• Going places: Four incredible draft stories
• Draft trumps: Insider access to this year's gun prospects
PART 1Wednesday, January 8 – A MONTH ago, Lachie Weller picked up his phone and called Marcus Ashcroft, Gold Coast's football manager. A member of the Suns' academy, Weller wanted to know if he could step up his program with the club.
He had heard the Brisbane Lions academy players – some of his Queensland under-18 teammates – had joined in summer training with the senior Lions squad an hour down the highway, and he wanted to do the same with the Suns. As the best player in the club's academy, Weller felt he wasn't getting enough out of it, at times dreading going to the club knowing he'd leave frustrated.
This is his biggest year so far. He doesn't have time to waste. Ashcroft, as it turns out, had earlier that day been speaking to list manager Scott Clayton about the club's plans for Weller, and offered the youngster the opportunity to spend eight weeks training with the senior squad. "I took it up straight away," Weller says.
He started in the first week of December, and found it challenging, coming home every day, eating dinner and then heading straight to bed. The shock of the workload eventually dissipated and he grew accustomed to the routine of main sessions on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and then a few hours on Saturday morning.
Weller has shadowed Jaeger O'Meara, last year's NAB AFL Rising Star winner, whenever he could, seeing how he's approached weights, team meetings and individual sessions. Gary Ablett has given him some advice on how to build his body, and at times Weller has been a little star struck and found it hard to take it in.
"Sometimes you look at them in the eye and go 'Wow'" he says. "But I imagined AFL life how it seems to be. I thought it would be a bit more extreme actually, the way everyone talks about it. I found that I can get through it pretty well. I'm hoping it will set me up for a good year."
Making the moveThis week Weller is in Melbourne for the AIS-AFL Academy program, but he'll head back home to the Gold Coast next week and continue with the club for another three weeks. His situation is different to other club academy members, as he has not lived in the region for long enough to qualify as a priority draft selection for the Suns.
AFL rules stipulate a player must have lived in the club's zone for five years or more to fit the criteria, but having moved with his family from Tasmania as a 15-year-old at the end of 2011, Weller is not eligible. "It is a bit strange. You get an insight into the club and you're inside it, but you might not be there next year," he says.
If he is, it will happen via the draft, and the Suns won't have first access to him like they will other players in the program. They have, however, known that for a long time. The Suns have also known Weller for a long time; they drafted his older brother Maverick in 2009, when they had first access to 17-year-olds around the country as part of list build concessions as a new franchise.
"When 'Mav' was drafted, playing AFL became more of a dream for me," Lachie says.
Mav Weller (second from left) with (l-r) Karmichael Hunt, then-AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou and Jack Hutchins at the launch of the League's new Gold Coast team. Picture: AFL Media
Weeks after Mav's initial move, Lachie flew to the Gold Coast from Tasmania by himself and spent a week living with his brother. He returned and asked his parents Jude and Daryn if they could move there permanently.
The thought already had crossed their minds. Daryn was particularly keen, as he was searching for some warmer weather and had already moved several times pursuing his own footy career.
Eldest son Tyson, seven years Lachie's senior, had already moved out. Jude was hardest to convince. Burnie was where their friends were, and the community around the football club would be hard to replicate anywhere else. Every week Jude would cook for the Burnie Dockers one night after training, and the Wellers lived near the club. "Everything in Burnie is pretty close," Lachie says.
Burnie was a social hub, and much of the Wellers' weekend activities revolved around the club, post-game functions and gatherings. But about three years ago, with Lachie nearing the end of his year nine schooling, they shifted to Burleigh Heads and bought a business delivering and managing portable toilets.
'Me Too'Weller has always been fanatical about footy. Instead of the usual teddy most kids get as their first soft toy, Weller received a plush cotton footy in Richmond yellow and black. That ball is nearly 20 years old, but still sits in his bedroom at home, the stitching showing signs of age.
Growing up he would play kick-to-kick with one of his brothers, usually wearing them out. He'd go inside, get changed into his Richmond gear, go back outside and kick the ball as high as he could, mark it, and pretend he was playing a game.
