Draft guns (L-R): Campbell Chesser, Finn Callaghan, Sam Darcy. Pictures: AFL Photos

IF YOU want to be drafted, making the Victorian under-12s side is a good place to start.

The program has a long and successful history as being a genuine starting point for prospects looking to find their way in the game, with as many as 10 hopefuls at this year's NAB AFL Draft having been included in the 2015 group that convened in Geelong.

As many as six are seen by AFL recruiters as being certified top-20 picks.

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Finn Callaghan captained that under-12s state side, playing as a brave intercepting half-back before emerging as one of the country's best pure midfielders six years on. His name is expected to be called among the top selections at this year's national draft.

Sam Darcy was a tall, agile midfielder who excelled when given time on the ball. He has since grown into a mammoth 204cm goalkicker, who is clearly the best key forward prospect in this season's pool.

The Western Bulldogs father-son youngster played in a midfield that consisted of Ben Hobbs and Josh Ward, who are remembered by those involved in the under-12s set-up as being the standout players of their age group. Both are also expected to be top-10 picks.

Campbell Chesser, Blake Howes, Connor MacDonald and Anthony Caminiti are others who have graduated from the program and are now in the sights of AFL recruiters, while Dante Visentini and Justin Davies could also see their names called later this month.

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So, what makes the Victorian under-12s team such a fantastic indicator for a prospect's draft hopes? According to Terry Plozza, who has enjoyed a long and distinguished career heavily involved in the set-up, the environment makes the player.

"It's certainly the first stage where they get into an elite program," Plozza told AFL.com.au.

"We treat them as the best players of their age group, in terms of their habits and their training. They're still only 11 or 12 years old, but for many of them the best part about it is that they're playing with and against kids who are as good as they are.


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"That certainly assists their development. Most of them, in their school teams and their club teams, they're way and above the others. It gives them a really good challenge. That's the most important thing.

"It's not necessarily that you need to make the under-12s to become an AFL player, because there is a whole heap that become AFL players who don't make the team for whatever reason, but it's certainly a starting point for them."

Selection to the program isn't just a good indicator for who will eventually make their way to an AFL list, either. Its history is littered with those who have since gone on to forge the most successful of careers.

Christian Petracca was a classy forward who juggled football with basketball when he represented his state at under-12s level in 2008, while Clayton Oliver was a clean one-touch player when he did so in 2009.

Clayton Oliver (left) and Christian Petracca played in the Victorian state team in 2008. Picture: Twitter/timbguille

Both looked every bit like AFL footballers in the making. Both also subsequently became integral parts of Melbourne's drought-breaking 2021 premiership team, playing key roles in the season just gone.

"The really high-end ones, you know straightaway," Plozza said.

"There are always some that surprise you … a lot can happen between the age of 12 to 18, in terms of growth and maturity. Sometimes, the taller boys don't grow so much and the little scrappers who are having a crack can grow."

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Among those to surprise might have been fellow Melbourne premiership player Christian Salem, who was a tall centre-half forward when he made the program in 2007 before finding his feet as a classy running defender.

Along with Petracca, Oliver and Jack Viney, he was one of four premiership Demons to have played for their respective Victorian under-12s teams. Nathan Jones and Adam Tomlinson, who weren't involved in Melbourne's Grand Final side, are also graduates.

Clayton Oliver (left) and Christian Petracca celebrate the Dees' premiership win. Picture: AFL Photos

It would have been just as proud a season had the Western Bulldogs won premiership success, with five players (Jack Macrae, Bailey Dale, Easton Wood, Zaine Cordy and Laitham Vandermeer) involved in their Victorian under-12s sides for the losing Grand Finalists.

Others to have featured at under-12s level for Victoria include this year's Brownlow Medal winner (Ollie Wines), the Norm Smith Medal winner (Petracca) and six Therabody AFL All-Australian members (Petracca, Oliver, Wines, Macrae, Dale and Touk Miller).

There were five club captains (Dyson Heppell, Joel Selwood, Jack Ziebell, Trent Cotchin and Josh Kennedy) this season and four best and fairests (Miller, Wines, Josh Kelly and Jy Simpkin), with either Petracca or Oliver likely to make it five at Melbourne.

That's not to mention the AFL Coaches' Association Player of the Year (Oliver), their Young Player of the Year (Caleb Serong) and the Gary Ayres Medal winner as the best finals player (Macrae) this September.

It's a remarkable list, and one that will grow even further come draft time. Whether this next crop of Victorian under-12s graduates follow in their footsteps is something everyone involved in the system will be watching for with a sense of pride.

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