PART 4Sunday, August 24, 2014 – SPECTATORS huddle under shelter in the forward pockets of Sandringham's Trevor Barker Oval in Melbourne's south-east. Christian Petracca's TAC Cup season ends here.
The Eastern Ranges' finals hopes were dashed last week when they lost to the Murray Bushrangers, making today's game against the Sandringham Dragons their last.
Petracca starts at half-forward, and works into the game. He hustles and bustles through the midfield. He collects 24 disposals, and at times goes head-to-head with Angus Brayshaw, another midfielder tipped to be a top-five selection at November's draft.
Petracca kicks two goals, one from a mark, and the other after crashing through traffic, picking the ball up and slamming it through. But he needed one more. Eastern loses by one point. The next time Petracca plays, he will likely be wearing AFL club colours.
Petracca was ready for the season to end. After his success at the mid-year under-18 championships for Vic Metro, he headed back to the TAC Cup keen to continue his excellent form.
His first game back, against North Ballarat, was one of the best of his season (32 disposals and five goals).
Against the Geelong Falcons the following week he was tagged by Rhys Mathieson, likely to be an early pick at next year's draft, but still tried to run hard and ignore Mathieson's niggle. But the wear and tear of a long season started to hit, and Petracca missed a game with a calf injury. He ended up having a three-week layoff given Eastern had a bye the following week.
"Why can't Christian Petracca play in the VFL? He should."
"I felt really run down. As much as I wanted us to make the finals, it's also good to have a break," he says.
"It was hard coming from the Vic Metro environment and then back to the Ranges. You have to regroup and find your feet.
"There are just little things you need to get used to again. You go for a lead in Metro and players usually hit those 15-metre targets, but in the TAC Cup they usually kick it long or keep it a bit simpler.
"I'm happy the season's over, to be honest."
Playing at a new level might have energised him. Many AFL clubs feel the best Victorian draft prospects should play in the VFL to prepare them for their next step.
Unlike potential draftees in every other state, very few Victorian prospects get to taste senior football, even if ready and willing. It was a significant issue raised at May's national talent forum, when personnel from clubs, state bodies and the League gathered to discuss how to improve under-age football.
When the subject turned to Victorian players featuring in the VFL, one prominent list manager posed the question: "Why can't Christian Petracca play in the VFL? He should."
Petracca approached Neeld after the championships and asked if he could play with VFL side the Box Hill Hawks (who are affiliated with both Eastern and Hawthorn). Neeld said because the Ranges were in the mix to play finals, and it was only likely to be one game and not a longer block in the VFL, he would prefer Petracca stayed at under-18 level.
During the TAC Cup bye, Petracca's Vic Metro teammate Darcy Moore played for Collingwood's VFL side. Petracca would have liked to experience that competition.
"It would've been good for me to play in the VFL. I'd have liked to prove I'm at that level," he says.
"I had a disappointing MCG game [against Collingwood's VFL side in April] so playing at that level would have been good to see if I could handle it. It would have given me something to prepare for and look forward to."
The Petracca CupThe end of the footy season means things get very real – and sometimes silly – from a draft perspective. That was the case for Petracca and his family last week, when Melbourne played Greater Western Sydney at the MCG. With St Kilda locked into last position on the ladder, the loser of the game would likely finish 17th and with pick No. 2 at the draft.
With the Saints tipped by some to select key forward Paddy McCartin with pick one, the clash between the Demons and Giants was dubbed the 'Petracca Cup' by some commentators. Whoever lost, under that scenario, was deemed likely to pick Petracca.
At half-time, with the Giants leading by 19 points, Petracca logged on to Twitter. He found streams of comments about the game linked to his account, and fans jokingly welcoming him to Melbourne.
When the Giants ran away with a 64-point win, Petracca's parents and brothers were rapt, seeing the result as a better chance of him remaining in Victoria.
Read the earlier chapters of Christian Petracca's draft story:
Part 1 – Why Petracca said yes to footy and no to an NBA dream
Part 2 – The Joker gets a clip
Part 3 – 'If you're the draft's best, you want to be picked at No.1'
Petracca tried to not get too excited, knowing plenty can still happen.
"It was pretty daunting, all the talk about that game," he says.
"Now that I've had so much hype around me, I've just got to go from day one and perform. There's no backing off. There's no hiding behind cameras. You've got to go," he says.
"That's what I love about this sport. My personality suits it well because I'm a kid who enjoys that pressure."
How much do you want this?Melbourne has been one of five clubs to recently visit Petracca for an interview. St Kilda, Brisbane, Fremantle and Port Adelaide have also been around and sat in the Petracca kitchen loaded with questions, but the Demons approached the interview differently. They had no notes, no pens or paper, no books.
"It was all questions off the top of their heads. They said 'Do you really want this?' 'How much do you want this?' 'We're looking for a leader at the club and are you prepared to do this?'" he says.
"It gives you false perceptions. When they ask these questions you think they definitely want you, but you never know. It's hard not knowing."
The end of the footy season coincided with the start of a busy time at university, meaning he had other things on his mind apart from those unanswered questions.
He's also working two jobs: one teaching sport to primary and high school students, the other on weekends at the MCG, where he makes coffee during AFL games. Occasionally people have recognised Petracca when he's taken their orders, which he finds strange.
An espresso from a future No.1 draft pick? Picture: AFL Media
He also recently made contact with the general manager of consumer marketing at NAB, Kevin Ramsdale, about doing work experience. Ramsdale was on the Academy's European tour, so Petracca sourced his number, texted him, caught up for coffee and asked as many questions as he could. Ramsdale's advice was simple: continue to study for the time being, but that his door was open.
