SIX players made their way onto AFL lists last year, and now Geelong Falcons Talent Manager Mick Turner is excited about the increased depth at his disposal this year. After winning the premiership in 2017, the Falcons had some top-end talent in 2018, led by eventual number one draft selection Sam Walsh, but struggled for consistency throughout the year as their young depth was tested. Turner said while their best stacked up against most sides, they were better placed in 2019 with the increased experience of those now top-agers.
“In 2017 we won the premiership; last season was a bit of a hard year for us,” he said. “We didn’t have a lot of depth in our squad and our good players were playing for the AFL Academy or Vic Country or at private schools, we just lacked that depth to cover it so I think at the end of the season we finished tenth but we won our Wild Card game and got to the second week of finals, which we were reasonably happy with. “When we got our best side together, our top 23 and Sam Walsh, Ned McHenry; and all those boys were in we had a good side, but during the year we just didn’t have enough depth to be super competitive all the time. “I think the year 2019, from what I’ve seen so far, we’re going to have a lot more depth and I think we’ll go alright.”
The Falcons were one of the top performing teams at the recent NAB League Fitness Testing Day at Maribyrnong College hosted by Rookie Me. They were ranked number one in the yo-yo test, which Turner said boded well for the season showing they had both the speed and endurance to run out games. While they were tested by Greater Western Victoria (GWV) Rebels in the recent practice match, Turner said there were some standout performers from the match.
“There’s Charlie Sprague, he’s a 19-year-old, he was a chance to get drafted last year but he broke his finger badly so missed most of the season, so he played really well,” he said. “There’s another boy called Harry Stubbings who was captain of Scotch College football last year, he was at Oakleigh with bad feet last year, and had to have both his feet operated on so he’s come down to Geelong. He’s at Deakin Uni, and he looked good yesterday (on the weekend), as did Cooper Stephens who is obviously a highly rated player and Jesse Clark, they’re both in the AFL Academy, so they all play well yesterday.”
In 2019, Stephens is the number one midfielder, having taken over the role left by Walsh, and with McHenry and Oscar Brownless also out of the midfield and now plying their trade at AFL level, Stephens will look to continue how he finished off 2018.
“Yeah he’ll stand up, he stood up for us last year, and at the end of the year we wanted to play Ned McHenry and Sam Walsh on the wing to give him a bit more space to do their damage with and keep the basic play inside mid as a 17 year old,” Turner said. “He did a really good job for us so he’s bigger and he’s stronger and he’s now playing against boys his own age so all the AFL clubs come around this time of year and interview so we’ve obviously got him ranked highly in the draft this year, but in saying that you’ve still got to get through the year and play well for Vic Country and that as well as play well for us. “He’s a very well prepared player, he’s very much in the mold of a James Worpel, who was captain and also Sam Walsh, so he’s very similar, he just goes about his business but we expect him to have a big year, hopefully injury free.”
As well as their top-end talents, Geelong has a number of bottom-agers who impressed in the Under 16s last year and look to develop them throughout the year ahead of their top-age year in 2020.
“We’ve got a heap of really good 17 year olds, so if we’re not dangerous this year we will be very dangerous next year,” Turner said. “Tanner Bruhn, he’s got a bit of an injury at the moment so he probably won’t play until midway through the year. “Charlie Lazzaro and Henry Walsh – Sam’s brother – there’s also Oliver Henry, who’s Jack Henry’s brother who plays for Geelong, there’s Will Kilpatrick – he’s Glenn Kilpatrick’s son, he played for Geelong and Essendon, Noah Gribble, we’ve got a heap of really good – and there’s a couple injured at the moment, as I said Bruhn’s injured and Sam Witherden, so we’ve got a really good crop of 17-year-olds coming through as well.”
Despite results on paper being better in 2017, the Falcons had more players drafted in 2018. Turner said this exemplified the nature of the development side of the TAC Cup, now NAB League. While winning was terrific, it was more an added bonus to having a high number of players drafted into the AFL.
“Our main thing is development, if you gave me the choice between – lets put a realistic figure on it maybe – five, six, seven, eight players drafted or winning a premiership, I’d take the draft every time,” Turner said. “We’re here to develop the players, we won the premiership in 2017 and got five drafted, last year we finished tenth and we did win the Wild Card and get to the second round of the finals, and we got six drafted, so it’s just that balance. “Obviously in every game – you know, it’s a competitive game and the boys have got to learn to compete, but you’ve got to teach them to win and lose and hope you win more than you lose and there’s no doubt that you can make the finals and the team goes really well, it enhances the draft prospects of players, so it’s a bit of a balancing act between developing the players and winning games because if you’re a very successful team there’s no doubt you get more players drafted.”
It has been well known in the AFL industry that Geelong is regarded as one of the best “football factories” in the country, something that Turner and the Falcons embrace with pride. Turner said it was important to maintain consistency, and more important than anything else, to get the most out of each and every player on the list for them to reach their ultimate potential.
“All the statistics say we’re the number one club in Australia for getting players drafted, so we’re very consistent,” Turner said. “I think we run at about 5.5 per year which is a lot, and we’ve had eight AFL captains at one stage and we’ve produced a lot of elite AFL talent. “I think the boys in the club understand that culture is already there, they understand what the club is about, what we’re here to do for them, and I say to them all the time, they need to reach their full potential and if you’re Luke Hodge, that’s playing AFL, if you’re someone else that might be VFL, and for a fair percentage of them it will be going back to their local clubs and being really good local players within the Geelong region. “So you can only do the best you can, and everyone’s got different abilities and to get drafted these days you have to be a very elite player, you’ve got to be realistic about it.”
Turner said the club always strived to focus on the Falcons’ key message of resilience. At all levels of Australian Rules football, challenges arise whether through injury or selection setbacks, or even within matches, and the Falcons are keen for the players to show resilience on and off the field.
“We want to work on our trademarks, so we like to be resilient – we want to teach the boys to be very resilient,” Turner said. “When you’ve got a setback or a challenge you’ve got to work your way through it, that’s just a life skill that people need to have so just resilience is our biggest thing.”
Geelong Falcons kick off their season on Sunday against Bendigo Pioneers at Central Reserve, Colac.