The NAB AFL Draft is no longer a 'read them out and cross them off the list' exercise. The event is now one of the most tactical and strategic elements of building a list, as club recruiting teams pit themselves against each other to land the hottest draftees in the country.
The addition of live bidding and trading has only intensified things, with more options available to clubs but also more mind games, subterfuge and trickery as recruiters eye off their priority targets.
This is the inside story of the first round of this year's NAB AFL Draft. The sliding doors and ripple effects of each clubs' decisions, the deals that got done and those that didn't, and the shocks, surprises and stars of the most intriguing draft in recent times.
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AT 1pm last Wednesday Adelaide coach Matthew Nicks arrived at Riley Thilthorpe's house with the news that the Crows would be taking him with their earliest ever draft pick later that night. But they had arrived at the decision – at least in their hearts – more than a week before.
The Crows had weighed up three main contenders for the spot – Thilthorpe, West Australian key forward Logan McDonald and Victorian Elijah Hollands – spending equal time on each. Nicks had a Zoom chat with McDonald last week, and last month Crows recruiting boss Hamish Ogilvie travelled to Wodonga to play a round of golf with Hollands.
In the narrowest of calls for the No.1 pick in many years, it was Thilthorpe's ruck/forward versatility, plus the local factor, which gave him the edge over McDonald, with Hollands in third. Thilthorpe's medical clearance, after battling groin issues this season, that came several days later was the final tick.
The evenness of the decision was evident in the Crows' preparedness to listen to offers for the No.1 pick, canvassing North Melbourne (pick two), Sydney (three) and Hawthorn (four) on their interest. They set a high price: this year's top pick, a future first-rounder and a player – in the case of the Swans, Dylan Stephens. But with an elite class so close in talent at the early stages, no club was willing to offload much to nudge up the board.
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Adelaide had something else to tell Thilthorpe hours before the draft: they'd be bidding on Next Generation Academy prospect Jamarra Ugle-Hagan at the No.1 pick, meaning their own pick would push down to No.2, but opening up some later spots in the draft for the Crows.
By the time the draft started, the Western Bulldogs were quick to match the first ever bid at No.1, crowning the key forward the unanimous best player in the pool. Adelaide followed with Thilthorpe, leaving North to surprise with the next pick.
It had been an interesting few days for the Kangaroos, who had put their top pick up for sale again. During the trade period they had discussions with Gold Coast on sliding pick two to five but also picking up the Suns' picks 27 and 37, as the Suns were not going to use them at the draft with a full list.
That deal was a strong chance of happening in the pick swaps window heading into the draft, but it relied upon another factor: North would then pass on 27, 37 and a swap of other selections to the Western Bulldogs in a draft points boom for the Dogs to help pay for Ugle-Hagan.
A deal had been discussed which would have seen the Dogs' pick 14 head to North Melbourne, but it was taken off the table in the last half-hour of the Trade Period as the Adam Treloar move from Collingwood to the Bulldogs took shape.
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The Roos put on hold talks to shift pick two until two days before the draft when they picked up the phone again. They asked if Gold Coast would move but the Suns didn't want to deal in future picks, while the Swans (the Roos targeting pick No.3 and a future second-round pick) and the Hawks (pick No.4 and 24 or a future second-round pick) also weren't keen to jump up the board.
The Roos had decided they were picking an on-baller with their first choice, with the club building from the midfield out under new coach David Noble. They took Will Phillips ahead of Hollands, who they had been widely tipped to select. The medical risk with Hollands on the back of a knee reconstruction was a factor in the call, with COVID-19 restrictions meaning Hollands has had a slower recovery process.
The Roos had also put a value on leadership qualities, knowing they will be investing in at least two drafts strongly, with Phillips top of his class there. Even if Adelaide had taken McDonald, the Roos would have selected Phillips, who they only interviewed once all year, over Thilthorpe. Although North's pick surprised, others also rated Phillips highly; if Adelaide had been awarded the No.2 pick as compensation for losing free agent Brad Crouch, Phillips was their likely choice for a tall/midfield combination.
Having held their position, the Swans went with McDonald over Grainger-Barras, with the lure of a key forward the deciding vote. They, too, liked Phillips and he was strongly in their mix. The Swans' biggest concern about North's possible pick swap with Hawthorn was the Hawks moving up the board and bidding on Academy prospect Braeden Campbell and then wiping out Sydney's first pick.
