AFL.com.au this year tracked two Victorian draftees through their 2020 season in the latest Going Places series. Oakleigh Chargers prospect Will Phillips was one, with regular updates on how he was faring as COVID-19 wiped out their season. This is the first of two pieces on Phillips’ year.
Part one: April 2020
WILL Phillips grew up going to bed with a footy tucked under his arm. At his first NAB AFL Auskick session, the then four-year-old sat under a kick and was knocked to the ground by the ball. He sat up with it clutched in his hands. On one family holiday to America, Phillips took his footy on the trip, finding a park wherever he could to get in a kick with his father, Tim, and entertaining curious onlookers.
Phillips was a Collingwood fanatic. He went to both 2010 Grand Finals – the draw and then the Magpies' convincing win over St Kilda the next week – and in the lead-up to the 2011 premiership decider against Geelong was a part of a promotional photo shoot with president Eddie McGuire for Yarra Trams for a newspaper. Afterwards, McGuire sent Phillips to the Magpies' shop with a direction: "Go over and buy whatever you want and tell them it's on me". Phillips headed across and wanted to grab about 10 things, but settled on a team jacket.
Making it to the AFL has always been Phillips' ambition and it is only months away from eventuating, with the midfielder starting this year as one of the most hyped draft prospects.
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Phillips enjoyed a stellar season in 2019, seeing him play in the Oakleigh Chargers' NAB League premiership alongside the likes of Matt Rowell and Noah Anderson, including starring in the Grand Final. He also featured in his school side Caulfield Grammar's tied premiership win, and put himself on the map as a possible top-five draft choice with his consistency, ball-winning, smarts, toughness and quick hands.
"I was stoked with my 2019 year," he says. "I didn't expect to set the world on fire or dominate, but I'm so grateful for how it went."
Phillips is a note-taker, goal-setter and calendar-planner. He wrote down a number of things to achieve in 2020: he wanted to win the APS premiership for Caulfield and give back to his school; to play well at NAB League level and even better for Vic Metro at the national carnival; and get his 2km time trial below 6:30 minutes. Moreover, he didn't want to rest on his laurels.
His pre-season was interrupted – first by nose surgery and then by a nagging knee issue that ruled him out of the Chargers' practice games. But that was nothing compared to the news delivered at an Oakleigh training session on a Monday night two weeks ago, when the Chargers' talent manager Jy Bond told the players their season would be paused for at least three months due to COVID-19.
"They brought us in and said this would be the last session until further notice and that everything was put on hold. It was weird in the room that night. Everyone was speechless. At that point there was no isolation rules in place and we all just went home and they said they'd be in touch. Nobody was expecting us to miss that much footy," Phillips says.
Coronavirus first came on Phillips' radar while at school. The teenager was voted in to be the school captain of Caulfield's Wheelers Hill campus this year, and began to understand the significance of the fast-spreading disease when the first group of year nine students at the school were stopped from travelling to China in February. The school has had a long-standing campus in Nanjing, with year nine students all travelling to the country for a six-week stay across their year to further their education.
"When I reflect on my time at Caulfield it's probably the best experience I have had. It's devastating for them," he says. "That's when I really felt it and for people around me. It came through early in the term and I remember trying to be there for everyone, communicating to the principal and headmaster and trying to support them as much as I can as I knew they would be doing it tough trying to sort out an alternative program for that. But now it's a lot bigger and I can't imagine how hard it would be for them."
Phillips has now felt the effects with his football season suspended until at least the end of May.
"I was really flat when that happened. It's been hard. There's a pretty big build up to everyone's year 12 year. For me being in that draft window and having a leadership position at my school, I was really excited for the year. And there was a sense of loss when I heard of it all and took everything in. I felt pretty devastated for everyone. I didn't know how to respond to it at first," he says.
Phillips was inundated with support from every angle as his hopes and dreams took a backseat. His mum Sandra noticed him hit a low, as did Tim, but they made a conscious effort to let him work through his disappointment at his own speed.
"You have so many people reaching out to you, literally every teacher, friend, mentor and checking if you're OK. And whilst I do appreciate that, the constant messages about 'Control the controllables', 'Do what you can', 'Try and be present', 'Focus on the positives'… I know all of that, so I did appreciate mum and dad just allowed things to sink in," he says.
