TWO WEEKS into the AFL's COVID-19 shutdown, Noah Balta started to get a little bored. The up-and-coming Richmond defender had spent the first part of isolation on the couch relaxing, but it wasn't how he wanted his time away from the club to last.
So Balta got busy. He reached out to his uncle and found himself a job labouring on work sites with MC Labour. Balta worked Monday to Friday, and snagged Saturday shifts when he could, starting at 7.30am and finishing around 4pm each day. He did it for two months, completing his Richmond training program on the side as well as a carpentry certificate, before heading back to the club at the end of May.
"I enjoyed every second of it," Balta told AFL.com.au this week. "It was quite tough but it made me think 'When I get back to footy I really want to be there' and it was a bit of an eye-opener which was really good.
"I've always been into construction and things like that. I wouldn't mind going back in the off-season but I know people have that as their main jobs so I feel kind of bad. It's good fun."
Since returning from the building site, Balta has built his own reputation as a footballer. The 20-year-old has become one of the best young defenders in the game, stepping into Richmond's backline to be a key pillar and part of its surge towards another premiership starting with Friday night's qualifying final against Brisbane.
Balta played 13 games last season, in his second year at the club, but missed out on a place in the finals side, and started this year out of the senior line-up as well until David Astbury went down with a knee injury in round five.
Balta came in and hasn't missed a game since, shutting down some of the competition's biggest, strongest and best key forwards, including keeping Coleman medallist Tom Hawkins to one goal in the Tigers' win over Geelong in round 17.
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"All of the leaders like Dylan Grimes, and Dave told me himself, to just play to my strengths and don't worry about anything else. I'm glad they did," Balta said.
"Every single game I'm learning more and more of how they like to play. A player like Tom Hawkins is such a good player and I'll take so many lessons out of playing him. I feel like I'm casually getting better and better.
"He's got this way of making you think you're in the best position and then at last second he'll sweep around or do something. He's kind of like a magician, he makes you look at one place when he's doing something else in another."
There's nothing boring about Balta, either. The 196cm athletic tall flies for his marks, kicks the ball a mile and has become a weapon for the Tigers. The original decision to settle Balta as a defender, having arrived at the club as a tall utility, was made by coach Damien Hardwick in the middle of 2018. It is now bearing fruit.
"There were some games when I played back, ruck and forward all in one game, so it's hard to go into the game with one focus so it can rattle you a bit. But it's very secure now and pretty simple in what I need to do, so that helps," he said.
"For me it's not about disposals or anything like that, I just need to play my role and ideally beat my man and come out with a win."
The raps on Balta have been big, and even originated from Hardwick. Before Balta had played a game Hardwick had compared him to now-retired Tigers great Alex Rance, and again this year the two-time premiership coach pointed out the similarities between the pair.
Balta said he learnt plenty from Rance, particularly during the champion backman's absence last year with his knee injury, but that the plaudit carried its challenges.
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"I've said how grateful I am for that comparison. But it got said real early. Coming into the club Rancey was a huge idol and for me to be compared to a five-time All-Australian and premiership player off one game was a bit iffy for me," he said.
"Dave and Dyl speak to me a lot about trying to block that out because at the end of the day I'm not Rancey, I'm Noah. I'm going to do the best I can do and hopefully that's good enough.
"Rancey was unbelievable. He was a teacher and another coach out there when it comes to aerial power. He'd always sit next to me and watch games and review them and I'm forever grateful for him helping me."
Balta's influence at Tigerland doesn't end there. Richmond recently signed his cousin, 213cm college basketballer Mate Colina, as a category B rookie. He's excited to be joined at the club by Colina, who will be the tallest player ever on an AFL list.
"He played younger with me but he's stuck with basketball and I've stuck with footy. He's over in Hawaii doing basketball at the moment and he's got an offer here so I'm so stoked that he's coming," he said.
"If he can learn a bit of the body work, he's just so strong and powerful and he's pretty fast for a big man as well. He's going to be hard to stop."