AFL.com.au this year tracked two Victorian draftees through their 2020 season in the latest Going Places series. Sandringham Dragons prospect Archie Perkins was one, with regular updates on how he was faring as COVID-19 crashed into their season. This is the first of two pieces on Perkins' year.
Part one: April 2020
ARCHIE Perkins was everywhere. It was three weeks ago, and the Sandringham Dragons NAB League side was playing an intraclub match at Seaford. Recruiters, including North Melbourne's Scott Clayton and Sydney's Simon Dalrymple, watched on as Perkins lit up the game.
The midfielder, who spent two months in the gym at the end of a promising bottom-aged season last year, was noticeably bigger and more powerful, and even switched teams after half-time to even the contest up.
But it will be the only game the headbanded Perkins plays for at least three months – and maybe the season – after coronavirus hit Australia and shut down football across the country.
"It was right at the time here when the virus went from zero to 100," Perkins says. "I knew everything was really up in the air but I didn't realise it was going to be as significant as it is. After everything that I had been working on over the pre-season it was at least good to get out there and give it a crack. Who knows when I'll play again?"
Perkins is embarking on his draft season in unprecedented circumstances as COVID-19 wreaks its way around the world. He shaped as a potential top-15 pick this year, with clubs excited by his talent, potential, speed, excitement and spunk, and keen to see how all those traits came together in his draft season. But now there is little clarity how his season will pan out.
Just days before the NAB League season was due to begin, the AFL called off all football – from the elite level down to the under-18s competition for at least three months until May 31. He has also been sent home to complete his schooling away from the classrooms and ovals of Brighton Grammar, where he has watched the likes of Bombers star Andrew McGrath graduate.
"Everyone's in the same boat so it's not like I've torn my hamstring off the bone and I'll be out for two months while everyone's playing, but it obviously sucks," he says.
"At the start you have a bit of an emotional response without thinking because it is upsetting. But then after a while when all the other regulations started coming in, and schools started getting shut and all the stages of isolation in society, I thought the fact that there's no footy is pretty minor compared to the other stuff we have to do now."
Perkins hasn't always grown up harbouring ambitions to be an AFL player. He was a keen skateboarder early in high school, but gave it up after too many rolled ankles. He started his teenage years a little smaller than most of his friends, but was still a decent player, before having a strong under-15s year and starting to think more seriously about reaching the top level.
Where some prospects have been on the radar since they were 11, Perkins' rise into the view of AFL clubs has been much more recent.
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He trained with St Kilda as part of the NAB AFL Academy's program in December, where he hung out with Max King and Hunter Clark, and saw how the Saints made the most of every minute at the club in long pre-season days. He had prepped himself for what was to be a big year.
"If I played to my strengths and back myself in, I thought I should be able to play well. I find I play my best when I'm just enjoying myself," Perkins says.
"I'm a confidence player, so if I'm playing well I tend to try and push it even further and try to play even better, but when I'm playing worse I probably go back into my shell a bit. I'd done the groundwork, shown a few glimpses of what I could do, and I've been excited to show what I can do and show that stuff more consistently and prove it over the course of an entire game and the course of the season."
Then the pandemic struck. Perkins – who studies global politics at school, is interested in worldly issues and recently finished watching an ABC series called Stateless about refugee camps in Australia – has kept a keen eye on the spread of COVID-19.
"It's a serious situation and there's a lot of speculation and talk around it, and there's some controversy, everyone's got differing opinions on it given their circumstances. It's a bit polarising," he says.
So, too, is the debate about taking this chance to lift the draft age to 19 given this year's challenges. With so much uncertainty around if and when this year's draftees will play, there is a groundswell of views that say the AFL should forget about this year's draft and change the age limit from 18 to 19 so that the 2020 pool gets their chance next year.
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"I have been reading about it and I kind of like the idea of changing the draft age to 19. Obviously I want to get drafted, in an ideal circumstance, at the end of this year but having had a bit more of a think about it, especially this year, if they change it to 19 and an under-19s competition next year it would release the pressure of this year," he said.
"It would mean when we do get back to footy and school, if it's in July or August, they're not all coming in at the same time and school's starting back up again and you have to start studying, and then you have footy starting again.
"To know I'd have next year to play would be a big relief of stress and I think it's a good year to trial it and experiment, because if it's a good idea and it works they could do it in the future as well. I know it's a bit radical."
Perkins knows nothing about this year from here will be normal.
"They say that this year's meant to be one of the best years of your life and it's like life's on pause at the moment. You're just passively living but you're not actually living. I do feel robbed of a lot of things," he said.
"It happened at probably the worst possible year of my life that it could have happened and everything's going to be really compromised but I'm trying not to dwell on it because I can't do anything about it. You've just got to focus on adapting to what's happening and try to find areas you can get ahead and make the most of the situation."
