Down but not out – Draft prospects struck down by long-term injuries

ON top of disruptions and an overall lack of complete opportunity for many budding draft prospects over the last two years, the ever-present misfortune of injuries has also lingered. Some said tongue-in-cheek last year that if there was any time to suffer a long-term injury, especially as a Victorian, 2020 would have been it.

That was an exact reality for Elijah Hollands, who tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left knee during training last February. His bottom-age performances had put him in good stead, but clubs were made to consider the impacts of his injury before calling his name. Considered a top five candidate, he was snapped up quickly by Gold Coast at pick seven.

Luckily for Hollands and recruiters alike, there has been precedent for such occurrences. Looking at the last handful of intakes, the likes of Max King (pick four, 2018) and Brodie Kemp (pick 17, 2019) were taken within the first round despite their own ACL tears. Conversely to Hollands, both enjoyed at least some top-age footy, but all three played zero AFL games in their first years.

In 2015 there were fears surrounding the long-term impacts of Jy Simpkin‘s badly broken leg. A year later, Jaidyn Stephenson‘s top 10 hopes were put up in the air as clubs pondered the risk of his genetic heart disorder. Both were touted as genuinely elite talents, and ended up rightly finding homes with picks 12 and six respectively. At AFL level, both have shown that kind of potential too.

Arguably the best case study for this kind of analysis will be the class of 2019. Cooper Stephens, Kemp, and Mitch Georgiades were taken consecutively within the first round, despite all suffering long-term injuries as top-agers. Stephens played just two full NAB League games before a broken leg derailed his year, but he recovered in time to impress at the National Draft Combine.

Kemp’s ACL tear was an untimely one as it came towards the end of his draft year, meaning he would have to wait until 2021 to make his top flight debut. A versatile prospect with top 10 talent, he ended up a steal at pick 17 for Carlton. Arguably the biggest surprise of the trio was Georgiades, who Port pounced on despite three surgeries on his quad which kept him out for an entire year. The rest is history.

Further down the order, Adelaide utility Josh Worrell (pick 28) slipped in the rankings during his top-age season and a shoulder reconstruction may have further hindered his first round chances. Conversely, North Melbourne was not deterred by Flynn Perez‘s ACL tear, and the Western Bulldogs took in Riley Garcia despite suffering the same injury late in the year while representing WA.

While some like Garcia have continues to prove unlucky with injuries upon entering the AFL system, many others like Simpkin, King, and Georgiades have already rewarded their clubs with their play. It will be interesting to see how Kaine Baldwin fares, as he was once considered a top 20 candidate but entered Essendon’s ranks after back-to-back ACL tears. There were also examples in the mid-season draft of clubs selecting players despite them carrying existing injuries at the time.

Those kinds of stories should give renewed hope to some of this year’s brightest prospects. Many of them have endured the frustration of injury setbacks on top of pandemic-related interruptions to their seasons, compounding the stress of wondering whether they have done enough to impress.

Being heavily managed will hardly matter for a player like Nick Daicos, but the roaring success of Ben Hobbs‘ return is one example of how exposure at high levels is the best way to impress. The likes of Tyler Sonsie, Josh Sinn, and Campbell Chesser would all have benefitted from one final run at the top 10, while a player like Cooper Murley has previously shown high potential, but has lost so much of his season due to repeat injuries.

Then there are examples of players like Lachlan Carrigan, who returned for 19th-year campaigns after being overlooked in 2020, but have not been able to build on their promise after being struck down for the entire 2021 season. Despite the hard knocks, if there is anything previous years have taught us, it’s that talent will be found if it is there. It may not matter as much at the top end, at least in the long run, but should not dismay those who have to fight a little extra on their way back from the sideline.

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