WHEN VFL players are given a shot at AFL level, the majority make the most of their opportunities.
In 2015, four players from the VFL — Mitch Brown (Essendon), Sam Collins (Fremantle), Rupert Wills (Collingwood) and Michael Hartley (Essendon) — were picked up during the national draft, while a few more were rookie-listed a few days later. Come the 2016 season, most showed they had what it takes at AFL level, both in the short-term and long-term.
And this year’s class of potential VFL recruits is no different, with an array of talented and hungry VFL stars keen to keep their AFL dreams alive.
One player could go as early as the second round, while a cousin of Cyril Rioli and a luckless contestant from The Recruit also headline the list of potential draftees.
So who could emerge as the next Adam Saad or Michael Hibberd?
Fox Footy profiles 15 players that could make the VFL-AFL transition via either the national or rookie drafts this month.
Luke Ryan (Coburg)
Coburg defender Luke Ryan is a strong chance to be taken early in the 2016 AFL national draft. Picture: Carmelo Bazzano
2016 VFL average numbers: Averaged 9.4 intercept possessions per match (No. 1 in the VFL), while he took 41 intercept marks from 10 games. His kicking efficiency of 86 per cent was the highest of anyone in the VFL to average over 15 disposals.
THE most likely — almost the biggest certainty, really — to find an AFL club next year via the VFL is Ryan, who couldn’t have produced a better 2016 campaign. So highly-rated was Ryan that he was invited straight to the national AFL draft combine, but didn’t test as he was recovering from a shoulder injury. After missing out in 2014 (his draft year), Ryan returned to local footy, where he regained the love of the game. And after making Coburg’s list ahead of the 2016 season, Ryan has made the most of every opportunity, named in the back pocket of the VFL team of the year and winning the Fothergill — Round Medal as the most promising young talent in the competition. He’s everything an AFL club wants in a modern-day defender: A great interceptor and overhead mark, a good ball-distributor, great decision-maker and, of course, a strong ability to defend. He could go as early as the second round.
Michael Gibbons (Williamstown)
2016 VFL average numbers: Averaged 29.5 disposals per match (No. 3 in the VFL) and 7.1 clearances (No. 5).
IF THERE was one VFL player who deserves a gig on an AFL list due to sheer persistence and consistency, it’d be Gibbons — officially the best VFL player of 2016. Gibbons won the JJ Liston Trophy — the VFL’s equivalent of the Brownlow Medal — in September following a stunning individual season, where he accumulated more disposals, uncontested possessions and inside 50s than any other VFL player, while also ranking No. 3 for total clearances and No. 4 for total contested possessions. In winning the Liston, he became the first player in the league’s history to win the big four individual VFL awards: The Liston, Norm Goss medal (best on ground in a VFL grand final), Frank Johnson medal (VFL’s best player in a state game) and a premiership medallion. Gibbons has now run out of individual awards to win and accolades to achieve. Except for one: A spot on an AFL list. And there is interest out there.
Hisham Kerbatieh (Northern Blues)
Position: Small forward
Hisham Kerbatieh kicked 21 goals for the Northern Blues in 2016. Picture: Tim Murdoch.
2016 VFL average numbers: Averaged 1.2 goals and 16.8 disposals per game. He was one of only 19 VFL players to average 16-plus disposals and one-plus goals.
AFTER two standout TAC Cup seasons with the Calder Cannons, Kerbatieh was unlucky not to be drafted, especially after averaging 20 disposals, 110 ranking points and 1.6 goals per game in 2015. But his 2016 year — and a very impressive year at that — with the Northern Blues in the VFL has paid dividends, with the 177cm small forward boosting his draft chances thanks to 21 goals from 18 games. With freakish natural talent and a knack for finding the goals, Kerbatieh would be a handy inclusion at any AFL club. Under the AFL’s new zoning system for indigenous and multicultural players, Kerbatieh could be chosen as a multicultural rookie by Essendon, should he miss out at this year’s drafts. Should the Bombers pass though, the other 17 clubs also have the option of listing Kerbatieh as a Category B rookie. Hopefully it's second time lucky for him.
Brody Mihocek (Port Melbourne)
Position: Key defender
2016 VFL average numbers: Averaged 8.5 intercept possessions per match (No. 2 in the VFL) and 3.4 intercept marks (No. 3). In one-on-one contests, he had 14 wins and 10 losses.
A PRODUCT of Burnie in Tasmania, Mihocek has developed into one of the best defenders in the VFL over recent years. After a couple of years at Werribee, the 192cm backman joined Port Melbourne this year and thrived, playing consistent footy and rating high for both intercept possessions and intercept marks. He also snuck forward occasionally to finish the year with 13 goals from 19 games. A strong one-on-one player with a fantastic set of hands and accurate ball distribution off half-back, Mihocek appears the perfect modern-day defender.
