Will Day celebrates a goal during Hawthorn's clash with the Western Bulldogs in round seven, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

WILL Day is emerging as a star of the AFL in front of our eyes. The 21-year-old is on a sharp rise this year as one of the most exciting midfielders in the game and will be a key part of Hawthorn's build under Sam Mitchell. 

But it hasn't always been easy. Day joins Cal Twomey for Cal's Q&A this week to discuss overcoming his doubts with his body, why he's taken a more 'selfish' approach this year, his lofty goals, how tempted he was to return to Adelaide when he had big contract offers and leaving the baseball glove behind for football.

You're in the midst of an emergence as a player. What do you put this season's form down to?

It's been good and I think it's been a reflection on the work over the past few years and having my first full pre-season. I thought it was a bit of a cliché when I heard people say 'once he has a full pre-season he'll be right' but seeing how I've had a bit more confidence it's been nice to finally play the way I knew I could have the past few years.

Injuries had been a been a part of your first three years at the club. Did you ever have any doubts about your body being able to handle the rigours?

When the two major ankle injuries occurred that always pops up into your head but last year having a few niggles here and there and being in and out of the side for multiple reasons meant there was a bit of a question there. It's been nice this year to get some continuity and get that full confidence back.

Will Day looks on from the bench after injuring his ankle during round two, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

Whose idea was the move into the midfield – you or Sam?

It was pretty conversational. Early in my career when we both knew that half-back was the better spot to begin with there was a few comments here and there [about playing midfield]. He came to me and had a bit of a chat to get in there last year and I played one or two games there. In my exit meeting last year we had a good chat and we said I'd do my pre-season there and if it goes alright I'll stay there but if not I knew I could go back to half-back.

I spoke to Sam in the pre-season and he said it was good for your body evolution as well because the hits come more in the midfield but are less brutal than in defence.

That's definitely right. The rigours of the midfield are definitely different to half-back and now that I've had exposure to both has been good for my development and has probably helped me to where my body's at now.

Will Day in action during round four, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Was playing in the midfield at AFL level always part of your plan?

I think so. I had the skillset at a young age but as the bodies stayed bigger and mine stayed the same I got pushed out. In the end I probably wouldn't have changed that because I've been able to get some other skills and improve my marking and my outside game. It's coming together nicely now.

You had some intentions to grow your leadership this season but Sam gave you some advice around focusing on yourself first. How critical was that for your progress? 

I still really do want to be a leader but my view on leadership was a lot different to what it is now. My first few years I was always trying to find every opportunity to talk in front of the group and I thought that's what a leader was – being a big presence in front of the group. But this year's been really good for me. This pre-season Sam just had a chat to me and said 'Almost be a little bit selfish and really focus on yourself'. Adrian Hickmott, who is my mentor at the club as well, has been really good about getting my role done, perform the way I want to perform, and the leadership will naturally come and be part of the action.

Will Day is tackled by Bailey Smith during round seven, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Was that adjustment easy for you?

I've definitely felt it click but I wouldn't say it's been easy. There's been a few times where I've been eager to talk, and I still do talk in front of the group, but it took a bit of adjusting to focus on myself rather than firstly thinking of others. It's a bit of an 'oxygen mask' mentality of getting mine right and then helping others after that.

Most boys who enter clubs don't speak up much at all. It's a bit of a reverse of the normal situation.

It's been a bit weird because when I had the conversation with Sam, the first few times after that within myself I had to think that me not trying to help others is better for me and the team. It was hard to grasp but it clicked after a few training sessions and once I started performing better that was leadership in itself.

Will Day handballs during a Hawthorn training session on December 7, 2020. Picture: AFL Photos

You're a lot bigger in person than some might think. How much have you added in height and weight since joining the Hawks?

The weight is probably the bigger one. I came in at 70kg and am now at 86 and it clicked a bit more this off-season with 'Burgey' (new high performance boss Peter Burge) in as well. And in height, I reckon I grew most in year 12. From year 11 to year 12 I probably grew a good 8-10cm which added a new dynamic to my game.

Which we're seeing now… what have you taken from playing against some of the top midfielders in the competition during the start to the year?

It's been pretty cool and our midfield has been going well for such a young group which is really promising. Coming up against the Bulldogs a couple of weeks ago and being on (Marcus) Bontempelli a bit was pretty cool. I love watching him play and I try to take as much from his game as I can.

Will Day in action during round 11, 2020. Picture: AFL Photos

You don't tweet much but you said a couple of weeks ago 'Bont is him' when he was best on ground against Fremantle in round six.

That game he showed everyone that he's at the top of the competition right now and the benchmark really. I've followed him since he started and I was really young. I never went for the Bulldogs but I ended up buying a Bulldogs guernsey to get the No.4 on the back around that 2016 time. He's one who, especially with his body type and his height and now that I've moved into the midfield, is definitely someone I want to end up playing like.

A lot of people can see some of you in how he's developed. Have you noticed those comparisons?

I think the biggest comparison is with the body shape when you go back to his footy when he was my age and the body types, but I don't really read into it too much after that.

Marcus Bontempelli tackles Will Day during round seven, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

You made a goal to make the All-Australian squad at the start of this year. You're on track for that. What gave you the belief to aim high?