His family has always wondered what Petracca would do without sport, but he knows he has to prepare for other business. "You never know what can happen," he says.
It's why Petracca won't be taking too long to reflect on his season. He will have the next four or five days off, and might have a night out to celebrate. But he remains super-motivated.
"He wants to be elite. He doesn't want to be just another bloke going around," one recruiter says.
"He rates himself, he thinks he's all right. And you need that to be good."
The NAB AFL Draft Combine starts at Etihad Stadium on September 30, and Petracca wants to run at least 10:30 for the 3-kilometre time trial and reach level 14.3 for the beep test.
Petracca knows it's important not to stop improving. "I feel like I've definitely proved myself," he says. "But I've still got to keep going."
The longest short waitMonday, October 6, 2014 – IT IS the first day of the AFL's trade period and Christian Petracca is scrolling through the Twitter feed on his iPhone. He will refresh his page plenty of times in the next 10 days, as news of moves comes through.
He is naturally interested in what happens. But he also knows this trade period could decide where his football future lies.
St Kilda holds the first pick but is open to off-loading it. Greater Western Sydney sits a couple of spots back, and has been linked heavily to Petracca, the type of player who has eluded the Giants in their bounty of early draft picks since establishment.
In between, Melbourne has just been given a compensation pick for losing free agent James Frawley and now holds selections two and three.
Petracca's destination might be dictated by which trades are made. "I'm going to be following it all pretty closely," he says
Truck's testing timeLast week Petracca was the one being monitored, as he tested at the four-day NAB AFL Draft Combine at Etihad Stadium.
In the six weeks off since his last game, Petracca had a serious training routine, completing sessions every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday with Eastern Ranges fitness coach Sean Murphy.
He started the combine well, and was pleased to finish fourth overall in the standing vertical jump (74 centimetres). His speed (a three-second 20-metre sprint) and agility (8.55 seconds) wasn't as good as he hoped, but he made up for that with a personal best in the beep test. By level 12 he felt weary, but was running next to hard-working South Australian prospect Alex Neal-Bullen and knew if he just kept ahead of him, he would be pushed to a strong score.
Petracca isn't a fluent runner – his nickname, 'Truck', an abridged version of his surname, suits his style – but he just kept moving. "I was so happy with it," he says, having finished with 14.12.
He woke up on Friday morning, the final day of the combine, feeling sore in the hips and groins. Petracca has lasting niggles from hip tendon strains he suffered from overuse during his basketball days, and didn't want to run the 3km time trial. He asked the AFL if he could sit it out, but Kevin Sheehan and Michael Ablett told him to do it.
After one lap, he felt sore. By the fourth, he felt he couldn't go on, and with one to go, he hobbled out of the time-trial. He knew he was in the spotlight, and was disappointed his week ended that way.
"I've had a history of torn hip ligaments and it definitely makes me more prone to become more tired after running on hard floors," he says. "It was just too sore to keep going."
Going, going … gone - Petracca's combine breakdown. Pictures: AFL Media
Petracca has no problems if recruiters question him about it. Before the time-trial last week, he met with six clubs – the Saints, Demons, Giants, Suns, Bulldogs and Blues – and was interviewed for the first time by some coaches, including Paul Roos and Brendan McCartney. Most of them followed up on threads from previous chats.
"I don't want to be one of those people who have talent but don't work hard."When he caught up with the Saints before the combine, Petracca told them he wouldn't let them down if they picked him at No.1. They were pleased with his beep test, which proved he had not used his time off to simply relax, like he might have in the past.
"I've really matured through to the point that I want to do this," he says.
"I want to make it. I don't want to be one of those people who have talent but don't work hard."
Every day the media arrived to cover the combine, and on Wednesday Petracca did a press conference in front of six camera crews and eight journalists.
Journalists gather to hear from Petracca at the NAB AFL Draft Combine. Picture: AFL Media
Petracca is an upbeat, happy and animated character, but with a dose of anxiety that seems to envelope every potential draftee.
He has a permanent smile, and is often whispering in someone's ear or yelling across a room. When he completed a studio interview at AFL Media, Petracca hung around to watch others, and made himself a caffe latte using the office's coffee machine. He offered to make more for late-working staff.
But when doing interviews, he felt he had to keep his enthusiasm in check. "You need to monitor your answers, but I thought it was fun, even though it's really robotic and you talk about the same stuff over and over again," he says.
He's not complaining. In the first week of October last year, Petracca was playing in the Australasian Gaelic competition for some fun with his mates (after a handful of games in Sydney, he was named the player of the tournament).
This year, he's in the final stage of graduating to an AFL club. He knows how far he's come during his draft season, and on November 27 his name will be called.
If it's at No.1, he thinks he'll be well placed to handle the pressure and would enjoy being the first picked. If it means he goes interstate, he's happy with that too, and wouldn't mind going to Greater Western Sydney, moving out of home and seeing how he goes.
Now, he just has to wait.
"You don't know what's going to happen. My main aim is to take it day-by-day, so hopefully the next month-and-a-bit goes quickly, but it's been a good journey," Petracca says.
"A lot of the boys last year said clubs told them 'We'll take you', but this year the clubs were closed about their plans and didn't lead me on.
"Nobody gave me any indication. I don't have a preference. I'm a very impatient kid, and I just want it to happen."