From the grandstand: Have patience

31 May 2011

Written by: Ben Waterworth

Hands up all those who want to be in Jack Watts’ shoes right now. Any takers?

Surely it’d be a pretty sweet life for a teenage boy to receive hundreds of thousands of dollars to play sport and hang around with his mates every day of the week, wouldn’t it?

Think again.

Watts was the first man picked by Melbourne in the 2008 National Draft – for good reason too. He caught plenty of eyes during his junior playing days, showing outstanding athleticism and pace, as well as strong hands and an accurate kick. When he represented Vic Metro in 2008, he won the Larke Medal – awarded to the best player in Division 1 of the National Under 18 Championships – and earned All-Australian honours.

So when he arrived at the Demons, the tall forward was considered the next big thing. He was to be their saviour and lead the club to their first premiership since 1964.

Now the 20 year-old can seemingly do nothing right.

Watts is one of the most scrutinised players in the AFL. Whether it’s his positioning on the ground, disposal efficiency or lack of presence up forward, everything he does is critiqued intensely. It doesn’t help that his team has only won 15 of its past 53 games since he arrived at the club too.

Now who wants to slip into Watts’ shoes?

Today young players like Watts, who have recently been brought into the AFL system, are judged too quickly and criticised too heavily by fans and media alike. It’s totally unfair to expect so much from players with such little AFL experience. Unless they’re freakishly talented, they won’t walk into AFL clubs and immediately dominate the competition.

The jump from under 18’s footy to AFL level is huge – almost incomprehensible. It’s like taking your first drive on your probationary licence through the Melbourne’s Central Business District and executing a hook turn when you’ve never done any driving through the city as a learner. Most young players find it extremely difficult to adapt to the tough demands of professional footy, especially after playing with and against lightweight figures throughout their junior footy playing days.

Decades ago, new players did an apprenticeship at reserves level, no matter how good a player they were when they arrived at the club. It wasn’t uncommon for a player to record 60-100 reserves games before playing in senior side.

Brownlow medallist and five-time premiership legend Robert DiPierdomenico played nearly 100 reserves games for Hawthorn before he went on to play 240 senior games. Even teammate Michael Tuck – the man who holds the record for the most number of games in VFL/AFL history with 426 – played 50 matches at reserves level.

Back then clubs took the ‘five P’ approach – Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance. But not anymore.

The reserves apprenticeship is gone. Nowadays, new players – particularly midfielders – are thrown into the deep end as quickly as possible, because hands-on experience is the best way to learn.

This season has been no exception, with new players gaining senior experience very early on in their careers. In 10 rounds of action, 76 players have debuted, with 26 coming from Gold Coast. The second highest was Brisbane with six.

But with so many young players being exposed to senior level at such an early stage in their career, we must make a conscious effort not to ridicule first to even fifth-year players. After all, they’re just kids starting out who need to find their place.

Take Dale Thomas for instance. The Collingwood cult figure began his career in 2006 playing as a small forward and showing glimpses of his potential. He played 85 of a possible 97 games across his first four seasons, but failed to consistently have an impact on games, averaging a tick under 16 disposals a game.

Now Thomas is a genuine star of the competition and has increased his average disposal count to 25. He can do it all – extract the hard ball, sprint to space, rack up the possessions, kick the impossible goal and take the spectacular mark. In fact after his best-on-ground performance against West Coast on Sunday, St Kilda coach Ross Lyon labelled him the best player in the competition. Perhaps the call is a little pessimistic, but it’s further evidence that hard work from the player and patience from critics pays off.

Gary Ablett was in a similar situation to Thomas and Watts at the start of his career. When he arrived at Geelong in 2002 carrying a massive burden mainly due to his surname, he started off as an inconsistent small forward, averaging just eight disposals in his first season and 15 disposals over his first five seasons. The Cats’ senior players demanded Ablett train harder over the 2007 pre-season in order to take the next step as an AFL player.

Now, two premierships, three MVP awards, four All-Australian jumpers and one Brownlow medal later, Ablett is arguably the best and most recognised player in the competition. He’s averaged 30 disposals a game over his past five seasons, a far cry from the numbers he used to accumulate 10 years ago.

It took Thomas and Ablett four and five years respectively to announce themselves as players. Some players may take even longer, but ultimately it’s all a waiting game.  

So give Watts and the rest of these young players a chance. When you’re at a game and you see them make a mistake, take it as a learning experience, both for you and the player. With time, Watts will become a very good player, perhaps a star.

Remember, for AFL players it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Ben Waterworth is a third-year Bachelor of Journalism student at La Trobe University and is upstart’s sports editor. You can follow him on twitter: @bjwaterworth