The NAB League Boys launch was a day of mixed emotions for last year’s draft hopefuls Will Bravo and Zavier Maher.
The 18-year-olds, born one day apart, were both overlooked by every AFL club in the 2020 draft.
Both trained with AFL clubs over the 2021 pre-season, Bravo with Hawthorn and Maher with Carlton. Both were knocked back from a list spot, again.
Bravo has returned to the Dandenong Stingrays in the NAB League with his chin held up high.
He would spend a lot of time learning under new VFL coach Sam Mitchell.
“I think Sam’s one that I spoke to a fair bit, especially playing in the seconds whenever we had our practice games,” Bravo told The Inner Sanctum.
“I was under his wing a fair bit, being the coach of the Box Hill Hawks.
“[Mitchell is] unreal honestly.
“He’s probably up there as one of the best coaches I’ve been under in my time playing football.
“I love the way he’s really competitive as a coach, as he was as a player as well. He has a really great connection with the lads as well.”
Having spent those weeks at Hawthorn, there was nothing more valuable to Bravo than feedback straight from the top.
Senior coach Alastair Clarkson was another prominent figure guiding him at the club.
“The feedback [from Clarkson] was really good, I think it was just that they needed some mature age players to come in straight away, obviously losing Tom Scully out of nowhere,” he said.
“The feedback was actually really good and there’s a lot I can take with me to work on my game.
“I think just being at the club I really got a taste of what it was like to be on an AFL list.
“If anything, it made me want it more.
“Now I know what it’s like and what it’s all about and I’d love to be there again.”
Maher’s experience at Carlton was similar, drawing on the experience of key players to help shape his own game both on and off field.
“I loved it,” he said.
“I was pretty lucky, I ended up spending about 10 weeks here.
“I learnt heaps, I think it really set me up for the year as well with my fitness and also with my professionalism.
“Getting to look at Sam Walsh and Patrick Cripps and how they go about it, I learned that there was a lot more to footy to actually benefit yourself and your footy department.
“I’ve taken away a lot and a few friendships as well which is amazing.
“I wanted to come here open-minded and try and get as much as I could out of it.
“All in all they were really happy with how I trained.
“I had a few areas I needed to improve on after the draft which was my fitness and a bit of ball use.
“I got really good feedback around that.
“Unfortunately for me, Carlton had a few injuries to their talls, and the feedback they gave me was that they were trying to fill that position and unfortunately for me I wasn’t tall enough.”
The mid-season draft option
Introduced in 2019 and not run in 2020, the mid-season draft is still in its infancy.
Players drafted mid-season including John Noble and Will Snelling have broken into their respective sides, while Marlion Pickett is now a dual premiership player.
With the draft returning in 2021, both Maher and Bravo will be weighing up their options come mid-year.
“Potentially, the mid-year draft is something that I’ve thought about,” Maher said.
“I’d love to just play good footy, progress, and see where it takes me.
“At the end of the day I’d love to live that draft dream at the end of the year and get picked up there.
“Saying that, if I’m playing good footy and mid-year’s an option I’m going to be taking that with two hands.”
Part of Maher’s drive to be the best he can in this NAB League season comes from the disappointment he felt after failing to be picked up in the national draft.
“[Not being drafted] was definitely tough, it was probably the hardest thing I’ve had to do to be honest.
“Sitting out the draft and watching the end and hearing the ‘pass, pass’ definitely hurt.
“Saying that, I’ve got a really good support network around me.
“The Bushies took me in straight away and I just knew that I had to get a ball in my hand.
“Sulking wasn’t going to do anything and I just knew I needed to be out there, back on the track and really look forward.
“I’m in a really good headspace now, Carlton really helped me as well with a lot of confidence.”
Should Bravo attract attention in the mid-season draft, there’s only one side he wants to play for.
“Probably just the Hawks mainly,” he said.
“Being let go from there they did give me a bit of indication for mid-season if something might not be going right for their list then I could be a possibility.”
In addition to playing NAB League, Maher will be playing games with Carlton’s VFL side, while Bravo could potentially play for the Casey Demons.