Jacob van Rooyen celebrates his first AFL goal with teammates during Melbourne's round three match against Sydney at the MCG on April 2, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

JACOB van Rooyen was forced to compile a dossier of dazzling performances in the VFL before Simon Goodwin provided him with a debut, but the Melbourne teenager believes the tough love approach will help him launch his AFL career. 

Melbourne tossed Jack Watts to the wolves on that infamous Queen's Birthday more than a decade ago when the 2008 No.1 pick was still a skinny schoolboy at Brighton Grammar. It is part of the reason why the Demons were determined to be far more patient with van Rooyen.

After being selected at pick No.19 in the 2021 NAB AFL Draft, van Rooyen was required to bide his time at Casey last year, despite kicking 36 goals from 18 appearances that kept his name in selection contention throughout the second half of 2022.

But after a strong summer on the track and a dominant round one performance in the VFL, the Demons finally let van Rooyen off the leash on Sunday. 

The 19-year-old made an instant impact in front of 42,423 people, kicking his first goal inside eight minutes before finishing with an equal game-high three goals, along with six tackles and a towering mark at the city end to help the Demons defeat Sydney by 50 points at the MCG.


It [being forced to wait] has been a good thing. They didn’t want what happened to Jack Watts at the start,” van Rooyen told AFL.com.au on Sunday night. 

"They have been hard on me; Goody has been hard on me just to make sure I'm fit and my game is at an AFL-ready level. 

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"It was a little bit (frustrating to wait), but I think I knew in myself I wasn't probably AFL ready; I wasn't fit enough, that's for sure; my body probably wasn’t right to be playing AFL. 

"It was frustrating at times, but I know the coaches were doing it for the right reasons and for my long-term betterment."

van Rooyen's spot in Melbourne’s 22 opened after the Demons dropped veteran Tom McDonald following a slow start to 2023, days after Max Gawn was ruled out for at least a month with a MCL injury. And he looked at home.  

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"It was really great," van Rooyen said, covered in Powerade from inside the Melbourne rooms.

"All the lads got around me and made me feel really comfortable out there, so there were no times out there where I felt out of place or didn't know what I was doing out there. I've got to credit Benny Brown, Brodie Grundy, Harry Petty, they were great, even the smalls, they were all great."

Jacob van Rooyen (left) celebrates a goal during Melbourne's round three match against Sydney at the MCG on April 2, 2023. Picture: Getty Images

The West Australian is aware of the hype around him. He knew there was a push from the Melbourne faithful and sections of the media for him to play last year, especially after hauls of six, five and four goals for Casey. The interest only intensified over the summer.

"It's kind of funny," he said. "I've gained a lot of hype, not for no reason, but I hadn't played a game of AFL until today, so it was a bit random. Hopefully with my performance today I can live up to that hype."

While van Rooyen missed out on selection in round one, it wasn't due to his application and form over the summer. Ben Brown and McDonald were fully fit after injury interruptions in 2022 and the arrival of Brodie Grundy meant there was another tall the Demons had to accommodate.

The 194cm key forward from Claremont laid the foundations for a standout pre-season when he spent the off-season training alongside fellow Demons Taj Woewodin and Judd McVee back home before launching into the pre-season at Casey Fields and Gosch's Paddock. 

"I went back home to Perth over the off-season and did a lot of running with Taj Woewodin and Judd McVee. Both of them are really great runners. It was either keep up with them or get left behind. Taj really pushed me with that and so did Juddy, so I think that set me up for a good pre-season," he said. 

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Melbourne heads west next weekend to face West Coast at Optus Stadium on Easter Sunday in what will be van Rooyen's first AFL game on home soil, but he knows he needs to keep performing to solidify his spot in Melbourne's forward line. 

Matt Jefferson is part of the Demons' long-term plans alongside van Rooyen inside 50 and quickly signalled he will push for AFL selection this year, after slotting four goals in just his second VFL game on Sunday, while McDonald kicked two goals from 20 touches and 11 marks to keep the pressure on. 


van Rooyen spent his debut season living with a host family but has now moved in with Next Generation Academy graduate Andy Moniz-Wakefield. He has become accustomed to the traffic and intensity of life in Melbourne, but misses having the ocean on his doorstep.

"It is different, Melbourne is a lot busier," he said. "There are some things you miss like surfing – you have to drive at least an hour and a half to go surfing anywhere in Victoria – so that can get frustrating at times. I'm really enjoying the Melbourne lifestyle though."

If the VFL dossier was mighty impressive, the first showing in the AFL was even better. No wonder they've been trying to keep a lid on the hype at Melbourne.