THE AFL has all but locked in staging a NAB AFL Draft this year – albeit with a format to be decided – but what impact could the lack of under-18 football have on the pool?
The past decade has shown that many stars are born in their draft season, having previously not been seen as likely early picks until they hit their final under-18 campaign.
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But with opportunities to impress diminishing by the week due to football's COVID-19 shutdown period, there will be players who were set to blossom in their draft year and have – for the indefinite future at least – lost that chance.
The AFL is hopeful it can play a revised, condensed version of the NAB AFL Under-18 Championships at some stage later this year, but its focus remains on the elite level at this stage.
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Here are some of the leading late draft bloomers from recent years who, without the chance to perform in their top-age year, may not have landed on AFL lists.
Jack Macrae (Western Bulldogs, pick 6, 2012)
Recruiters can't remember a player wanting the ball in their hands more than Macrae did during his draft year. Maybe they can't recall anyone actually having the ball in their hands more, either. Macrae starred in Vic Metro's carnival win that season and in the Oakleigh Chargers' premiership before jumping into the top 10 on draft night with the Bulldogs.
Marcus Bontempelli (Western Bulldogs, pick 4, 2013)
It wasn't until after Vic Metro's mid-year championships that Bontempelli became a highly touted prospect. After a so-so carnival, he went back to the Northern Knights and dominated games as a big, strong, clearance-winning midfielder who couldn't be stopped. The Dogs took the punt with pick 4 – don't let anyone else tell you, with hindsight, that he was a consensus selection there – and it's one of the great all-time draft selections.
Patrick Cripps (Carlton, pick 13, 2013)
Cripps embodies a different sort of rise – a literal one. His development in his draft year came on the back of a growth spurt later in his teenage years. The midfielder was an under-18 All Australian after his efforts for Western Australia and continued to climb up the ranks before being Carlton's first pick that year. Has become one of the competition's leading midfielders and is only 25.
Jordan De Goey (Collingwood, pick 5, 2014)
De Goey played only a handful of games in his bottom-age year for the Oakleigh Chargers, and broke his wrist in the pre-season of his draft year. But he returned to make an impact in nearly every game he played that season, even if he wasn't the quite the bullocking forward he is now. Rocketed into the Pies' sights with their first pick.
Clayton Oliver (Melbourne, pick 4, 2015)
Oliver couldn't force his way into the Vic Country line-up in the under-18 championships of his draft year. He had some niggling injuries in the first half of the season but pieced together an astonishing back end of the year to claim the TAC Cup's Morrish Medal. The bolter of all draft bolters, Oliver became the No.4 pick in his year when Melbourne drafted him and he has not let them down.
Tim Taranto (Greater Western Sydney, pick 2, 2016)
It was Taranto's finals series in his under-18s year for the Sandringham Dragons that solidified his place as a draft gun. The Giants swooped on him with the No.2 pick that season, after his midfield play had come to the fore in the Dragons' rise to the premiership. GWS' call has proved justified; Taranto won the club's best and fairest last year in the club's Grand Final season.
Hugh McCluggage (Brisbane, pick 3, 2016)
A five-goal, 36-possession game in May of his draft year was the point that made everyone stand up and take notice of the slight, wiry and smart midfielder. He averaged 27 disposals and six clearances in 12 games with the Greater Western Victoria Rebels, and completed one of the most consistent under-18 seasons by a prospect ever seen. The Lions rated him at No.1 in the draft but got him at No.3.
Ed Richards (Western Bulldogs, pick 16, 2017)
Surged into first-round contention in the second half of his draft season having not been selected to play in the national carnival. His form with the Oakleigh Chargers and Carey Grammar at school level saw interest spike from clubs, and the relative of the late Collingwood legend Lou Richards kept rising up draft boards.
Sam Sturt (Fremantle, pick 17, 2018)
In a matter of weeks towards the end of 2018, Sturt had caught the eye of every AFL club. Sturt had grown up a cricketer, and even trialled with Cricket Victoria only weeks before the national draft. But his form as a lead-up forward, then his exciting NAB AFL Draft Combine, saw him emerge extremely late as a first-round pick for the Dockers. Won the NAB AFL Rising Star nomination in round one this year.
Miles Bergman (Port Adelaide, pick 14, 2019)
Injuries in his youth meant many recruiters weren't sure where to place Bergman at the start of his draft year. But an exciting championships for Vic Metro as a wingman and then his back-end form for the Dragons saw Bergman catapult into top-20 consideration. By draft night, a stack of clubs wanted him, with Port getting in first.
Cody Weightman (Western Bulldogs, pick 15, 2019)
The small forward set his sights on a big year in his final season of under-18 footy and delivered. His national carnival for Vic Country, where he was the side's leading goalkicker, cemented his place as one of the leading smalls in the pool. Before 2019, Weightman shaped as a late option but his high marking, goal sense and drive saw the Bulldogs use their first pick on him last year.