The road to 50 games has been anything but smooth for Adelaide midfielder Ben Keays.
Drafted with pick 24 in the 2015 national draft, the Queenslander found himself unable to have an impact in a Lions jumper across four seasons, before receiving a lifeline from the Crows following his delisting in 2019.
Now a key cog in Adelaide’s side, the 24-year-old has turned himself into one of the competition’s most damaging clearance players with his determination and willingness to put the team first trademarks of his ever-growing game.
Speaking with the Inner Sanctum, Keays details coming across from the Brisbane Lions, Adelaide’s fast start to the season, and some key learnings from his time at West Lakes.
Becoming a Crow
Following the 2019 season Keays found himself at a crossroads.
After four seasons in a Lions jumper only yielded 30 senior appearances, the midfielder was delisted by the club following a breakout campaign that saw them burst their way into the top four.
With uncertainty wavering over his career and no real interest from AFL clubs, he says he was surprised the Crows gave him a lifeline.
“Deep down I had a lot of self-belief that I was going to get picked up again and I would serve to stay on an AFL list but it doesn’t always happen that way,” Keays said.
“I pretty much only had one conversation with (Adelaide List Manager) Justin Reid, and I went down to Melbourne to talk to a bunch of VFL clubs because that was going to be the next phase of my career,
“Adelaide were pretty much the only team I talked to face to face and then did not hear from them again, so I just kind of thought it would lead to nothing.”
With low expectations, he says finding out the Crows had selected him with pick seven in the 2019 rookie draft was the best day of his football life.
“It was a pretty special day, probably better than my original draft day being picked up by the Lions,” he said.
“It was a pretty relieving feeling and exciting as well as I would be moving interstate and to a massive club in the Adelaide Crows and I just could not wait to get started.”
Moving to West Lakes in the back end of 2019, Keays would earn his stripes quickly with his determination and willingness to learn seeing him quickly garner the respect of new coach Matthew Nicks and a spot in the senior team come round two of the 2020 season.
Adelaide’s fast start
One of the more unexpected storylines out of the first three weeks of the season, the lowly projected Crows have shocked many with their ferocious intensity and slick ball movement yielding them two impressive victories.
Keays explains how he is feeling following the first three rounds of the new year.
“I am feeling pretty good if I am honest,” he said.
“I think we as a team started pretty well, better than expected, which has been fantastic, and yeah overall I am feeling quite good heading into the next part of the season.”
Having spent another year under the tutelage of coach Matthew Nicks, he believes the side is really starting to click and executing the game plan in a way they were not able to in 2020.
“We probably just have a clear plan now of what we want to do,” he said.
“I think last year, because we had the new coach come in, we were still trying to learn the game style that we wanted to play and I think that this year we are just bit clearer on things and executing more effectively,
“There is still a lot of work to do, but it is just good that we are competitive three rounds in and that is a sign that what we are doing is working and I am pretty excited to see what we can do going forward.”
One aspect of Adelaide’s game that has improved significantly thus far in 2021 is their work around stoppage, with Keays a prime contributor to this incredible turnaround.
“We have done heaps of work to develop that part of our game,” he said.
“We brought in Nathan Van Berlo as the midfield coach and we’ve got a best and fairest ruckman in ROB (Reilly O’Brien) who has been doing a heap of work,
“Overall we have just been trusting each other, the method and going to work, and we are pretty excited by the results but we just need to keep it up as it is a crucial part of our game.”
He also says sharing the same field as current Coleman medal leader Taylor Walker during his rich vein of form has been one of the highlights of his career to date.
“It has been amazing watching him, I am genuinely lost for words with some of the stuff he is doing,” he said.
“I have always rated him as a player growing up over the years, but to be out on the field with him those first three weeks kicking all sorts of goals whether it be from tackling, kicking snaps or shots outside 50 has been incredible,
“He is showing why he is one of the best key forwards in the game and that he is not done yet, and it goes to show that it is pretty important to give your forwards and opportunity.”
Becoming a leader
Currently in his sixth season of football, the 24-year-old is remarkably one of the more experienced campaigners in the Crows lineup, with the club currently sporting the youngest list in the competition.
He says this demographic has seen him take on more of a leadership role, as he hopes to impart some knowledge on his talented young teammates.
“I 100% see myself as more of a leader,” he said.
“You only have to look around to see how young some of the boys are and how little games of experience they have got, so I definitely see myself as more of a role model than before,
“I am finding myself answering a few more questions, and I am probably one that is a bit more clear on the game style and the way we want to play so I have tried to help in driving that and getting that message across.”
Similarities between Lions and Crows
With the Crows in the depths of their first genuine rebuild, the club has embraced the mantra of developing its youth and giving inexperienced players a chance to shine with greater responsibilities.
This position is something Keays is not unfamiliar with, having played for the Lions at a time where they had undergone over a drastic list turnover and turned to their youth.
Keays says there are some key similarities between how the Lions and Crows have gone about their rebuilds.
“There are a lot of similarities to what we are trying to build,” he said.
“My second year was 2017 and that was when Chris Fagan came in and that is similar to what happened last year with Matthew Nicks coming into Adelaide in a clean sweep of the coaches, staff, and a bit of player turnover,
“I loved my time at Brisbane, I wish it had gone a bit better at times, but I did get to see the club go from last place to hosting a couple of finals, so there is no reason why we can’t replicate that and climb up the ladder the way they did.”
He says he is utilising his learnings from the Lions to help assist the Crows through this period.
“I am using my experience from being at Brisbane to help out,” he said.
“The coaches are definitely picking my brain at times as well to give some pointers on how the Lions turned it around.”
Expectations for the rest of the season
With the group exceeding all expectations thus far, the players mustn’t get too ahead of themselves at West Lakes as they ride this wave of positive momentum.
As the young group continues its exciting growth, Keays says they are not placing any limits on what they can achieve in 2021.
“It (expectations) are never really spoken about at the club,” he said.
“We never talk about how many wins we want or where we want to finish on the ladder or anything like that which I think is good for a young side,
“We are just focused on the parts of our game and game plan we want to nail down, so certain statistics and things that back that up are things we want to improve on and finish higher on, and hopefully on the back of that the wins will come.”
Learnings from his time at the Crows
As he embarks on his 50th game, there have been several key lessons Keays has learned over the journey that has put him in great stead moving into the prime years of his career.
Since making the move over to West Lakes he says three main points have been pivotal in turning his game around and transforming him into the consistent performer he is today.
“The number one thing I have taken away in my time at the club is the mental side of sport, I think that early in my career I didn’t do much work on that side of things and it is a very important part of being an athlete,
“Number two, Nicksy has got a saying train to dominate and that is probably another one I have taken to another level and that is something I started when I first walked through the doors, I was on a rookie contract and delisted from my former club so that was the day I promised myself I would train every session to the best of my ability,
“Probably the third thing would be playing to my strengths, previously it was focused on what you can’t do instead of what you can do and it was almost like I was being told there were areas I was not good enough at, whereas when I got to Adelaide Nicksy focused in on the things I am good at and wanted me to focus on bringing something elite to the team.”