RYLEY Sanders doesn't stop asking questions. He is hardwired that way. New Western Bulldogs teammates Marcus Bontempelli, Adam Treloar and Tom Liberatore are now all on the receiving end of probing questions from the inquisitive teenager. And so is Greater Western Sydney bull Tom Green.
The pair have never met in person, at least not yet. But they are cut from the same cloth. Both arrived in the AFL as top-10 picks, ready to go at the next level, after growing up in pockets of the country with rich football heritage – Launceston for Sanders, Canberra for Green – albeit ones that are somewhat off-Broadway. Both are in a hurry to be not just good, but great. And both played for the Allies in the under-18 national championships.
It was there, playing for Mark McVeigh's all-conquering side comprising players from Tasmania, Queensland, New South Wales/ACT and the Northern Territory, where Sanders captured Green's attention. After hearing the Giants star, who is one of his favourite players, praise him on a podcast, Sanders reached out via Instagram for advice on how best to transition to the next level. Green responded with an essay and they have remained in contact since.
Not many inside the Whitten Oval have seen a draftee enter the system so prepared for the rigours of pre-season training, one so determined to learn. Not many have seen someone handle so well the step up in match simulation against a midfield stacked with experienced stars. It is why Luke Beveridge has been thrilled with his start to life at the kennel, and why Sanders will start 2024 as one of the favourites for the Rising Star Award.
Bontempelli has shown the 19-year-old how to handle the step up in training standards. Treloar has demonstrated how to recover to an elite level that will allow him to back-up at training day after day. Liberatore is Liberatore. That signature competitive streak has rubbed off on the 186cm midfielder, who has hit the ground running since being selected at pick No.6 in last November's AFL Draft.
"I think it is really important to make an impact in your first months at the club because that first impression lasts a long time on your teammates. I've been trying to come across as a good teammate and a good person," Sanders tells AFL.com.au during the Western Bulldogs' pre-season camp on the Sunshine Coast.
"There has been stuff on my professionalism in the past, but I only do it because I love it. I know a lot of boys that got drafted in the first round that don't do much stretching or recovery, but I do it because I know I'm getting the best out of myself. Everyone is different, some prioritise other things. I love being at the club (and) having access to great physios, myotherapists, massages, strength and conditioning. Ladey [Brendon Lade] has been great as midfield coach and Bevo [Luke Beveridge] has given me a lot of confidence."
Sanders hasn't had to search too far for a roadmap navigating the path ahead. North Melbourne young gun Harry Sheezel is not only one of his closest friends, but one of his closest confidantes. The pair connected shortly after the North Launceston product relocated to Victoria to attend Melbourne Grammar on an Indigenous bursary at the start of 2022. They share the same manager, Nick Gieschen from Connors Sports Management.
Sanders and Sheezel played together at the Sandringham Dragons and won the 2022 NAB League Grand Final over the Dandenong Stingrays. Having someone 12 months ahead of his football journey has provided Sanders with a clear vision on what's required at the next level. Sheezel not only won the Rising Star in 2023, but also became the first player to win a best and fairest in his debut season since Darren Mead at Port Adelaide in 1997. Mead was 26 at the time, Sheezel didn't turn 19 until October, underlining the remarkable feat in thick, red Texta.
"Sheez has given me a lot of motivation," Sanders says. "If I have anywhere near the impact he has had, I'll be so happy. It has given me a lot of motivation. When you know him and you know what he does and the ups and downs he goes through, that has given me a lot of motivation. I haven't played games yet, but I wanted to come in and be confident and back (my) skills in straight away.
"Harry is one of my best mates. We talk all the time, checking in on each other. All throughout my 17th year when I struggled with homesickness and didn't have my best year, he was always checking in on me. He went pick No.3 and I wanted to be a high pick, too. He really has been one of the biggest impacts on my footy. I tell him that – he means a lot to me. I really want to have an impact straight away on the Bulldogs like he has had at North. We are in different scenarios with the Bulldogs being more mature, but his tips have helped me."
If Sheezel didn't have the answer, Will Ashcroft usually did. Sanders is also close with the Brisbane midfielder, but even tighter with his younger brother Levi, who looms as another Sandringham Dragons product destined to be a high pick come November.
Sanders knows Sheezel set an extremely high bar last season, but expect the driven young midfielder to be doing everything in his kitbag to emulate his great mate in his debut season. Not just for himself, but to reward those like Western Bulldogs list boss Sam Power, national recruiting manager Dom Milesi – and their team – who staked their reputations on him over other options at that coveted No.6 pick.
"I'm a pretty humble person, but I definitely think I can do it [perform at the level in year one]," he says. "It's just getting used to AFL standard at training and in match sim. The midfield here is stacked, so playing against those players will hold me in good stead if I play early. I definitely think if I keep getting better and learning off these boys, I can have an impact.
"I'm very loyal, so the Bulldogs taking me at pick No.6, I want to repay them as soon as I can. I want to make sure Sammy Power and Dom and all their team get to the end of this year and go, 'Jeez we’re happy we took Ryley' not, 'I wish we took this or that'. I want to repay the faith. I'm a loyal person, so I want to play well for them and obviously for myself and my family and really want to help the team get back to the finals and hopefully win a premiership, because we've got a really good list. Hopefully we can get back up there."
That should be music to Power and Milesi's ears, but it won't be revelatory. Sanders' form in 2023 wasn't the only reason they picked him where they did. Yes, he won the Larke Medal, led the Allies to a maiden title and earned All-Australian selection as captain after averaging 35.5 disposals, 14.3 contested possessions and four clearances per game, before winning a second Talent League premiership to stamp himself as one of the best midfielders in the pool. Yet the on-field only tells one side of the story. The interview process and psych testing confirmed everything the recruiting department's instincts told them when they went around the country watching Sanders play.
