A VFL encounter with one of Aussie rules’ most famous family names taught Eastern Ranges captain Josh Clarke a whole lot more about football.
The over-ager was overlooked in the 2020 AFL Draft despite being considered one of the NAB League’s best rebounding defenders, re-joining the Ranges as the competition moved to an under 19s model.
It was a move that gave players who missed out last year the opportunity to go back and hone their craft further, and that’s exactly what it’s done for Clarke.
He only managed three games for the Ranges this year, but impressed in every single one.
A best on ground performance against the Western Jets in June put the 19-year-old back in the minds of recruiters. 38 disposals (31 being kicks), seven marks, six inside 50s and three rebound 50s announced that Clarke hadn’t given up on his draft dream yet.
In timing that could purely be described as fate, an opportunity opened up the following weekend to make his VFL debut.
With border restrictions impacting the state league competition which now included sides from New South Wales and Queensland, the travelling Sydney Swans only had their extended squad of AFL-listed players to choose from for their VFL match, with the VFL-only players forced to stay behind.
The Swans took the chance to give an opportunity to Victoria’s best youngsters in their match against Frankston.
Clarke lined up in the Swans backline, finishing the match with eight disposals, four marks and two tackles. It was an experience that he’s taking with him into draft night.
He would then line up the following week with Collingwood in a thrilling five point win over Richmond.
“It was a really good opportunity from both clubs, to step up a bit and play high level footy,” Clarke told Yarra Valley FM’s The Sport.
“It was an unreal experience. Both a bit different, not knowing anyone at Sydney and just knowing a few people that got drafted in my year at Collingwood. It was a really good opportunity, and I enjoyed it a lot.”Embed from Getty Images
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The match with the Pies left a lasting impression on the youngster, lining up against first-year Tiger Maurice Rioli Jr.
Filled with confidence after making a steady transition into playing senior football, the match was a bit of a reality check for the dynamic outside runner.
“I was on Rioli, which was a little bit scary to be honest,” Clarke laughed.
“I understand now that you can’t tackle them [the Riolis], they slip right out of there. It was tough.”
Rioli landed 10 tackles of his own to go along with 17 disposals, in what was a tough day at the office for Clarke and his fellow defenders.
Despite the relative towelling up that he received in his match-up, it gave him a look into how AFL and VFL sides organise their backlines and the tactics that go into top level football.
“The Collingwood game, I played half-back,” Clarke explained.
“[For] a lot of the senior boys there it was all about structure, and how they wanted to move the footy out of the D50. Learned a fair bit about that, and some body craft one-on-one.”
While Clarke hasn’t had the opportunity to give recruiters a lot of footage to work with in 2021, he’ll be hoping a particularly impressive 2019 campaign and taking his chances when he got them will add up.
He averaged 16.1 disposals, 3.1 inside 50s and 2.3 rebound 50s in his bottom-age season, and was unlucky to not be considered in the rookie draft by any side looking for a half-back flanker or wing prospect.
His return to the Ranges for a final game of this season saw him boast a remarkable stat line of 28 disposals, 11 marks, 11 inside 50s and two rebound 50s.
Clarke can utilise both his pace and his elite skills by foot to drive the ball forward with speed and efficiency to his forwards. He’s grown in strides as the club captain, and could be a late to rookie consideration for any club looking to add to its outside stocks.
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