think can be their list gamechangers.