AT THE end of 2018, Sean Ralphsmith started to write a diary.
His son, Hugo, was shaping as a possible draftee in 2019, and Sean wanted to jot down the key moments from his under-18 season.
Sean had history in the game – he played four games for Hawthorn and 30 for the Saints between 1988 and 1994 – but had no idea what was in store from a parent's perspective.
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So in helping Hugo reach his goal – the midfielder was eventually drafted by Richmond last November – Sean also wanted to keep tabs on things in a journal format.
"I've always been a bit of a writer and have written a diary about my kids' lives and everything they've done. When I thought at the end of his bottom-age year that Hugo was a chance to be drafted, I thought if it ever happened it would be a great story as I know so many parents want to know what it's like," he said.
Ralphsmith supplied his family's road to the draft to AFL.com.au, charting the highs, lows and unusual experiences of being a prospective AFL player's parents – and how so many others share the ride.
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"It is all-consuming and very stressful. When you realise your kid's a chance you get this build-up of hope and expectation and then it's all there for you to lose, whereas if you never have the expectation it's all good," Sean said.
The edited extracts below, all written by Sean, highlight Hugo's passage to the Tigers, and how the family saw each of his significant moments.
Sean's message to Hugo in September, 2018
"Mate you couldn't have achieved any more this year. Play well Grand Final day. Do a good pre-season. You'll be stronger and faster and better again next year. Then it's all up to you. We'll be watching and cheering. And you'll be great."
Signing a manager
They can be the extra three or four per cent when talking to recruiters, providing feedback, helping him to improve. I ask Paul [Connors] if he is just being kind to us because we are friends, but that's not the case, he says. 'Jake' (Connors' nickname) follows up next day – "We are not taking anything for granted - so let's be clear - we want to manage Hugo".
Pre-season setback (December 17, 2018)
Bugger. After the Vic Metro camp at Ballarat and a week training with the Western Bulldogs, Hugo spends a few days with his school mates at Lake Eildon boating with Harry Traum, skiing and jet skiing.
My heart sinks when Harry's mum Dani – a good friend and footy mum herself – calls the day after we have left to come back to work. Hugo's had an accident. I leave work immediately and jump in the car and drive to Healesville to meet them and take him to hospital. "Looks like a broken ankle," she says.
He got his ankle caught in a rope and he's dragged several metres behind a jet ski under water, almost pulling his foot off (apparently). Hugo said afterwards he was more concerned about drowning than his foot at the time.
Ultimately the scans and X-ray show no break or tendon damage. Just enormous pain from bruising, swelling and the rope burns/cuts. He basically strangled his foot. So crutches and moon boot for a while. Huge relief!
Early form (March-May, 2019)
Hugo starts the season with a bang – playing great footy with Sandringham Dragons in the first three rounds, and then dominating a few games of school football at Haileybury, swapping from on ball to full forward. He's in the leadership group for both teams.
First club interview (June)
Around this time Hugo got his first club interview - his team the Hawks. It's a great experience and Mark McKenzie and Mark Smart seem to like Hugo. They also sell the vision of their new facilities they're planning to build in Dingley which is really exciting. They also mention that they will interview about 70 players this year – which puts it into perspective!
We debrief and discuss how to best answer some questions. Hugo is great – he just needs a bit more confidence I feel. I had been in touch with my good mate Dean Anderson to get the lowdown on the types of questions Noah has been asked by clubs. Hugo and I discussed them which was good practice.
Following the media
Last year when we knew many of the boys in the draft I loved listening to who was performing and what they were saying. It was really interesting when you've seen many of these boys grow up. And my own kid was not in the mix so there was no anxiety about it at all.
This year, with Hugo in consideration I have deliberately avoided listening or reading virtually everything to do with the U18s, match reports and the draft/prospects/podcasts. However, it's different for his mum Jackie who consumes everything available. It makes for some interesting conversations at home…
The Vic Metro experience (June/July)
Hugo is thrilled to be picked on a wing for Vic Metro in the national championships. His first game at the MCG against Vic Country is not great – lacking confidence. The next two against WA and SA are better but he doesn't set the world on fire.
Sadly, he's dropped for the last game. Metro play Allies and lose again in a close one. Hugo's mate Finn Maginness gets best for Metro. [His other close friend] Fischer McAsey is named MVP. These boys have effectively secured their goal of being drafted. Hugo is left to resurrect his season at the Dragons.
