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 second of two pieces on Phillips’ year.
Part three: September 2020
WILL Phillips gave himself a couple of days off. Not many, but a couple. When the cancellation of his under-18 season was confirmed in recent weeks – the shortened NAB League campaign being abandoned and the schools competition called off – Phillips felt his mood sink.
As Victoria lurched into stage four COVID-19 restrictions, Phillips' plans for some sort of football was lost. His parents Tim and Sandra noticed him struggle with the challenge – they had started the year with such high hopes for their son but few had come to fruition as a result of the global pandemic. But Phillips wasn't going to wallow for long and now, after a flat spot, he is back into his daily routine of training, ensuring that when his name is called out by a club at the NAB AFL Draft he will be ready.
"I try and do something every day. I probably have one day off a week but I do a lot of mobility on those days and rolling and things like that. I usually do three main sessions a week, two of them being high intensity skills and conditioning," he says. "I'm just trying to do everything I can."
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Those who know Phillips wouldn't expect any less. Phillips' junior journey began at Beverley Hills Football Club in Melbourne's eastern suburbs. He was ahead of his group physically, but was also his side's best player for most of his youth, captaining most junior teams. He stopped growing when he was about 14, when he became more determined to not miss a beat. It was then he started to tape his ankles, get massages before games and be harder on teammates at training.
"Some people probably still think it comes easy for him but it certainly doesn't anymore," says Tim. "His work ethic is getting him through whereas when he was 14 he had hairy legs and was bigger and stronger and did what he wanted."
He also started to surround himself with strong mentors. One was Anthony Phillips, the father of AFL players Tom and Ed, who, like Melbourne star Christian Petracca, graduated from Beverley Hills to the top level. Tom and Ed also attended Caulfield Grammar, although the families aren't related – even if there has been some confusion along the way.
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"There was a school footy brochure and I had to do a Q&A and one of the questions was 'Who are your idols?' and I said 'My dad, Anthony Phillips, and a few others'," Phillips recalls. "But they removed the comma so it just said 'My dad Anthony Phillips'. That's been an ongoing joke between us, and I call him 'Dad' sometimes."
Anthony is Caulfield's first XVIII coach and has helped steer Will's development. Recruiters have seen the 180cm Phillips become a hardened ball-winner who drags his side over the line. His 10 games for the Chargers last season saw him average 22 disposals and four tackles, and he can also chip in as a forward. Despite his 2020 season being over before it ever got going, clubs remain bullish about his talents.
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"He's a powerful inside midfielder and they don't go out of fashion," one recruiter said. "He can win his own ball, he never shirks an issue and he has those leadership qualities that put him in the same bracket as a Joel Selwood at the same age. He has future captain written all over him. Will will be able to come in and play some footy right away."
Others have likened Phillips to Brisbane Brownlow medallist Lachie Neale – they're about the same size – and Hawthorn's young midfield star James Worpel. "It's such a shame for him that he didn't play this year because it was all set up for him to dominate. I don't think he's at Matt Rowell's level, but what he showed as a 17-year-old wasn't far from Rowell at the same age," a recruiter said.
The long time between games has given Phillips time to focus on his year 12 studies but that too has been severely hit by the impact of COVID-19. He has grown tired of isolated study, lost some motivation for Zoom classes and misses his friends.
Phillips has an interest in becoming a teacher and following that path in his tertiary studies, and has considered joining the defence forces, although he knows an AFL career may stop that for the moment at least. He has big dreams for the future that lie outside of possessions and premiership medals.
"Hopefully I get the chance to teach overseas and in disadvantaged communities. That'd be an incredible experience and I'd thoroughly enjoy that I think," he says.
The time at home throughout this year has seen the Phillips family, including his 20-year-old sister Olivia, bond over board games, movies and exercise, and plenty of their nights have been spent watching AFL games, with the relocated season spanning games across many weeknights.
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As it grows closer to an end, and the ladder begins to firm, Phillips has caught himself trying to work out where he might end up, and spoken to former junior teammates about their respective clubs.
