The West

Hawk beats small talk
Paul Puopolo. Picture: Getty Images.

No dream is too big for Hawthorn's Paul Puopolo.

Hidden beneath the eye-line of AFL recruiters until the Hawks swooped in the 2010 national draft, the 173cm diehard has emerged as a veritable giant of the game's mature-aged movement.

Puopolo, 24, is also content to stand proudly as a poster boy for the vertically challenged, having long been told he was too short to make an impact on the game he loves.

The Norwood product recalls barracking for Hawthorn as the successful underdogs against Geelong in the 2008 grand final.

Four years on, he has cemented a key role for the premiership favourites and openly admits to feeling his AFL flag dream is within reach.

But it seems defying the detractors in the same manner of fellow former draft outcasts such as Ian Callinan, Hayden Ballantyne and Ashton Hams holds significant pride.

"There was a stage when smaller players like me were being overlooked just because of their height," Puopolo said as he prepared for tonight's game against West Coast at the MCG.

"Now it's gone past that and they're just looking more for a footballer. I get it all the time, people coming up to me saying 'Geez, you're so small, how do you do it?'

"That just gives me a bit of confidence that us small guys are doing all right. I've copped it all my life about being the smallest one, but I've always seen it as a challenge and I guess I had a point to prove which drove me through my training.

"I guess my height has always put me down a little bit, but there are things I've worked on and got better at and it's paying off now. In the draft now, it doesn't really matter how short or tall you are. If you can play footy and you want to be there, the dream is there.

"I've always wanted to try the next level and always had that dream. When people told me I couldn't do it because I was too short, I always thought I probably could if someone gave me a go."

Puopolo was dumbfounded by being cast this week as a villain for being wrongly, according to the AFL umpiring department, awarded a free kick in the last quarter of Hawthorn's narrow win over Sydney last Saturday. His goal tied the scores with 13 minutes to play.

"I thought a knee to the face was probably a free kick," he said of the incident.

"When I'd picked the ball up the guy had already tackled me, so I didn't get much opportunity."

But it was a round-19 moment late in a two-point loss that continued Geelong's dominance over the Hawks which Puopolo said would give him greater learning fodder for the finals.

Puopolo's botched decision to swing a foot at a bouncing ball he should have grabbed allowed the Cats to rebound and Tom Hawkins sealed the deal with a goal after the siren.

"Sometimes you just rely on a bit of instinct," Puopolo said.

"I didn't know who was behind me or what was going on because everyone was yelling. All I did was snap the leg and it sort of went around the wrong way and stayed in play.

"Next time I'll grab it and make my decision from there to see what opens up after that, but the game was an eye-opener for our whole team. Giving a 51-point head start to a team isn't going to help you win anyway.

"That was the difference in the end, not the last two minutes. But it's better to learn from it then than in a final and then have to wait a whole year to rehearse it again."

Puopolo's hopes of being drafted as a teenager were hampered when he was 18 when he fractured a lower vertebra in his back, leaving him with a painful aftermath from an incident during a game he could not even remember.

"Every time I turned there was just this pain and I had it for about three months … it wasn't a great injury to have at that age," he said.

"It was something I just had to let heal by itself and I had to stay away from fast movements.

"At training, all I did was ride a bike."

But, like Brisbane's former bricklayer Dayne Zorko, he then toiled on civil construction sites in South Australia while still hanging on to his flimsy AFL dreams.

"I was working nine-hour days in hot weather and then going to training for three hours, then doing extra above that to try and make myself better," Puopolo said.

"I'd get up at 5am and get home at 9pm to eat dinner. They were big days."

The defensive skills learnt by studying the playing characteristics of Adelaide star Graham Johncock, at the suggestion of Norwood coach Nathan Bassett, helped Puopolo's transition to the Hawthorn attack, where he became a capable and versatile replacement for Campbell Brown.

He also described how he has moved beyond the awe of playing alongside genuine stars of the game such as Lance Franklin and Cyril Rioli and focused more on watching their preparation and work ethic to try to bridge the talent gap between him and them.

Puopolo, who recently signed a contract tying him to the Hawks until the end of 2014, admits to have fallen in love with the club, which is proud of its family atmosphere.

But his satisfaction at making the grade has not yet morphed into contentment, with a premiership yet to be sealed.

"Just that feeling of standing around with your teammates of holding that cup up," Puopolo said.

"I often wonder how good that must feel. Last year was the one, being involved and being so close and thinking I could have done that in my first year.

"That would have been an exciting time - it drives you even more and I just want to win a grand final. I just love being here and being involved and it's not something I'll ever take for granted."

The West Australian

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