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Head-to-head with the AFL boss

This is an analogy which might rub people up the wrong way, but if I wanted to get a good faithful dog I’d go to the pound.

For some reason or another those dogs know they’re lost and on their last chance of finding a home. Generally, they become good, loyal dogs to a compassionate owner.

You can pick your best pedigree and he still might dig up your backyard and do his business on someone else’s lawn. He might also be lazy and show pain when it’s not really there. But your “mongrel” might get knocked over by a car and still not give a whimper. He’ll always swim out into the ocean with you and back.

I regard the AFL’s rookies as the competition’s lost dogs.

They are loyal and they are ambitious. They come in at half wages and we expect them to do the same amount of work.

They just love footy and the opportunity because they know how much it hurts to be

They are the dream chasers and as a coach, or new owner, you can be the dream maker for them.

When the AFL introduced the rookie draft in 1997, I remember telling my assistants at West Coast to coach the last picked player on our list as if he was going to be the best. Back then, rookies were simply considered add-ons. It was like guesswork and hope and if you fluked a good one, it was really a fluke.

So in reality, what I was saying to my assistants was a random, throwaway line to make sure we never neglected any player. But in my heart of hearts, or in my mind, I never really felt it was a truism.

It was more a call to arms to just give every kid the opportunity to perform at his optimum. But then came the time when you started to look back at rookie list players who forced you to think differently.

With age on my side here, I can say I played in a district competition, then we moved into zones and coming from Ballarat I went to St Kilda. But when I was coaching in 1986, we moved into the current system of drafting.

The truth of the matter was, not a lot of clubs were ready for it and were still holding on to the stream of players from local areas. So much has changed and the rookie list is a prime

Now when you’re selecting a rookie, you’re doing so in the true faith that he will have the opportunity to perhaps one day play AFL football on the main squad. You no longer pick him, like the old days, for the sake of filling up your numbers.

It got to the point where you felt they could play senior football and you swung around to them very quickly when the draft turned sour on players who weren’t necessarily what you thought they’d be.

All of a sudden, your rookies started to jump up and be reasonable players and the proof is in the pudding. Take Dean Cox, for example, who cried at his first training session because he could not handle the required running. He’s now a running machine and if he’s not the best West Coast player at the moment, he’s certainly on the podium.

There’s Fremantle’s Aaron Sandilands, too. In 2002, he was deemed not good enough to be on a primary list. Then add some of the current game’s most dominant ruckmen such as Darren Jolly, Sam Jacobs, Mark Jamar and even Sydney pair Shane Mumford and Mike Pyke. Amazingly, they all started on the rookie list.

What it tells you is that recruiting managers have to be careful not to underestimate the potential of growth in big men. They are slow developers, but the cream of them show how good selections can be. The possibilities also extend to international draftees such as Brisbane’s emerging star Pearce Hanley and GWS forward Setanta O’hAilpin.

And you really don’t have to look a lot further than a player who will reach his 200th game tomorrow, Western Bulldogs captain Matthew Boyd.

I coached him when he played in the Australian side against Ireland in 2010. I’ve met a lot of highly-professional players in my time in football and he is right up there in the top echelon.

Matthew is a ripper who just doesn’t know how to take a step backwards and he wears his heart on his sleeve. Once a lost dog, he is now a loyal and brilliant Bulldog who has a great story with plenty of bark and bite.

So let’s get personal. In 2009 at Collingwood we rookie-listed a 174cm player by the name of Jarryd Blair, who had been a star with Gippsland Power but never got a look in at the draft because of his size. He came into my office early the next year and wanted to talk to the senior coach about why we picked him because he still had to get on his tippy-toes to see himself in the bathroom mirror.

He was looking at Collingwood’s midfield and saw the likes of Scott Pendlebury, Dane Swan and Luke Ball and wondered where he would fit in. I just said we believed in him and didn’t pick him as some sort of freak show. So we went through the AFL to find an example he could work off.

We got to North Melbourne’s Brent Harvey and I had to tell him not to get any ideas because Boomer is a champion and a totally different sort of player.

Jarryd was slightly crestfallen until we moved on to Port Adelaide and found David Rodan.
I admire David greatly. He’d been thrown from Richmond and was picked up by the Power at pick No.86 in the 2006 draft. He’s had two LARS knee reconstructions and still keeps bouncing up. His leadership is outstanding.

I told Jarryd that’s the sort of player I wanted. After 12 games that year he became a premiership player and today he will play his 50th match. He’s done all that because he has understood his role and played it well.
Ironically, his second game was against Rodan and he kicked a goal against the wind which helped us come from a 32-point deficit against Port to win.

Collingwood’s 2010 premiership team had seven rookie-listers in it, including captain Nick Maxwell. Alongside him in defence were two more from WA, Harry O’Brien and Alan Toovey.

Today, Harry will play his 150th game and Alan his 100th. Both are great stories and I’m proud of them both. They deserve every accolade they get because of their hardness and diligence.

I remember how Harry flew himself over from Perth just to give himself a chance. I knew he was putting a bit on to be noticed in his first couple of training sessions, but I was so impressed because his efforts were genuine.

Alan was on the verge of not being elevated. But I saw in him something the club lacked, a hard-nosed tagging player who wasn’t overly fussed about how many possessions he got. He was a slightly smaller version of Simon Prestigiacomo in that mentality.

He’s become a premiership defender who kicked three goals in his first match on Richmond’s Brett Deledio. He’s only kicked another five since in 98 games.

The lesson is that if you look at the rookie draft with the same intent as you have when you go to the national draft, you won’t be surprised as to what might turn up. History has already shown that there are plenty of diamonds in the rough.

And it is always important to give as many kids as you can the chance to live out their AFL dreams. That’s why the rookie list has been such a great initiative.

But remember this. As good as some of these players are, no recruiting manager can hang his hat on saying they knew their rookie-list star was going to be a champion because it would be absolute rubbish.

If he was always going to be a champion, he would never have been left to the rookie draft.

But if you give a lost dog a little love, he could prove to be a coach’s best friend.