In the days immediately after November's AFL Draft, Bulldogs player welfare manager Brent Prismall was helping the draftees organise living arrangements when he reached out to the Sanders family with a somewhat unusual proposition. Despite having just been delisted by the club weeks earlier, Mitch Hannan wanted to help one of the new faces adjust to life in the AFL. Sanders was the perfect fit.
"I knew it was the right move when pretty much everyone at the club told me he was a great person and a great bloke," Sanders says. "I've felt that. We talk footy a little bit, but it is good to have a big brother to learn off, who understands the ups and downs and the pressures of AFL."
Regardless of how many games Sanders plays for the Western Bulldogs, or in the AFL, North Melbourne will always be an early chapter woven into his memoir. They almost had him. And he almost thought he was going to Arden Street. Almost.
Sanders was approved as a member of the Kangaroos' Next Generation Academy in late September after applying for and receiving his certificate of Aboriginality mid-year, following a long process that first gained traction when North made contact when he was 13.
But despite the club's hope to gain priority access to him as part of the League's assistance package, the AFL Commission chose not to alter the rules: NGA bids can only be matched after pick No.40 and Sanders was never going to be available so late. North received three end-of-first-round selections across 2023 and 2024, but didn't get access to Sanders, ending months of uncertainty.
"I was waiting for a while for it to be ticked off, and when it finally did, it was interesting. It looked really likely that I was going to North Melbourne at one point, and I was talking to Sheez and we were excited," he says.
"It all turned around and I knew that it wasn't going to happen talking to Nick [Gieschen] and (North Melbourne list manager) Brady [Rawlings] and (North Melbourne recruiting manager) Will Thursfield.
"I didn't care to be honest. I would have been happy to go to North, but I'm so happy I'm here. I would have been happy to go to Hawthorn or whatever. I wasn't too fussed. It wasn't as if I was so set on North that when it didn't happen, I was shattered. I just wanted clarity, I just wanted to be told. It did play on my mind a bit, if I’m being honest, but I tried to not worry about it."
North Melbourne could have still picked Sanders given they had two picks before the Western Bulldogs selected him. Instead, they took Colby McKercher at No.2 and Gippsland Power forward Zane Duursma at No.4, clearing the path for Sanders to head west.
Like all Tasmanian kids who go to bed dreaming about being drafted and playing on the hallowed turf of the MCG, Sanders has always known he would have to move away from home if things went to plan. It was part of the reason he chose to move to Victoria to finish his schooling, even if it took time for him to accept the offer. And it's the reason he stayed. He knew the opportunity at Melbourne Grammar – Gieschen's brother Rhy recruited him to the school when he was director of football before he joined Richmond as Victorian recruiting manager – was far too good to let a bout of homesickness in Year 11 return him to Launceston.
"I struggled big time at the start in Year 11 and it probably had a negative impact on my footy," he says. "It was hard because I was homesick and I wanted to go home, but my gut told me that it was the best thing for me. As a Tassie boy, I've always known that I was going to have to move away. There is no ifs, buts or maybes. Nick Watson or Nate Caddy had a different kind of uncertainty; they could stay in Melbourne or move interstate. We all know we're going. That was part of my decision.
"It was tough being away from friends and family in Year 11, but Year 12 was amazing. I loved the boarding house, especially with playing footy. I tried to have a good positive impact on younger kids. There were a lot of boys from Darwin in the boarding house who love footy, so I just tried to have a good impact on them, showing them as great as footy is and as much as you want to get drafted, use the opportunity at Melbourne Grammar to advance academically.
"I remember when I was that age, Dad was coaching Tarryn Thomas and he treated me unbelievably, he was so nice to me and made me feel really good. I've always remembered that and always tried to do the same. I can't thank Melbourne Grammar enough for the way they treated me and gave me such an unreal opportunity."
In the end, Sanders has only had to move from the boarding house in South Yarra to the inner west. He will continue to repay the school by remaining involved this year, helping coach Leigh Clarke and director of football Brad Gotch with the First XVIII. Former Collingwood and Sydney livewire Robbie Ahmat became a mentor over the past two years as Melbourne Grammar's Indigenous Program Manager, someone who educated him about his Aboriginal ancestry, so his loyalty to the school runs deep.
Sanders has been around elite underage programs from well before he was eligible to be selected in them. His dad, Adam, is football royalty in Launceston. He played a role in reviving the game in that neck of the woods before becoming coach of the Tassie Mariners and being involved in the talent pathways program, helping develop the next generation of Tasmanians entering the AFL. Former first-round picks Kade Kolodjashnij and Jesse Longeran were drafted to Gold Coast in consecutive drafts after being coached by Adam, prompting Sanders to become a Suns supporter and leading him to idolise dual Brownlow Medallist Gary Ablett Jnr.
"Dad is 99 per cent of the footballer that I am today," he says. "Growing up around footy, he knew all these elite standards and what needed to get me drafted from the age of nine or ten. When I was young, he was on to me about my technique when we would go for a kick. Looking back at it now, it's been so good because the skills of the game are so important.
"He would watch my game and do his own report for me with edits. I know when he's doing that he is doing that from a coach's point of view, not from a dad's point of view. I'm so grateful having him, I feel like it’s been a big advantage for me."
Expect more Sanders tales to surface across 2024. Like the morning new signing James Harmes turned up more than an hour ahead of schedule because he left his home in Bentleigh far too early to avoid any traffic delays, only to find one player already there working on his touch. It was Sanders.
Sanders has lived a curious football journey ahead of a debut that will be against Melbourne on March 17 if he maintains his pre-season form. That journey is only getting started, one that has plenty of chapters to come. And plenty of questions left for him to ask.