The 2020 AFL Draft was, by general consensus, considered to be heavily compromised.
With 13 academy and two father/son selections across both the national and rookie drafts, pick order was shifting faster than the ladder after round one.
In addition to that, Victorian under 18s didn’t play any footy in 2020, while draft hopefuls across the rest of Australia played either shortened or delayed seasons.
With the NAB League shifting to an under 19s competition in 2021, more young players are flocking to the VFL.
This is in addition to their already existing games with NAB League clubs.
The Oakleigh Chargers’ Nick Daicos and the Murray Bushrangers’ Zavier Maher are two such players.
Daicos has already participated in a practice game with Collingwood’s VFL side, while Maher is set to join Carlton’s reserves after training on with the club for 10 weeks.
Speaking at the NAB League Boys launch on Tuesday, Daicos has already benefitted greatly from his VFL opportunities.
“I was very grateful to go into the club, and very grateful to them to have me for six weeks,” he said.
“Learnt a lot from playing VFL, it was a big step up. I took a few things from the [practice] game that I can work on so it was a really good experience for me.
“I learnt a lot in my time, and I hope it’s better prepared me for this year.”
Daicos credits his newfound teammates at the Pies for helping him to adjust to the professional environment.
“Scott Pendlebury’s been really good for me,” he said.
“He’s a very experienced and special player and he has been for a long time. Even just watching him from afar, it’s evident how much of a professional he is, and why he plays at such a high level and why he’s done it for so long.
“I think that’s something that I noted in my time there.
“[My teammates] were really good for me and they allow me to show my strengths, and also teach a lot about the game without being too harsh.
“They were really understanding that it was a big step up for me, and they were really helpful.”
A careful balancing act
Murray Bushranger Zavier Maher will similarly be lining up for Carlton’s VFL side in 2021.
With the NAB League Boys season set to start on March 27 and the VFL season beginning on April 16, young players like Maher and Daicos have a year of planning and time management ahead of them.
Maher is optimistic that the flexibility the clubs have offered him will allow him to play for both.
“Both the Bushies and Carlton are really good, and they’re pretty flexible,” he said.
“I’ll look to play the first three games with the Bushies, and then move over to the VFL.
“I’ll make a decision mid-year if I want to stay in the VFL, if that’s working well and recruiters would rather see me there or I can potentially go back home to Shepparton and continue my time at the Bushies.”
Daicos hasn’t planned as far ahead, but is still confident in his clubs helping him to manage his time.
“It’s something that I haven’t put too much thought into, just really excited to get out there,” he said.
“I’m taking it with the approach that I’ll take it one week at a time and focus on the game at hand.
“As the year evolves, hopefully I can have a bit more clarity on how my year will look.”
The raising of the NAB League to under 19s will have ongoing effects.
More young players in Victoria are now getting the opportunity to test their mettle against bigger bodies in the VFL.
Geelong Falcons coach Paul Corrigan is of the firm belief this won’t impact the draft age past this year.
“When you look at the draft age, 18 is still a good age for the draft,” he told The Inner Sanctum.
“It’s a bit of a unique year, what we’ve had with COVID. It’s a great way to give the kids that missed out last year, especially in the top age, a chance to progress again this year and develop again and give them the chance to get drafted.
“Going forward, if there is the case for 19-year-olds if it stays as an under 19s competition then that’s something we’ll work with to give those opportunities.
“You always see kids of different ages maturing differently, and we’ll see that this year too.
“There’ll be boys that come out that haven’t played last year and their body shape has changed, they’ve probably matured even more without playing football.
“Those 19-year-olds will be in good stead to hopefully put their names forward and get drafted at the end of the year as well.”