IT WAS a performance that brought out the best in Josh Ward.
Having taken some time to find his feet this season in the aftermath of a cancelled 2020 campaign, everything clicked for Ward as his Vic Metro side easily accounted for Vic Country in a trial game at Windy Hill last July.
Ward had spent last season and the summer that followed developing a series of aspects within his game. Improving his inside work, his physicality and his running capacity had been the focus during the endless months of Victoria's lockdown.
But on that Friday afternoon, working in tandem with the likely No.1 pick Nick Daicos in Vic Metro's midfield, it was time for Ward to reap the benefits of a gruelling last 18 months in a performance that commanded the attention of onlooking recruiters.
Ward collected 29 disposals, eight clearances and kicked two goals as Vic Metro eased to a 56-point win, displaying the balance of an inside-outside game that has clubs of the belief he could push into top-five calculations by this year's NAB AFL Draft.
"In Year 10, I was playing on the wing for Vic Metro," Ward told AFL.com.au.
"I really wanted to play a bit more inside, but I just didn't quite have the size to go in there and match it with those boys at that point. If I got anything out of the lockdown last year, it was the opportunity to prepare my body for this season.
"I set up a bit of a makeshift gym in the backyard and improved that over the lockdown period. That was my main focus coming into this year and it's still a growth area for me, but I'm glad that I've been able to build my body up to a level that it needs to be.
"It's not quite a strength yet, but that was my goal … to play midfield. I knew what I wanted and that's made it pretty easy to work towards it."
Ward's running power has always been a strength. Having started his career as a wingman, it was his aerobic capacity that enabled him to stretch the field and hold his width within games.
However, since moving into an inside role with Vic Metro and the Northern Knights this year, his fitness base has become an even bigger asset. Recruiters have noted his defensive running without the footy, and his carry with it, among his most significant traits.
That's culminated in an impressive campaign reflected by his superb numbers at NAB League level. According to Champion Data, he's averaged 30.2 disposals per game (ranked third in the competition), 5.6 clearances (ranked fifth), 6.2 score involvements (ranked fifth) and 11.6 contested possessions (ranked eighth) from his five matches with the Knights.
A period spent watching and analysing Carlton gun Sam Walsh has only helped him progress even further in those areas, with Ward closely monitoring the former No.1 selection from his TV at home to pick up any lessons he can.
"I really admire him for his gut-running," Ward said.
"I've always been a decent runner, but being able to transfer it into a game is a whole new story. It's something I'm definitely trying to get better at. Sam Walsh is probably the best I've ever seen at doing that.
"Running has always been a strength of my game. It's always something I've worked pretty hard at, because I think working on your strengths is just as important as your weaknesses as it gives you that weapon.
"I worked hard on it over the off-season, but it's been a culmination of a few off-seasons where I've really worked hard on the running side of my game. That's definitely helped me this year."
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Clubs are confident Ward will find himself selected in the early stages of this year's national draft. The more bullish of those teams believe he could even find himself being recruited within the first five picks.
For a keen Hawthorn fan with family links to the club – Ward's great grandfather, Alex Lee, played 31 games for the Hawks in the 1930s – there's extra reason to hope his name is called early on draft night.
Hawthorn currently holds pick No.5 at this year's draft, but could still find its position in the order shuffled around during what looms as a busy Continental Tyres AFL Trade Period for the club.
Finding his way to Waverley later this year – and being part of a Sam Mitchell-led rebuild at the club from 2022 onwards – would be a dream come true for Ward and his Hawks-loving family.
"I hope so," Ward laughed.
"It would be incredible to go to the Hawks. They've got a good, young list now and they've got Sam Mitchell coming in. I've heard nothing but good things about him, so that would be incredible. But I don't really want to raise my hopes too highly about that."
For now, though, Ward is simply looking forward to getting back on the field again in the near future. Having waited patiently through six Victorian lockdowns, his focus has been diverted almost entirely to education.
Hopeful of combining an AFL career with a degree in politics, philosophy and economics at university next year, the naturally high-achieving Ward is eager to get a footy back in his hands sometime soon.
"I don't think my mindset has really changed through this … it's always been the same thinking for me, just trying to go out and play the best I can," Ward said.
"Obviously, you have to adapt to going back to training with one other person and trying to stay ready when you're uncertain about what's going to happen. I've been able to keep the stress at bay, just by keeping on training and staying positive.
"I'm just taking it as it comes. If we were to get back, which I don't think we will now, I'd be happy to play another game or as many as I can. Ultimately, I just want to end up playing footy."