WHEN Dustin Martin was holidaying with Serena Williams in the Maldives in November, Richmond teammate Mabior Chol was running sand dunes in Warrnambool.

Seeking to increase a fitness base that he admits cost him several games in 2019, Chol paid his own way to live and train under renowned boxing coach Rodney Ryan for three weeks.

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The 23-year-old was hit with 6am alarms for three boxing sessions and several running blocks a day and became entrenched in the coastal town three hours south-west of Melbourne ahead of his return to the Tigers' pre-season.

After a single game in 2016, Chol was unsighted in 2017-2018 before he played nine games in the second half of last year's home and away season only to be overlooked for finals and made to settle for a VFL premiership.

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But just eight games on from the club's AFL flag, Chol finds himself in Richmond's best 22 and one of eight fresh faces in the line-up for Friday night's Grand Final rematch against Greater Western Sydney.

He'll be joined by VFL regulars Derek Eggmolesse-Smith, Jake Aarts and Patrick Naish, Alex Rance replacement Noah Balta, 2017 premiership pair Kamdyn McIntosh and Jack Graham and Jack Higgins, who had two bouts of brain surgery last year.

And with a host of premiership stars sidelined, they don't plan on going anywhere as the Tigers chase a third flag in four years. 

Through a connection with his agent Ralph Carr (who also manages Dustin Martin), Chol found himself living in the guest room directly above Ryan's gym in November.

It was the same program Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti used to land a spot on Essendon's list and Brisbane Hall of Famer Jonathan Brown credits as helping shape his career at the end of 2000.

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"He had no excuses, he was down at 6am for three boxing sessions a day and a couple of running sessions on the sand dunes," Ryan told AFL.com.au.

"He did a few running sessions with (Collingwood draftee) Jay Rantall who is a freak runner and you could see just how much his fitness improved.

"My wife Hanna is a dietician and nutritionist and he did lots of work with that.

"He basically joined our family, he was taking the kids to school and still talks to my kids online every day.

"His athleticism was just amazing and the way he moved, there was something about him.

"I think that's been the knock on him all along, that he's awesome athletically and not great aerobically."

Chol returned to Punt Road a different athlete in late November as the Tigers reconvened for pre-season.

"I think he's just realised now what works for him and what he needs to do to play at that level after his fifth pre-season," Tigers VFL and development coach Xavier Clarke told AFL.com.au this week.

"The boxing definitely helps but it's also a mental tick-off to say that he's done the work and to have that confidence."

Due to the shortened quarters and less reliance on ruckmen needing a rest in-game, the Tigers have tinkered with their ruck department this season.

They started with two genuine big men and 2019 premiership duo Ivan Soldo and Toby Nankervis in round one, then just one of each combined with a pinch-hitting forward before settling on Chol as the back-up ruck from round five onwards.

Mabior Chol has a laugh at training. Picture: Getty Images/AFL Photos

"We know he can take a great grab, he can get off his opponent and he can run and jump at the ball and the other beauty with 'Mabes' is he has great groundball presence," Clarke said.

"When it hits the ground, he's pretty agile in that sense and it's a big part of his game."

And when he's not working as an ambassador for 'The Growth Project' instilling leadership in the community, Chol can be spotted at a barber working on his weekly haircut.

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"As a sport we're great at embracing differences of a lot of different players and I think us as a football club, we do it as good as any," Clarke said.

"I think it's great, he's a bit of a character and the boys love having him around the football club.

"The boys hang a bit of crap on him about his haircut but if it makes him feel confident and we see that nice strut he has then the hairdo can stay, for sure."

Eggmolesse-Smith himself played with a blonde rinse through his hair alongside Chol in the VFL flag.

Growing up playing for Wentworth (NSW), near Mildura, he was cut by TAC Cup club Bendigo Pioneers in back-to-back pre-seasons before winning a reprieve to play a handful of games in his 2016 draft year.

Zoned to Richmond's Next Generation Academy (NGA), the 22-year-old was, however, overlooked at the draft and made to return home.

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The next season he played five VFL games for the Tigers mixed with games for Wentworth in the Sunraysia League and Fitzroy Stars in the Northern Football League.

It was enough to earn him a spot on the Tigers' Category B rookie list in November 2017 as the club's first NGA graduate.

After a fractured leg derailed much of his 2018 season, the running defender broke through for two games in 2019 before tasting VFL success.

Derek Eggmolesse-Smith in action against the Kangaroos. Picture: Getty Images/AFL Photos

"He hadn't played any form of state league footy or anything, hadn't been through any of the traditional pathways, so really, he was starting from a long way back," Clarke said.