Ben Long (Footscray)
Position: Small forward
Ben Long kicked six goals in Footscray’s VFL preliminary final win. Picture: Wayne Ludbey
2016 VFL average numbers: Rated elite for average goals (1.9), as well as above average for assists (1.1) and score involvements (4.7).
THE cousin of Cyril Rioli and a 19-year-old that has one year on most other draftees, Long represented the NT Thunder (Division 1 national champs) and the Allies (Division 2 national champs) before linking up with Footscray late in the VFL season. But it was in Footscray’s preliminary final win over Collingwood where Long genuinely announced himself, booting a team-high six goals from just nine kicks. After playing a key role in the Bulldogs’ VFL grand final win over Casey, Long was then invited to the national AFL draft combine, finishing equal-third in the field kicking test. In other areas, Long recorded a 13.6 in the beep test, as well as times of 10.52 in the 3km time trial, 3.03 seconds in the 20m sprint and 25.90 seconds in the repeat sprint test. An agile forward with great goal sense at 185cm, Long could also provide an AFL club with excellent pressure inside forward 50.
Rowan Marshall (North Ballarat)
Position: Ruckman/Key defender
2016 VFL average numbers: Averaged 15.4 disposals — the second most of any ruckman in the VFL. He also averaged 11 hit-outs and five intercepts per match.
A 203cm big man from New Zealand with a rugby background, Marshall looms as one of the most versatile and unique VFL prospects ahead of November’s drafts. He missed out on selection in his draft year (2014), but has developed significantly in the VFL over the past two years. After starting the 2016 season as the Roosters’ No. 1 ruckman, Marshall moved into a utility-style role, playing predominantly down back and sneaking forward to kick the occasional goal. He was then invited to the Victorian state combine where he showed off his athleticism, finishing with 13.1 in the beep test and a time of 3.11 seconds in the 20m sprint. He’s competitive in the ruck and an interceptor down back — a unique combination but one that potentially appeals to AFL recruiters.
Ben Cavarra (Frankston)
Position: Small forward/Midfielder
Ben Cavarra represented Victoria in the SANFL v VFL state game. Picture: Tom Huntley
2016 VFL average numbers: Averaged 19 disposals, 9 contested possessions, 4 clearances and 1.3 goals.
THERE’S not much more Ben Cavarra can do to impress AFL recruiters. Ever since being overlooked in his draft year (2013) — a season that saw him become a TAC Cup premiership captain, Morrish medallist and Vic Metro representative — Cavarra has starred at VFL level, averaging 19 disposals and kicking 44 goals from 51 matches over the past three years. After finishing first in Frankston’s 2014 and 2015 best and fairest awards, he came second this year, while he was also named on a half-forward flank in the 2016 VFL team of the year. What he lacks in height he makes up for in work rate, second efforts, tenacity and football awareness. A quality footballer and person, Cavarra deserves a crack at the big time.
Robbie Fox (Coburg)
2016 VFL average numbers: Averaged 7.2 tackles (No. 7) in the VFL. He also had the fourth-highest contested possession rate of players to average 20-plus disposals.
A FIT, damaging outside runner from Tasmania that is also tough on the inside, Fox spent his first year at Coburg on a half-back flank before moving into the midfield for the 2016 season. It paid dividends for Fox, who was named on a wing in the 2016 VFL team of the year and put himself right into AFL draft calculations. Those hopes were boosted at the recent Victoria state combine where he was clearly the best-performed VFL player, finishing first in both the beep test (14.7) and 20m sprint (3.06 seconds). Coburg coach Peter German can see Fox playing as a rebounding defender at AFL level, with the potential to eventually develop into a midfielder.
Matt Hanson (Werribee)
Werribee's Matt Hanson was one of the top inside midfielders in the VFL in 2016. Picture: Kylie Else
2016 VFL average numbers: Ranked in the top 15 players for both contested possessions (12.7) and clearances (6.4), while he was also rated elite for average score assists (1.1) and goals (0.8).
AN INSIDE midfielder that can also hit the scoreboard, Hanson is in AFL club recruiters’ sights for the second consecutive season. Originally from South Launceston, the 187cm on-baller backed up his excellent 2015 campaign with a better one in 2016, named in the VFL team of the year for the second consecutive season while also being elevated into Werribee’s leadership group. With the ability to find the footy at stoppages as well as be damaging up forward, Hanson is considered a ready-to-go midfielder.
Jackson Sketcher (Frankston)
Jackson Sketcher starred for Frankston after finishing fourth in The Recruit. Picture: Mark Stewart
2016 VFL average numbers: Averaged 24 disposals, 11 contested possessions and six intercepts ranked No. 2 at Frankston in all three areas.