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Now that it has, Phillips has set his sights on being ready to make the most of a shortened season when it restarts, which he hopes is in June. If there's a silver lining to the break it will give him plenty of time to get past the knee injury and live up to the expectations placed upon him this season.
"I'm not one to feel the pressure a lot. I thrive under pressure. So whenever I feel there's an expectation on me I see that as an opportunity to thrive and exceed that expectation. I love that bit of pressure," he says.
"I have good people around me holding me accountable for things and making sure I stay humble and keep working towards things and not get distracted by the mock drafts. I understand why it's done and it's good recognition from the year before but at the end of the day you've still got to keep playing and moving forward. I think you've never reached your potential."
Part two: July 2020
AS COVID-19 cases climb in Victoria for the past two months, Phillips has been growing more concerned: about when life will return to a sense of normal, when he will get back to school at school and how far away a return to the football field is. At the moment, all of those things feel some time off.
The private schools competition had targeted a return to play in late July but that has been scrapped for now, while the NAB League set up a six-round season starting in August. But with Victoria entering a new stage of restrictions, getting back to winning clearances, bustling through traffic and accumulating the ball feels a long way off for Phillips.
"Even when the normal restrictions were eased I always had a feeling it would all just collapse again and we'd go back into lockdown and it happened," he says. "I have tried to go about living my life as normally as I can, but I was in denial. Even a couple of days ago, as it became clearer there'd be very little footy for us this year – if any – I didn't want to accept it in my mind because once I did I was really upset and sad about it."
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The rising cases in Victoria meant that the AFL's hopes to return junior football in June were delayed, and then delayed again. While prospects in South Australia, Western Australia, Queensland, the Northern Territory, Tasmania and New South Wales have all resumed, there is now a fear Phillips and his Victorian cohort won't get to do the same.
For Phillips it hasn't been a struggle keeping active. After a little setback with his knee, he has gotten back to full training. For the first part of lockdown, his school coaches hosted a live broadcast every Tuesday and Thursday night, and then on Saturday mornings they organised a bigger session for each player to follow at their local park.
Caulfield Grammar was recently able to hold a intraclub scratch match and Phillips enjoyed getting back out there, while at home exercise has been key to the Phillips family getting through the isolation period. Phillips has a gym set up in his family's backyard: there's weights, ropes and an exercise bike and he spends hours there each week as part of a consolidated plan.
"I sit down and look at my schedule the night before each day and map out what I'm going to do the next day. I've been really diligent with that. It was really hard initially, even two days ago I sat down and I thought 'I don't really want to do anything at the moment'. But the more I thought about that, the more I thought 'That's just stupid'," he says.
"It's actually a really good opportunity to get ahead because I know a lot of blokes will just use this time to relax and have a bit of a break. I set pretty high standards of myself and I've certainly taken that on board through my organisation and using my schedule.
"I spend so much time looking at my calendar. It just makes me feel comfortable with what I've got ahead. Right now, there's not a lot to look forward to and not a lot to look at in terms of the long-term future, and even short-term as well so I probably look at it a bit less than I usually would. But it really helps me to have structure in my life and keep that routine. It's very detailed."
Phillips had his 18th birthday in May, which also required some organisation. Unable to gather all his family and friends in one group, he split things over several nights, some walks and picnics. He has found being away from school one of the hardest parts of 2020, having been excited about what was on offer at Caulfield this year.
The idea of being school captain was not on Phillips' radar until some teachers last year encouraged him to apply. He is always open to something new – he studied theatre and drama for several years at the school and enjoyed its different angle – and then started to get involved in leadership programs.
"One little bit of faith that was invested in me and some hope I might be a chance to lead that school motivated me to pursue it and grow as a good leader and a person. I value that more than being a good footballer. Obviously I strive to be a good footballer, but I think I want to be a better person," he says.
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"Especially this year I've realised that people probably liked me or respected me because of my footy but I don't really see that as valuable. I want people to like me for the person I am, and I've made a conscious effort to really get to know everyone in the school and recognise all the different social groups in year 12 instead of just being a role model to the footy boys or the popular group that I'm associated with. I wanted to really have an impact on everybody."
Football, though, is impossible to strip away from Phillips. And this year's challenges have made it only clearer to him how much he craves an AFL career.
"I want it so much that I'm willing to do anything to get there," he says. "It's something that I live and breathe, I always come back to the process and what I can do to try to make myself a better player. I really do want it."