"First year he came in with raw talent and for a few years, (we thought), 'Are we really going to see the best of this kid?'

"We saw glimpses of it in the VFL and he'd play some great games of footy.

"Credit to (development coaches) Ryan Ferguson and Sam Lonergan this year working really hard getting his sense of pressure and contest right.

"We knew when he got the ball in his hands he could make things happen." 

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In his two games replacing Bachar Houli at half-back, Eggmolesse-Smith has turned heads with his ball use and last week collected a career-high 23 disposals against North Melbourne.

But it has been his improved professionalism that has impressed the Tigers' coaching staff just as much inside the Gold Coast hub.

"We have 43 or 44 players on our list and we automatically assume when players come into the football club, they know how to live a professional lifestyle straight away," Clarke said.

"Some pick it up quicker than others who need some more work, more time and some love and care around the direction and life they need to be living.

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"Certainly, Derek was one of those players. He's been up every morning at 7am, he's made a commitment to one of our conditioning guys (Greg 'Clanger' Kleynjans), they're walking laps around the oval.

"Each night after dinner he's walking more laps. If you can walk five or six laps in the morning, you're covering off 3km and you do it again at night it's another 3km at low intensity.

"It's a commitment for him to change some of his habits that may not have been helping him in the past.

"The hub has been great for him and we just hope when he does leave and go back home that he continues to do the work."

Derek Eggmolesse-Smith at Richmond training. Picture: Getty Images/AFL Photos

Aarts was forced to sit out the VFL flag, suspended in the preliminary final win over Essendon. 

And after not being assured an AFL contract for 2020 until his exit meeting in October, the 25-year-old was wasting no time in pre-season. 

"By his own admission after missing the VFL Grand Final … there's no doubt he wanted to come back and prove a point," Clarke said.

"Early days in pre-season he did have shin soreness and I believe he was on an end of season trip with Josh Caddy and left early and wanted to make sure he got his shins right and have the best crack at pre-season." 

Working as a builder while playing VFL for Richmond from 2015-2018, Aarts won an AFL spot at the end of 2018.

Stuck in the VFL behind a bevy of small forward options, he debuted in round five and last week kicked his first AFL goals against the Roos. 

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"It hasn't been a fluke and his workrate and ability to win one-on-one contests and make things happen are his biggest strength," Clarke said.

"He was just waiting for his opportunity and when he got his chance, I don't think there was a question whether he was going to be able to play at the level.

"If you throw a ball out in front of him and someone else, I think I know who I'm having my money on to win the contest and that's what he provides for us."


B: Nathan Broad, Dylan Grimes, Nick Vlastuin
HB: Jayden Short, Noah Balta, Derek Eggmolesse-Smith
C: Kamdyn McIntosh, Shai Bolton, Patrick Naish
HF: Jake Aarts, Tom Lynch, Jason Castagna
F: Dustin Martin, Jack Riewoldt, Jack Higgins
R: Ivan Soldo, Marlion Pickett, Kane Lambert
Inter: Jack Graham, Daniel Rioli, Mabior Chol, Liam Baker

In: Jake Aarts, Noah Balta, Mabior Chol, Derek Eggmolesse-Smith, Jack Graham, Jack Higgins, Kamdyn McIntosh, Patrick Naish
Out: David Astbury (knee), Josh Caddy (hamstring), Trent Cotchin (hamstring), Shane Edwards (personal leave), Brandon Ellis (Gold Coast), Bachar Houli (personal leave), Toby Nankervis (ankle), Dion Prestia (ankle)


B: Heath Shaw, Phil Davis, Aidan Corr
HB: Nick Haynes, Lachie Keeffe, Harry Perryman
C: Josh Kelly, Stephen Coniglio, Lachie Whitfield
HF: Brent Daniels, Jeremy Cameron, Toby Greene
F: Harry Himmelberg, Jeremy Finlayson, Jacob Hopper
R: Sam Jacobs, Tim Taranto, Matt de Boer
Inter: Zac Langdon, Jye Caldwell, Daniel Lloyd, Lachie Ash

In: Lachie Ash, Jye Caldwell, Stephen Coniglio, Sam Jacobs, Lachie Keeffe, Zac Langdon
Out: Shane Mumford (neck), Adam Kennedy (hamstring), Sam Reid (calf), Sam Taylor (back), Adam Tomlinson (Melbourne), Zac Williams (hamstring)