It's not all bad though, as he continues to play great footy for his school Haileybury, who go on to win the APS premiership, tying with rivals Carey and Caulfield Grammar. His coaches Dave Lappage and Matthew Lloyd are a great support to him throughout the whole season.
The interviews mount up
I put a list of AFL clubs together and tick off those that have asked to meet with Hugo. Suddenly there have been 11 clubs interested with six being interstate. Jackie and I discuss how it's mildly disappointing my club Saints have not yet expressed any interest. But there's still time!
Port Adelaide interview (August)
Toward the end of the chat they asked what it had been like being interviewed by other clubs. Hugo acknowledges we had been lucky enough to have had most clubs come to our home which was a privilege and a great experience. Like being interviewed for a job 15 times.
I added that we did feel privileged that there had been so much interest in our son. I mentioned we'd got into a routine of judging the clubs on three criteria after they leave.
- Whether we think they really like Hugo as a player.
- Whether they are interested in our family as well, or just him.
- Whether they 'sell' their club to Hugo/us or was it all just one way.
"How did we do?" asked their recruiter Brett Anderson.
"Very well I think! I feel it was a strong yes to all three." However, Hugo was a little bit vague in the interview - and as soon as they leave he rushes to the bathroom to vomit. He's got gastro and spends the next six hours being terribly ill! He loses 4kgs that week before the Dragons' first final.
Pressure mounts (August-September)
First NAB League final at Ballarat. Dragons beaten easily by Eastern. Hugo very quiet along with most of his teammates. Next week might be his last game to prove himself. The pressure is on. It was a very quiet car trip home. I feel he needs to perform on this stage – there's still plenty he needs to prove. In a rare post game comment I tell him that. Couldn’t help myself. His response was a sarcastic "Really?"
I think he's feeling the pressure more than I had realised.
The coaches' plan to let Hugo 'just enjoy his footy' works the following week in the semi-final against Calder. Hugo kicks three goals in the first quarter and virtually takes the game away from the Cannons who struggle to kick goals all day. Hugo takes his marks. Hits his targets. Plays a great game. Dragons win through to the preliminary final. Finally he's played well on this stage. I think this will go a long way to helping him achieve his dream.
End of season (September-October)
Unfortunately, the Dragons lose badly in the preliminary final against Oakleigh, so the season is over and there's not much more he can do. We think he's put his best foot forward and there's still eight or more clubs interested in him we hope. Half are interstate so if he is picked we could well be waving goodbye to him two days after the draft, an exciting and sad thought at the same time.
He attends the national combine in early October and performs really well – achieving top-10 performances in the 20m sprint, vertical jump and the 2km time trial. We hope this helps his chances.
Richmond's interest (October)
We hear that the Tigers have some interest in Hugo. They were one of the few clubs who interviewed him without his parents so we have not met them. We discuss all the trades still going on (it's the Telstra AFL Trade Period which seemingly goes on forever) and hope the Tigers don't do a late trade and give away their picks in the 30s. We are cautiously excited at the prospect of him going there.
Hugo receives messages from Melbourne and Freo who want to catch up just after exams. What picks have they got? We check. All of a sudden he’s hoping not to be picked to go interstate. "Don't assume anything mate," I say. "I know." he says. But he actually now thinks he is going to be drafted.
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Working it out (October)
We know through either a lack of interest (Adelaide, Collingwood, Melbourne) or lack of draft picks in the range (Carlton, Suns, Giants, Saints, Eagles, Bulldogs) certain clubs probably won't pick our boy. Geelong haven't been in contact either but apparently that's how they roll even if they're keen. So you never know.
That leaves a handful of interstate and local clubs who we think are most likely to call his name. I think it could be Richmond, but if he goes earlier Sydney, North Melbourne, Port Adelaide and Essendon are the most likely based on their strong level of interest and their picks.
Selfishly we have cautiously discussed that if Hugo is lucky enough to be picked we hope it's a Melbourne based club. I think we'd really love Hawthorn (pick 30) or Richmond (picks 38, 39, 41). But we suspect the Hawks will need to use pick 30 to match a likely bid that will come for his good mate Finn Maginness. Equally Richmond picks are later in that range – we'd love to think they could trade up to get him but that’s getting presumptuous.
Also, I find Hugo's doodlings in his study as he muses over the likelihood of being drafted by each club based presumably on his experiences with each so far.
The outside noise (November)
Everywhere we go people talk to you about Hugo being drafted. Every day. Work functions, Melbourne Cup, social settings. Family. It's unavoidable. We can only imagine it's the same for Hugo, but probably tenfold. It's exciting, daunting and challenging at the same time. I spend a lot of time deflecting conversations about him. Everything's great unless the commentators have got it wrong....and we'll be left to pick up the pieces.