TO MANY viewers, Sketcher was clearly the best player on this year’s edition of The Recruit. Instead, he was the fourth-last contestant voted out, missing the top three by one place. But that setback didn’t deter Sketcher, who linked up with Frankston after being eliminated and thrived. He finished 2016 with a nomination from the Dolphins for the VFL team of the year and a spot in the VFL Young Guns game. Above all, he’s back in draft contention — six years after he first missed out, despite sharing the TAC Cup’s 2010 Morrish Medal with a Gippsland Power on-baller by the name of Dyson Heppell. Perhaps the most impressive aspect to Sketcher’s push back into draft calculations has been his improved fitness base, losing 13kg since The Recruit trial game nearly 12 months ago. Perhaps this is his year.
Tom Atkins (Geelong)
Position: Midfielder/Small forward
2016 VFL average numbers: Ranked third in the VFL for tackles (7.9), rated elite for average goals (0.8) and had a contested possession rate well above 50 per cent.
TOM Ruggles won the Geelong VFL best and fairest last year then was drafted months later. Does the same fate await the Cats’ 2016 VFL best and fairest winner in Atkins? Should he land at a club, it’ll be taking on a hard-edged, inside player who fears no one on the footy field. A relentless tackler, Atkins was also rewarded for his stellar 2016 season by being named in the forward pocket of the VFL Team of the Year. Don’t discount the boy from St Joseph’s.
Tom Stewart (Geelong)
Position: Key defender
2016 VFL average numbers: Averaged the second most disposals of any key defender (16.9). Also averaged 6.3 intercepts per match while winning 12 wins of his one-on-one contests and losing six.
UNDER the tutelage of Geelong great Matthew Scarlett — not a bad mentor, to say the least — Stewart’s game has grown significantly this season. The defender has developed a reputation to spoil just about anything and everything that comes remotely near him, but he also has an attacking chink in his armour. Stewart won flags with South Barwon in 2012 and 2013 before joining the Cats’ VFL side. An aggressive defender, he was named at centre half-back in the VFL Team of the Year and finished runner-up in Geelong’s VFL best and fairest. He was invited to the state combine, but didn’t test.
Oscar McInerney (Casey Scorpions)
Oscar McInerney kicked four goals from six games for Casey Scorpions in the VFL.
2016 VFL average numbers: Kicked 4 goals and averaged 8 disposals, 3.7 tackles and 16.8 hit-outs from 6 games.
HE’S raw and only recently established himself at VFL senior level, but McInerney is the type of prospect many AFL clubs crave: A tall, well-built ruckman that has athleticism and clean hands below his knees. After an excellent development league campaign — which he was rewarded for by winning the league best and fairest award — the 22-year-old broke into the senior Casey side and held his own, booting four goals from six games. McInerney was then invited to the Victorian state combine and performed well for a big man, finishing with 12.8 in the beep test and a time of 3.31 seconds in the 20m sprint. He’s come a long way since his junior days at Croydon and early senior days at Montrose in the Eastern Football League, but McInerney has already attracted interest from AFL clubs.
Sam McLachlan (Geelong)
Geelong’s Sam McLachlan tested at the Victorian state combine. Picture: David Crosling
2016 VFL average numbers: Rated above average for goals (0.6) and score involvements (5.0).
THE on-baller moved from Warrnambool earlier this year to chase his football dream in the blue and white hoops at Geelong. The 21-year-old big-bodied midfielder is as tough as they come, honing his skills in the Hampden League, where he won North Warrnambool’s best and fairest as a 19-year-old. Prior to that he played seniors for Colac as a 16-year-old. A good decision-maker and clean user of the ball, McLachlan works well in traffic and at 187cm is a sizeable inside midfielder. At the state combine, he finished second among VFL players in the beep test with a score of 13.3 and third in the 20m sprint with a time of 3.29 seconds. McLachlan’s natural goal sense adds to his credentials.
Declan Keilty (Casey Scorpions)
2016 VFL average numbers: Averaged 11 disposals, 4.5 intercepts and 1.6 intercept marks. He averaged 3.5 tackles — rated elite for a key defender with 3.5 — and won 48 per cent of his defensive one-on-one contests — ranked third of the top 50 for contests.
WITH the ability to swing both forward and back, Keilty looms as a salivating prospect at the draft table. At 194cm, the 21-year-old apprentice electrician impressed at the Casey Scorpions throughout the season, catching the eye of recruiters. He was invited to the state combine, but didn’t test. Keilty kicked two goals in Casey’s preliminary final win to help them progress through to the VFL grand final. While Casey couldn’t go all the way, Keilty’s outstanding VFL season was validated when he was named in the VFL Team of the Year.