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Limited pre-season, but unlimited potential for Dogs' Rising Star

Bailey Smith is the round nine Rising Star nominee - AFL,Rising Star,Western Bulldogs,Bailey Smith
Bailey Smith is the round nine Rising Star nominee

IT'S A mouth-watering prospect for Western Bulldogs fans: if teenage draftee Bailey Smith is starring on such a limited preparation, what heroics will he perform when he gets a few full pre-seasons under his belt?

The Bulldogs' first pick, at No.7 overall, in last year's NAB AFL Draft, Smith was in rehab before Christmas with an Achilles injury that sidelined him for the second half of last season and didn't join full training with the Dogs until late January.

The ultra-professional 18-year-old also figured in barely a half in both of the Dogs' JLT Community Series hitouts, but he has belied this less-than-ideal lead-in to play every game so far this season and add some freshness and running power to the Dogs' midfield.

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Smith is averaging 71 per cent game time, 17 possessions (seven contested), four tackles, three inside 50s and two clearances. He is also fourth at the club in tackles and sixth in contested possessions.

He received the round nine nomination for the NAB AFL Rising Star award after being one of the Bulldogs' best players in their 44-point loss to Geelong at GMHBA Stadium on Saturday night, gathering personal-best 28 possessions (the third-most afield), including 10 contested possessions, along with five clearances.

The athletic youngster went at 89 per cent disposal efficiency – second-best for the Bulldogs – and post-match his coach Luke Beveridge credited him with getting the Dogs going again in the third quarter.

Chances are it was Beveridge who gave Smith a vote in the AFL Coaches Association award.

The respect is mutual, as becomes clear when we asked Smith to explain how he has made such significant inroads despite his lack of preparation.

"It's a credit to 'Bevo', the coaching staff and the players to instil in me the confidence and belief in myself, particularly after I didn't train as much preparation as I would have liked because I was injured over the pre-season," he told AFL.com.au.

"And for Bevo to give me time in the midfield as a first-year player is not something I take for granted.

"The midfield group have also helped my transition – they do a good job of making me feel like a valued member of our midfield.

"I'm just so grateful."

The considered Smith seemed reluctant to take any credit himself until pressed.

"I've taken every opportunity as it has come and I've just tried to run with it. At the start I was just stoked to be training and running around with my teammates and getting to know them better. I got happy about little things like that," he said.

"I haven't been over-thinking things. I've been going with the flow and trying to be like water, which just moulds to everything. Just trying to adapt to every situation and make the most of whatever hand you're dealt.

"Having a positive mindset has helped because there were times in the pre-season where I wasn't sure if I was as good as these boys. But the more I got out there the more confidence the coaches and my teammates instilled in me."

The former Xavier College student captained Sandringham Dragons in the TAC Cup (now the NAB League) under-18 competition before confirming his draft currency with a dominant NAB AFL U18 Championship in which he averaged 25 touches to claim Vic Metro's MVP award and All Australian selection.

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Just as he was flying, he was grounded with the season-ending Achilles bursitis. However, he happily reports that he's now completely over the issue.

Although he attributes his recovery to the Bulldogs medicos, Smith's already renowned work ethic and meticulousness have also been key factors.

He worked so hard in his first AFL pre-season that veteran teammate Matt Suckling said Smith had already sculpted the "best rig" at the club.

The youngster also learned crucial lessons during an early stay with Dogs skipper Easton Wood, who impressed upon him the importance of finding a better life balance by easing his preparation obsession, learning to switch off and rewarding himself. He says eccentric teammate Tom Liberatore has also been a pivotal mentor in this area.

Smith and Essendon star Zach Merrett share a great-grandfather, Richmond's dual club champion and 1943 premiership wingman Leo Merrett. However, the Bulldog and the Bomber have never met. That might finally happen when the distant relations meet on the field for the first time in round 21.

By then Smith's eye-catching blond mullet might well be a few centimetres longer.

"It was a haircut I always aspired to have but going to a boys' school they're pretty strict with hair, so when I finished school I let it flow," Smith said.

He has other reasons to keep cultivating his mane of hair, given he has joined the Mullets for the Kids campaign to raises money and awareness for the Royal Children's Hospital.

"Doing it for a purpose is really rewarding," he said.