Hugo turns 18. Gets his new car (very exciting!). Finishes exams, goes to schoolies with his mates and gets his braces off. What a time in his life! And then the draft.
Port Adelaide (pick 29) make contact and want to do a Skype interview. Then Essendon call and want to meet again.
I take Hugo out to the Hangar at Essendon and on the way out there I suggest to Hugo it's time to have more confidence in himself, and show the recruiters you have great self-belief and you can make it at this level. We meet the recruiting team again as well as Adrian Dodoro for the first time.
He leads the discussion which goes from friendly – engaging with both of us – to footy serious quite quickly. He asks Hugo some earnest questions about his strengths and weaknesses and gets into him about whether he’s ready to play in a man’s world and whether he can cope with the hard stuff. Hugo answers really well. They play his highlights vision on the screen behind him while he’s talking (he ignores it to focus on his interview, whilst I crane my neck to watch the good bits). They ask why his national championships campaign wasn't great. Why he doesn't get over 20 touches very often. Then two questions I'll remember his answer to...
Are you going to be an ok AFL player, a good player or a great player?
“I’ll be a great player,” he states confidently.
How great? What will they say about you in this draft in five years' time?
“They’ll look back and say I should have been a top-10 pick."
Wow. He surprises even his dad with this response. They acknowledge it with a smile. Great!
Declining draft invitation
He sends a message back to Kevin Sheehan at the AFL respectfully declining the invitation to night two of the draft saying he'd prefer to stay at home and watch it with his family. We think this is the right decision. His mates Finn Maginness and Josh Worrell are doing the same after being invited. To have cameras in your face waiting for your name to be called would be excruciating, especially when there's no guarantees with night two picks.
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Draft night two (November 28)
Another very long and distracted day at work. Finally the night arrives. Hugo's grandparents Helen and Danny are there, his girlfriend Bella, sister Maisie and Jackie and I. Also in the back seats are Cam and Dani Traum, great friends who we have watched the last two drafts with.
We are really hoping for Hugo to be picked by Richmond but as pick swaps and bids for other players eventuate, Richmond's picks are pushed back from 38, 39, 40 to 43, 44 and 45. And every time a club we thought liked Hugo (Essendon, North, Melbourne had recent interest) picked somebody else, I think we all feel let down, despite the Tigers being the team we all want, and we think, want him. And so we all become increasingly tense. Each pick seems to take forever.
Then finally we get to Richmond's first of three picks in a row. They make a bid on a Brisbane academy player, Noah Cumberland, which Brisbane does not match. Two chances left. Then they make another bid on another Brisbane academy player, Will Martyn. Again it's not matched. Stress!!! Only one chance left, pick No.45. I start looking forward on the list, assuming they are not picking Hugo, and wondering what other chances are coming. Perhaps St Kilda at No.53?
And then the Tigers do the unthinkable. They swap pick 45! What??? Disaster, I think, for a second.
(It must be said that all of this stress and anxiety is limited to quiet groans as I don't want Hugo and the rest of the family to feel or hear my stress. I try hard to keep a positive demeanour for the next pick for the benefit of others.)
But they get back pick No.46, the very next pick, from Collingwood. Collingwood pick a Pies tragic Trent Bianco who was ranked in the top-20. All good. Then it's back to Richmond and our 'last' chance with pick 46. They take the full five minutes to select. Why do they take so long? We can see them on the phone, which is very disconcerting. Not another swap, or bid, we hope. It's the longest five minutes of our lives. Then the familiar chime. "The pick is in". AFL football operations manager Stephen Hocking appears on screen.
"With pick 46, Richmond has selected Hugo........" We don't even hear the surname. Our room explodes with joy. And relief. Tears. It's indescribable. I am overwhelmed. Hugo doesn't move, sitting with his head in his hands and we all jump around and hug him and each other. Hugo has been drafted by Richmond.
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Within 10 minutes there are 20 people in our house, within an hour it's an instant party of 60. We drag out the champagne and beer we had bought quietly in the hope of this night. Family, friends, and eventually his other teammates and fellow draftees arrive – Finn Maginness, Miles Bergman and Josh Worrell and their families.
It was such an awesome, high spirited, fun night that we will never forget.
Over the weekend one of the many Richmond players who message Hugo is Jack Riewoldt.
"Hi mate. Congratulations. Welcome to Richmond. I hear you live Bayside. Would you like a lift to training?"