But that didn't happen, with Hawthorn pulling the trigger after the Swans took McDonald. The Hawks, who had no offers from clubs wanting to push up to pick four, ranked Campbell ahead of Phillips in the group of midfielders but after their bid was matched grabbed Grainger-Barras. Archie Perkins, who they met two days before the draft, was in the mix for that spot but late extra work on Nik Cox was done in case the Hawks unexpectedly split their pick and shifted back.
The Suns were happy to hold their spot and see which member of the 'Fantastic Five' – Thilthorpe, McDonald, Phillips, Grainger-Barras and Hollands – got through. Collingwood had pushed to get a hold of the Suns' pick using their future first-rounder to either split it or get a look at a tall, but the pick wasn't up for grabs and Gold Coast took Hollands, who will offer a point of difference to the most exciting young list in the competition. Zach Reid was next in line for the Suns.
WITH THAT group done, Essendon's trio of picks shaped the next part of the first round. The Bombers had listened to offers for any of their picks and thrown some back at clubs – pre-draft they wanted Collingwood's pick 14 and a future first-rounder for No.8 – but were also comfortable staying put.
They knew they needed more talls on their list so added versatile and skillful pair Cox and Reid, and sandwiched Perkins between them. Four days before the draft Perkins met with the Bombers' recruiting staff, as well as former No.1 pick Andy McGrath, who attended Brighton Grammar like Perkins. It was then that Essendon ascertained the talented and forthright half-forward was their man.
They also liked Geelong Falcons pair Tanner Bruhn and Oliver Henry, as well as Brayden Cook, whose name was – now infamously – spotted sprawled on the whiteboard (alongside Perkins and Cox) behind recruiting officer Rob Forster-Knight in the pre-draft video rehearsal last Tuesday night with other clubs.
Adelaide and Greater Western Sydney were next and both were sweating on what the Bombers were doing for different reasons. The Crows were hoping Essendon didn't trade their third pick to the Giants or Fremantle, who Adelaide feared could come up and take midfielder Luke Pedlar one spot ahead of them.
The Crows had discussed trading pick nine and 22 for the Giants' 13 and 15 but that was ruled out on the night, with Adelaide taking the Glenelg ball-winner ahead of Finlay Macrae, Reef McInnes and Bruhn. After plenty of discussion about a trade with the Pies for pick nine, and also potentially bidding on Collingwood NGA prospect McInnes, neither eventuated from Adelaide's end. Regardless, the Pies had decided by then they would match a Crows bid.
The Giants were pleased when Essendon took Cox and then Perkins, with both later down their order, but were hoping that Reid was available to them given their stranglehold on the next part of the draft.
They had identified Reid, Bruhn, Heath Chapman and Connor Stone as the four players they were targeting for their first two picks, but still would have taken Bruhn ahead of Reid if both were available at pick 10. That is because Reid was unlikely to be selected by North Melbourne and Fremantle in between but Bruhn was expected to be snapped up by the Dockers.
The Giants had also arranged a deal with North Melbourne whereby if Adelaide had taken Stone instead of Pedlar, leaving Bruhn and Chapman both available, the Giants would have swapped (what started the draft as) picks 13 and 26 for pick 11 to ensure they could get ahead of Fremantle and grab both their priorities. In turn the Roos would still have been able to select Powell, who they rated inside their top 10, despite their minor slide down the order, because he was further back on the Dockers' list. As well as getting their favoured player, North would also gain an additional pick inside the top 30.
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Powell was long in the sights of the Kangaroos, with the South Australian ball-getter 'round one ready'. He was ranked slightly ahead of Cook and Henry of the available players for the Roos, who then set their mind on accruing another pick inside the first round to snap up Cook.
The Dockers went with Chapman, having also liked Pedlar, Macrae and Cook, and he will add more run, carry and intercept skill to their half-back line. Had Essendon taken Bruhn instead of Reid, Cook would have ended up at the Dockers as the Giants would have selected Chapman at their first pick after Adelaide (Pedlar) and North (Powell) zeroed in on their other targets.