I know my best footy is capable and even though I didn't have the year I had last year I don't think you can lower your goals to below from what you ultimately think. You'd rather shoot a bit above and if you miss it only just then you're still going alright, so that was the idea behind that. We do a good job with our mentors with the goals we have, we check in with them every week whenever we do vision. The two weeks off [suspended] probably hurts me a bit (with All-Australian squad) but I'm going to keep trying to play good footy.

What has the start to this year meant for your ambitions for your career as well?

Not having the year I wanted last year put in a bit of doubt as to where I wanted to be at this part of my career. In 2021 when I did my ankle twice, the game before I broke my ankle I played a really good game. I came back from my ankle injury and three games later played a good game again, so I thought that would translate into last year which it just didn't. So there was a bit of doubt. But this year has given me a lot of confidence and I know I'm not near the best that I can get to so it's promising.


Also promising was your baseball trajectory as a junior. Tell me about how you were in your other main sport growing up.

It was good fun. I started when I was 12 or 13 and really just went with it. There was such a cool culture at the baseball club – when I was playing seniors I'd play with guys who are 45 years old who were still really good so that helped with my relationship building. I went alright, made a few state teams here and there as a short stop.

Do you still follow baseball closely?

This year I've gotten back into it. When I was playing I didn't really follow it but now after I've had a few years out of it I've been following it a bit more and it's been good fun.

You are probably my favourite ever Phantom Draft pick because the Hawks' interest in you had been kept under wraps. How much of an idea did you have that Hawthorn was keen ahead of the 2019 draft?

Whenever I see my managers, Tom and Anthony McConville (at Mac's Sports Promotions), that always seems to come up every few times. Before the draft we had a gauge on Port being pretty interested as an Adelaide club and Gold Coast with Sam (Day's cousin Sam Day) up there as well. I didn't have any inkling to Hawthorn but it wasn't until the day before the draft I saw you posted your Phantom Draft and I got onto Tom and I was like 'What's this about?' and he said 'I'm going to have to call Cal because he's got some info that we don't'. Then I got called out the next day to Hawthorn which was just awesome. At the start of that year I wasn't near a first-round pick. When I got to draft night I knew I was probably going to be a first-round pick but it didn't feel real. I wasn't even looking into the teams that much, it was just finally seeing my name get called out which was surreal.

Your grandfather Robert played in the Hawks' 1971 premiership. How across the club's history were you before you arrived?

All the Grand Finals we'd get together and watch. I remember one year we were all together at my aunty's house and the Hawks were playing so there was always a big soft spot for Hawthorn. I was a bit of a footy fanatic growing up so I knew enough of each club anyway.

(L-R): Will Day, Finn Maginness and Josh Morris speak to the media on December 2, 2019. Picture: AFL Photos

Was the family history a factor in your recent decision to stay at the Hawks and re-sign for a further four years?

It does come into it with the family ties and also wearing grandpa's number. There's a lot more that went into it than just that, but it definitely helped. I had a bit of attention from other clubs and the question was asked but it was always going to be Hawthorn. Any other move would probably be back to Adelaide in my eyes but it was pretty straightforward and once we got the deal we were happy with we pulled the trigger. There was a lot of other outside noise which probably made it a bit bigger than what it actually was.

You had some really big offers in front of you. What made you want to stay?

The culture that we've got. Although we're having a tough year this year, that didn't change my mind at all which probably shows how close we are as a young group. We've got lots of guys who are coming through and are going to take the next step whether it's this year or next year and the path that we're on I'm really excited. I wanted to buy in to that and really commit.

Will Day celebrates a goal during round 16, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

Speaking of buying in… when you purchased a house back in Adelaide did you know the speculation was going to rise?  

It was a bit of weird timing because I was looking at an investment property and mum and dad were looking out in Adelaide. One came up and it happened to be a four-day break when I was over there back home. I went along to the auction and ended up winning it and once word of that got out I think here at Hawthorn they started to scramble a little bit. But I reassured them that it was just an investment.

The club's list strategy has obviously been aggressive and is really draft-focused. How central do you feel to the next group at Hawthorn?

I feel like I'm one that really has to take charge and if the guys like me and around my age don't step up then it's going to be a lot slower than we want it to be. I'm in that group where at other clubs I'm probably really young but here I need to be a more senior player. The quicker I can step up, which I feel I'm starting to do, then the quicker we'll get there. I think it's quite important.

Last week against Fremantle was the low point of Hawthorn's year – how do you see the gains made this season for the group?

Jai Newcombe had an awesome year last year and he's putting together consistent footy and is someone that is reliable and James Worpel getting back to some form that he knew he could get back to is really good. Conor Nash has really stepped up too and become really pivotal for our team so that is a reflection of our midfield as well. Then you've got some younger guys like Josh Ward and Cam Mackenzie as well, who is getting some good games in at VFL and I'm sure he'll slot right back in.

Cam was a top pick last year, Josh the year before that. Do you keep an eye on who the club could be drafting?

I love looking at each draft ever since mine, when I loved how it went, so I've had a keen eye on it. I always look at the SA guys as well. I went to school with (potential top-10 pick) Ashton Moir so I keep an eye on him. He's super talented. I remember kicking the footy with him in primary school and I was four years older than him and he'd be kicking left and right back to me when he was 10 years old so it was pretty crazy.

Everyone says you are very, very invested in the club. How has that developed and grown since you arrived in 2019?

We've started 1-7 but that hasn't changed me at all or my thinking. We obviously don't want to lose every week and it's really tough losing each week but you have to find the positives and that's pretty easy to do when you have such a young group that's so bought in.