AN INTERRUPTED season gave Zac Taylor an experience he had always craved.
Having grown up in Melbourne's north, Taylor had represented his local side Oak Park in almost every age group except seniors. Now, with the NAB League on hiatus, a long-awaited opportunity to lace up the boots alongside his two older brothers presented itself.
But as the Taylors prepared for this unique family experience, the first setback bobbed up.
"I was meant to play with my older brother, but he did his shoulder the week before and I never got to play with him … that was unfortunate," Taylor told AFL.com.au.
And then another.
"I did get to play with my other brother, though. But in our first game together, he broke his collarbone. It wasn't fun."
On the injury front, Taylor was the lucky one of the three and his month-long stint with Oak Park gave the tough 180cm midfielder his first taste of playing against senior bodies. It didn't take long for the youngster to adapt to the experience.
Running through the midfield, he kicked four goals in his second senior game against Keilor Park. He followed it with three goals against Moonee Valley the next week, then two more against Coburg Districts to finish a fine run of form.
It coincided with a four-week training block with Essendon's VFL side, where Taylor impressed alongside several AFL-listed players. When the Bombers had a late withdrawal on the eve of their clash with Frankston in May, he was ready to make the step up.
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Told he would be playing on the Friday, Taylor finished with 10 disposals and four marks barely 48 hours later as Essendon eased to a 15-point win.
"It was pretty good, playing with those guys," Taylor said.
"Their professionalism and the way they go about it, it gives you a good insight into what AFL players do. Paddy Ambrose and Marty Gleeson were in that team and there were plenty of others as well … those experienced blokes helped me through that journey."
Taylor carried that form into a fine NAB League season with Calder Cannons, where Champion Data notes that he averaged 34.3 disposals from his last three matches. His final game, against Murray Bushrangers, saw him win 37 disposals, 22 contested possessions and 11 clearances in a standout display.
It left a lasting impression for AFL recruiters, who see Taylor's name being called anywhere in the 18-30 range during November's NAB AFL Draft. It also left a lasting impression for the Cannons, with the tenacious youngster claiming the Robert Hyde Medal as the team's best and fairest.
"That was a bit unexpected, to be honest," Taylor said.
"I missed a few games and it was a pretty short season. But I was pretty happy to be acknowledged for the work I've done over the year."
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AFL clubs see Taylor starting his career as a small forward, where his neat kicking and high-level footy IQ makes him a most damaging threat around goal. But his courage and strong ball-winning abilities could also see him develop as a midfielder in time.
According to Champion Data, Taylor averaged 1.6 goal assists per match in this season's NAB League – the second-most of any player to have featured in five or more games – highlighting his craft in attack.
But he also averaged 21.5 disposals and 4.5 clearances per game in his two trial matches with Vic Metro and believes those numbers could grow even further as he finds his rhythm in an AFL system.
"Coming into the year, I think we trained for two weeks before the first practice match. We didn't get much fitness at all, then we went straight into the year," Taylor said.
"After that, I just started to find my form again through those first couple of weeks. It was very weird, not having played much footy. Those first three NAB League games, I played some pretty decent footy … but it wasn't my best.
"Having that break, it let me play some local footy and I got some confidence from being able to play against some senior bodies. Playing juniors at Oak Park, I'd always wanted to play seniors. I got the opportunity to do that, which was pretty cool."
Having shaken off the rustiness, Taylor now appears almost certain to find himself going from Oak Park to the AFL all in the space of 12 months. Not that he knows exactly where his home will be in 2022 and beyond.
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"I have no idea where I am at the moment or where I'm going to go," Taylor laughed.
"I find that side of it pretty good because it'll be a surprise coming into the week of the draft. It's almost better not being sure where you're going. I rate that."