OVER THE past fortnight, Essendon youngster Dylan Clarke has kickstarted his AFL career with two giant-killing performances as a tagger, taking down both Carlton co-captain Patrick Cripps and Hawthorn jet Jaeger O'Meara.
Although rapt to be given the responsibility of such assignments, the 20-year-old dreams of reversing those roles by becoming a damaging midfielder in his own right.
"My long-term goal is to become the type of midfielder where opposition players are coming to (tag) you," Clarke told AFL.com.au on Monday after receiving the round 13 nomination for the NAB AFL Rising Star award.
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"I don't want to look too far ahead – at the moment I just want to establish myself as an AFL player and play my role for the team, whether that be playing a tagging role or not – but in the future I want to be a ball-winning inside midfielder like some of the premier midfielders in the competition."
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In many ways, the disciplined Don is already turning the tables on his opponents.
The third-year player, who made his debut in round nine last year when the Bombers triumphed over Geelong at the MCG, finally ended his year-long AFL drought against the Blues in round 11, receiving his opportunity courtesy of injuries to teammates.
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He grabbed his chance with both hands, showcasing his impressive two-way game to become a key ingredient in important back-to-back wins for the finals hopefuls.
In round 11 he obliterated the hulking Cripps, restricting him to just 11 possessions, including just two kicks – both being career-low full-game tallies. Meanwhile, Clarke collected 23 possessions (nine contested), six clearances, five inside 50s and a game-high 10 tackles.
The effort earned him six votes – and status as the second-best player afield – in the AFL Coaches' Association Champion Player of the Year award.
Despite this supreme blanketing job, Essendon coach John Worsfold refused to guarantee Clarke's selection against the Hawks given the return of star trio Dylan Shiel, Orazio Fantasia and Jake Stringer. Unfazed, Clarke had been prepared to return to the VFL if that's what the selectors wanted. His confidence had been boosted. He'd bide his time again if necessary.
But he was given another chance, and kept O'Meara to 24 touches and five clearances while having 23 possessions (12 contested) and five clearances himself.
"There was a long time between my first and second (AFL) game. I did a lot of work on my craft in the VFL and I was just waiting for an opportunity," he said.
"You've got to have a certain level of self-confidence in your ability if you want to make it. It was frustrating to wait that long but that's a credit to the depth of our midfield.
"Now that I have that chance I don't want to let it go. I'm just stoked to be back in the ones and be able to contribute."
One of the noteworthy aspects of Clarke's rise is how relatively little experience he'd had as a stopper. He did it a few times in school footy in Year 10 and in finals as a bottom-aged TAC Cup player for Eastern Ranges, along with the odd assignment last year in the VFL, before being asked to perform the role regularly at state league level this year.
He extolled the positive influence of experienced Dons midfielder David Myers, now in the VFL, who has helped build his belief that he can become a bona fide AFL player.
"It's a role 'Woosha' (Worsfold) said he knew I could do, and I was excited to get the opportunity," he said.
Clarke has applied himself wholeheartedly to the role. A strong runner, he has shown great concentration and is good in traffic and in one-on-one duels.
"I look after my opponent first but then I want to get involved and find the footy myself – that's just how I play footy," he said.
"I've had a lot of help from my teammates too, which has been great. It helps when our midfielders are winning the ball first, too."
Clarke's older brother Ryan, the Kangaroo-turned-Swan, has also enjoyed some strong performances as a tagger in his first season in Sydney. The siblings talk regularly but rarely about footy, much less about tagging.
The 63rd pick from the 2016 NAB AFL Draft said he learnt a lot from playing on Cripps and O'Meara but has gleaned just as much from matching up on teammates like Shiel and Zach Merrett at training, especially in regard to "how quick they make decisions".
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Remarkably, Clarke remains unsure if he'll be selected for the clash with West Coast in Perth on Thursday night, although there is no shortage of tagging candidates, among them Luke Shuey, Andrew Gaff and Dom Sheed.
Originally from Rowville, the Melbourne university commerce student is also in the dark about his longer-term playing future. He is out of contract at season's end.
"I'm not too sure. I haven't really spoken to my manager. I've only played two games of footy this year. I'm very happy at Essendon but I just want to focus on playing good footy, keep developing myself as a player and maintain my spot in the team," he said.