Part two: July 2020
CLUB scouts, starved of football as Victoria's lockdown continues to keep players from the field, flocked to Sorrento Main Oval last week. They were positioned around the fence, with a representative from nearly every club in attendance, as powerful player agent Paul Connors and his Connors Sports Management team ran a camp of draftees and prospective AFL players.
The camp drew the ire of rival management groups, but was seen by clubs as a proactive move as his group of talented draftees hit the track together. Perkins, who signed with the company earlier this year, was one of them.
Perkins took the eye of scouts, who lapped up watching the ball fling from one end to the other with the session being guided by North Melbourne assistant and former player Darren Crocker. In one play, Perkins misjudged the flight of the ball in a mark and it banged on his little finger. It dislocated but he popped it back in and saw out the session. Later that night, he went for X-rays and found out it was broken.
It ended his two-day camp on a low, but clubs liked what they saw. For Perkins, too, who has not hit the field since March as the COVID-19 crisis worsened in Melbourne, it was an opportunity to mix it with some of the best players in the country and show his wares. Spending time with Connors and fellow agent Robbie D'Orazio also filled him with confidence about his draft chances.
"Internally I think everyone's a bit worried about what's going to happen and a bit stressed and unsure about the future. Robbie and Paul are pretty good at giving you a call and asking how you're going," he said. "They say 'Keep doing what you're doing, keep training, keep doing the school work and everything will turn out all right'."
Perkins doesn't deny the period has been tough. After having hopes that the NAB League season and APS school campaign would begin when the AFL resumed in June, there remains doubt about when he will next play. As other competitions around the country start to again take off, Perkins is still unsure if he will play at all this season.
The NAB League had been hopeful of starting games in August, while he could have been back playing again at the end of this month for Brighton Grammar, but the rocketing number of cases in the state now seems likely to delay those plans again.
Perkins has been trying not to waste time. In the early stages of Victoria's COVID-19 lockdown the Sandringham Dragons organised weekly Zoom sessions on Friday afternoons to keep in contact, with coaches occasionally passing out AFL vision and getting prospects to deconstruct it and report back about what they've learned. Prior to the Connors camp, Perkins had started training in groups of 10, and then 20, with school so has kept up physically and has been working on his kicking and fitness.
"It's kind of hard to set goals because you don't really know the timeline and what's going to be happening. Even now I still think there'll be some time I can get out there and play but in the back of your head you're just questioning what's going to happen and it can be a bit frustrating and upsetting at times. I was feeling really good training and I felt like I just wanted to get out there and play like you physically can and you want to, but it's not facilitated. You do lose a little bit of hope," he said.
Clubs haven't lost interest, though. In recent weeks they have been allowed to once again interview prospects, having been banned during the shutdown period. Perkins has had online chats with about eight clubs, and although at this stage the questions are similar across the board, he's enjoyed that part of the draft process.
Perkins presents as an exciting player for recruiters, who have been encouraged by the AFL's recent confirmation there will be a draft this year. They saw him flash in and out of games last season across half-forward, but noticed his leap, spring, speed and strength, and saw him impact games with a darting pass, a clever mark and a smart goal.
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He brings an X-factor to the pool that few possess, and having gotten stronger since 2019, clubs were anticipating him to grow his consistency this season. By now, in every other year, Perkins would have played for Vic Metro at the NAB AFL Under-18 Championships, with the carnival another casualty of the pandemic.
"He's got a bit of Christian Petracca about him," one recruiter said. "He's explosive, he tries to take the game on and if it doesn't work he'll try it again the next time. That power that he's got is really hard to find and it's why I think we're all pretty buoyed by what he could become."
"He's a top-10 pick for me, no doubt about it," another scout said. "He is a bit of a rogue: he doesn't really get fazed by much, he doesn't really care what people think of him, he's highly intelligent and his own person, and he's got some star factor."
Between the running and footy sessions Perkins has been studying at home, becoming more familiar with school away from the classroom. Every morning he starts at 8.15am, with spare periods scattered throughout the day until an afternoon finish. Perkins, who lives in Melbourne beachside suburb Sandringham, misses the mundane parts of school: the hallway chats, the train trips to and from school and the after-class hangouts nearby.
Perkins has kept himself as busy as possible, playing plenty of table tennis at home and creating some DJ mixes and uploading them to audio sharing website Soundcloud, but with every press conference Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews gives each day the 18-year-old is finding it harder to foresee any return to the field.
"In interviews clubs always ask 'What's the biggest challenge you've overcome?' and I don't really have a particular thing to say so I talk about now, which is probably the biggest challenge I've faced in my life and I haven't overcome it yet," he says.
"But overcoming it would be remaining positive, and trying to take out of it what you can and enjoy what's possible through this time. It's taught me to not take anything in life for granted."