The Giants had to somewhat play the game with five picks scattered between No.10 and 26 at the start of the night. In the week before the draft they set about on a number of interviews with prospects, including catch-ups with Bruhn and Chapman. They also spoke again with Henry, Pedlar and Cox, but didn't meet with Reid, Stone or their third pick Ryan Angwin (No.18) in a bid to keep their interest under wraps, having already met with the trio and their families earlier in the year.
Stone and Chapman were strongly in the mix for Collingwood's first selection, which came after the Magpies placed a (subsequently matched) bid on Port Adelaide Next Generation Academy prospect Lachie Jones. The Pies rated Henry, Stone and Macrae about even, and got two of those three, with Macrae getting through to their second selection.
COLLINGWOOD then got busy. Having survived the threat of a bid for McInnes coming before their two first-round picks, the Pies turned telemarketers with next year's first-round pick for sale to build their hand in the top 30. In between the Pies' picks was Angwin, a hard-running wingman who had been on Melbourne's radar before the Giants called his name.
Richmond had been sitting back watching things unfold. Rivals knew the Tigers' first-round pick, which started the night at No.17 and became No.20 after bids, was on the market but the Tigers wanted to wait and see which players had slipped through. Once Macrae was gone, they made a deal happen. Clubs had been calling for it, with Hawthorn, North Melbourne and West Coast each offering a future second-round pick in exchange for it, with Bailey Laurie or Nathan O'Driscoll in the Eagles' mix if they succeeded.
The Tigers also sought out the Giants to see if they were interested in pick 20 for a future first-rounder. But Geelong's offer of a future first-round pick was the best available for the reigning back-to-back premiers, who would likely have picked Laurie had they not traded the pick.
The Cats' play for speedster Max Holmes saw them jump in front of others linked to him, before Melbourne entered the draft with their consecutive selections. Adelaide had been trying to engineer a pre-draft trade with the Demons – pick 18 and 28 for 22 and 23 – but Melbourne stuck at its spot and took Jake Bowey and Laurie.
Laurie had become something of an 'it' player at this stage of the draft. Had the Crows moved up the board, they would have selected him ahead of the Demons. But his removal from the draft order also led to Collingwood's draft bonanza.
The Giants and Magpies had been talking about possible deals in the lead-up to the draft, but after a week of trying to obtain pick 15 from the Giants, the Magpies moved on to looking at GWS's fourth and fifth selections of the night. With the Giants pleased with their draft mix already, they were open to doing a deal swapping picks 24 and 30 (and a future fourth-rounder) for the Pies' future first-rounder, which Collingwood wanted to move due to incoming father-son prospect Nick Daicos next year.
However the Giants would only agree to that deal if Bowey or Laurie were both gone, so after the Demons pounced on both of those players, the transaction with the Magpies was completed. They then also bid on McInnes, who came as a bonus for Collingwood at that stage.
Collingwood's future first-round pick had been the source of plenty of conversations in the weeks before the draft. Adelaide had tried to land it for a combination of picks this year (23 and 40) and next year, while Brisbane also hoped to secure it in a deal involving pick 25.
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Having traded back up the draft, the Magpies then placed a bid on Blake Coleman, who they ranked a spot behind Macrae. The Lions matched but it wiped out their next selection, which likely would have been used on Jack Carroll, who was sliding, or O'Driscoll.
As the Magpies' back-and-forth trading consumed the end of the first round, North Melbourne was trying feverishly to get back into the action in an attempt to land Cook or key forward Matt Allison. Having already attempted a deal with Richmond, the Roos offered a future second-round pick and a swap of future third-round picks to the Giants to get in. However the Giants' deal with Collingwood was already in the works.
In the meantime, the Magpies had done another deal, securing Adelaide's future third-round pick (also known as 'More Daicos points') for sliding back two positions. The Crows swooped on Cook at that point knowing the Saints had an interest with the next selection.
The final selection of the first round came down to St Kilda, another club who had Laurie in their sights. The Saints had worked on ways to manoeuvre their way up the board, including packaging some late picks in a deal with Port Adelaide to secure the Power's second-round pick, and then combine that and their own first-round pick to edge up. But a delayed bid for Jones meant Port didn't need to push that line and search for extra points.
The Saints also liked Cook and Bowey but with an even group were going to side with the tall in Allison. North, who had just missed on Cook, picked up the phone to try and get into St Kilda's pick to get the Calder Cannons goalkicker, but were pipped again as the Saints called his name to complete the marathon first round.