Jude would watch from the balcony as Lachie commentated himself like he was playing an AFL game. His uncle was a plumber, and when he produced some PVC pipes, they set up goal and point posts in the yard. Weller spent afternoons snapping, dribbling and kicking goals by himself.
Raised yellow and black: A young Lachie Weller in the backyard. Pictures: supplied
One of his nicknames was 'Me Too'. Whatever Mav and Tyson did, Lachie wanted to do as well. When he was in prep, he played with them in the same team, even though they were in grade three and six respectively. He got a free kick and kicked a goal, although all the players on the opposition knew not to rough him up, for fear of retribution from his bigger brothers.
He wasn't content with that, though. He wanted to beat them. Athletics was the family's summer sport, and Weller was good at it. He was a runner, hurdler, long-jumper and triple-jumper, and even set a new record in the 'fly' event, a mix of running and jumping. That record (at the local Burnie athletics carnival) still stands – the event was discontinued after Weller won the gold medal.
He was in the same athletics team as Mav, and when Mav won a medal, it made Lachie even keener to do the same. Usually it was in a reserved, quiet way. He was the type to take things in without saying too much. But one time, when he finished third, he ran off the track, kicked a fence over and bolted inside.
Me too: A young Lachie Weller takes on all comers. Pictures: supplied
Tyson and Mav would have fun with him, as well. As the little brother, he followed their instructions. One day, they were inside watching a man ride a bull on TV. They thought they'd replicate the stunt with their cows out the back, and so strapped a rope around a cow, put the youngest Weller boy on its back and gave it the rodeo treatment. When Lachie fell off and got a kick from the cow, it was Mav and Tyson who fronted up to their parents.
What lies aheadWeller first became aware of the draft in 2004, when Brett Deledio was the No. 1 pick and headed to the Tigers.
"I learned about it then, and in his first year he was my favourite player. I had (Deledio's) No. 3 on my jumper. I just knew that's where I wanted to be," he said.
Ten years on Weller enters 2014, his own draft year, knowing what lies ahead. He played all five games for Queensland at last year's NAB AFL Under-18 Championships, and learned plenty from it. You can watch his highlights from the 2013 champs below.
The midfielder has already showed himself to be one of the classiest players available this year: he hits targets, moves and thinks quickly, and looks composed in possession.
He knows what to do with the ball, and how to get it. Improving his contested ball-winning is a goal. At 181cm and 74kg, he noticed last year how at times he got buffeted out of the way, particularly when he moved up a level and started playing senior NEAFL games for Gold Coast's reserves, and his former club Broadbeach. He also has a better sense of football reality than most his age.
One of those games was with Mav, who played just four AFL games for the Suns in 2013 before being delisted at the end of his third year. Mav played 32 games for the Suns, but had others ahead of him.
Having moved in with Mav at the start of the year, Lachie and his parents had ridden every bump during the year. Each week they waited nervously to hear if he'd been picked in the team, the parents sometimes forcing Lachie to make the call, because they knew Mav would respond better to his little brother than anyone else.
Lachie (right) with brothers Mav (centre) and Tyson. Picture: supplied
After being cut, Mav trained hard in the off-season looking for a second opportunity, with Lachie joining in. Mav's name was linked to many clubs during the trade period, but nothing eventuated. The national draft came and went without any movement. The rookie draft was his last chance, and St Kilda thought he was worth a shot so gave him a spot.
Two days later, he jetted off to meet the team in Colorado in the United States for its high-altitude training camp. Mav's tumultuous few weeks opened Lachie's eyes.
"When Mav got drafted, I couldn't have seen him being delisted in a few years. We saw the ups and the downs, but Mav's pretty strong-minded. He had a sports psychologist outside of footy, and that helped him a lot and gave him some confidence," he said.
"I know Mav is very professional and he is talented, so it shows the demands of the AFL are pretty serious. Hopefully I can get to experience them for myself one day."
NEXT: Part 2 - Taking the hard road away from footy's heartland
Read more incredible draft stories: Going places