"I have started thinking where I could fit in, but it's been such a weird year and it's so hard to tell. I watch the footy and look at each club's list quality and think about how I might fit into that culture," he says. "I talk to Jack Ross at Richmond and Fischer McAsey at Adelaide about their clubs and what I might be expecting to embark on. Everyone in my position is naturally going to look at where they sit."
Part four: November 2020
IT IS the middle of Phillips' exams period and the teenager has returned home after a two-hour conditioning session this morning. It started at 6.30am and is his main workout for the day, before he nestles back into some study. The finish line to a disappointing year is in sight, its brightest moment within touching distance.
The AFL has set the date for the NAB AFL Draft for Wednesday, December 9 (conveniently the same week as his sister Olivia's 21st birthday). It will be a one-night event streamed virtually, with Phillips likely to be on a Zoom screen as his name is called for the broadcasters.
Clubs are blocked from interviewing players during their exams period, but in the most recent set of chats Phillips met with Carlton, Greater Western Sydney, Adelaide and Hawthorn, with all clubs including their respective senior coach.
"David Teague, Leon Cameron were good, as was Matthew Nicks at Adelaide. That was a really good interview. We're on the same page in terms of leadership and what his values are," Phillips says. "'Clarko' (four-time premiership coach Alastair Clarkson) was in the Hawks one and he was pretty funny. He spoke for ages which was really cool. I had a bunch of questions lined up and without me even asking them he just talked and answered a lot of them.
"That Hawthorn interview was like 'Woah'. I came out and said 'That was unbelievable'. To have a conversation with that guy is a privilege because I've been able to see what he can do. I've seen his speeches and how well he speaks and all the great stories he has. I could pick his brain for about five hours straight I reckon, and then continue for another five hours after a break. That was pretty cool. I think he knew I was a Caulfield Grammarian and his daughter is in the same year level as me so we spoke a little bit about that."
If Phillips could pick a club to go to, it would be the Hawks, with their base a 20-minute drive from his family home in Warranwood. They have done their work on him, interviewing him multiple times as they hold pick No.4. Gold Coast at pick No.5 also looms as a possible destination, with the Bombers also showing their interest and holding three top-10 picks. Having for some time eyed Carlton as a possible destination, that was ended after the Blues traded their top choice for Adam Saad.
Many clubs rate Phillips as the best interview they have done this year, with his parents often sitting in on the chats and also being impressed with their son and learning more about him via the recruiters' questions.
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"At home it's not as if we talk about leadership and values around the dinner table so I think mum and dad were able to see a different side to me in those interviews. I don't present like I need to impress my parents when I'm at home as compared to a club," he says.
The draft has been the beacon of inspiration for Phillips throughout a year when nothing went to plan. Since games were called off, he worked hard to ensure he was ready to impress at the Vic Metro state NAB AFL Draft Combine and he did, running 2.91 seconds in the 20-metre sprint and 6:38 minutes in the 2km time trial. He was pleased, although he still has moments of disbelief about how 2020 unfolded.
"I do think 'How did this happen?' I try not to think about it too much as it makes me feel shit. I put it into the back of my mind and that helped me come to terms with it a bit earlier," he says. "I'm grateful I was able to get out there last year, but it's just a shame because we might get to a club and not be as prepared as the West Australian or South Australian guys, and some Victorians might not get drafted because they haven't had the chance to prove themselves."
Phillips took his chance when he had it last year. It gave him a foundation, and added credibility to his draft stocks. Clubs are ranking him knowing what sort of player he can be, and have come to know the person he is throughout this year.
"I'm excited. It's a bit of a grind with exams but I've always said I need to stay present," he says. "But it's hard not to think ahead. Over the last month, as restrictions have opened a bit, I've been back at school more and that's taken my mind off the future and the draft. Everything's happening at once because after exams I get to catch up with my mates, hopefully go away for a few days, I'll be training and that whole lead up to the draft will be really cool."