Australia’s state leagues have often been a breeding ground for some of the best football talent across the country.
In recent seasons they have produced successful AFL players such as West Coast’s Tim Kelly, Collingwood’s Brody Mihocek and Richmond’s Kane Lambert.
In the 2018 AFL draft and signing period, the VFL’s Williamstown Football Club produced four draftees – Ben Cavarra (Western Bulldogs), Lachie Schultz (Fremantle), Brett Bewley (Fremantle) and Michael Gibbons (Carlton).
That number expands to five if you include former North Melbourne rookie Tom Wilkinson, who spent time with the Seagulls’ development program.
Showcasing VFL-listed talent and preparing them to make the jump to the elite level is the end product. The Seagulls want to ensure, during their recruiting process, they have not just talented players but people with good character as well.
Seagulls coach Andrew Collins, who won three premierships with Hawthorn during his 212-game playing career, said it was one of the first things he looked at when he took over the reins ahead of the 2014 season.
“The first thing we wanted to do was put in really good role models at the club from coaches, staff and senior players,” Collins told aflplayers.com.au.
“We recruited and built a club with that purpose in mind and it’s quite significant because it allowed guys like Lambert, Gibbons, Bewley, Schultz, Cavarra and later Mitch Hibberd (Essendon) to be picked up,” he said.
Current Fremantle forward Lachie Schultz in action for Williamstown during the 2016 VFL season.
Williamstown do not follow a traditional pre-season model when preparing their players like most other VFL clubs. They opt not to train before Christmas, trusting their players to be in the right condition come January for a shortened pre-season, and focus on building a family club where they have weekly dinners and events to increase connection off-field.
“Williamstown can get pretty cold and windy so it’s important that we make the environment and culture of our footy club a good place,” Collins said.
Collins, a teacher by trade, said one of the most important aspects for the club in identifying good role models was focussing on who had ‘good character’, too.
It was one of the things that attracted Collins so strongly to Lambert, and an intangible quality he believes caught the eye of Richmond when they drafted him with pick No. 46 in the 2015 Rookie Draft.
Collins can recall speaking to the Richmond recruiter’s the day before the draft, telling them that Lambert would make the Tigers a better place by just walking through the doors of Punt Road
“It’s a great thing when we talk about the pathways; mature players really appreciate the opportunity and they will work hard to be successful,” he said.
“There’s a real gratitude and a real appreciation of the opportunity that the AFL club has provided that person.”
Richmond dual premiership player Kane Lambert spent one year at Williamstown during an illustrious VFL career before being drafted.
Part of the challenge, and joy, for Collins when working with players who miss out on being drafted is solidifying their strengths and improving their weaknesses ahead of the upcoming season.
Collins says it doesn’t matter whether you’re on an AFL list or playing at local level,you should always be wanting to improve as a player and as a person.
As a coach, Collins sits down with all of his players individually and helps them to identify the aspects of themselves as footballers and individuals that they want to improve on.
“As long as we keep moving forward and in a positive direction, then that’s a really good thing,” he said.
Lambert, who has won two premierships with Richmond, is one of Collins’ favourite examples of a player who exhibits resilience.
The Tigers’ midfielder was overlooked in the National, Pre-season and Rookie drafts following his under-18 year, before opting to take a year out of the game.
He continued to work on what recruiters described as his “slender frame” and focussed on ways he could improve his performance to negate the issues recruiters felt could prevent him from being drafted..
During an impressive VFL career with the formerly known Northern Bullants and Williamstown, Lambert put himself firmly back on the radar of recruiters, finally earning his place on an AFL list before turning 24.
Of course, Collins knows that not every player is going to reach the AFL and many will go on to have decorated VFL careers. But for him, as long as the players are looking to improve and reaching the highest level of football that they can, then he has done his job as a coach.
Michael Gibbons won J J Liston Trophies, awarded to the best player in the VFL, before being recruited by Carlton in the 2019 Supplemental Selection Period (SSP).
By his own admission, Collins is finding himself becoming more emotional at he gets older and when he thinks about the players that he’s seen grow under his tenure at the Seagulls it fills him with a great sense of pride.
But, it doesn’t just stem from the players, it’s the coaching staff around him, club administration and volunteers that give their all week in, week out.
Under Collins, Williamstown had won a Grand Final in 2015 and came devastatingly close to winning another one in 2019 only to go down to Richmond by three points.
For Collins thought, it’s not all about the win-loss record.
“When people talk about Williamstown, they often focus on our on-field success but that is not our only priority,” Collins said.
“We’re focussing on how we can be a better place, produce better people and become better footballers because with that we know success will come, in whatever form.”
When Collins is undertaking one of his well-known pep talks to his team he brings in a ship’s anchor rope with him as a prop
He’s used to getting puzzled looks from the new players, but it is part of his spiel about how the club is only as successful as the way they work together.
“A rope is made up of thousands and thousands of single fibres and singularly they’re really weak, but together a piece of rope can tow a ship and that’s what we stand for as a club and what we want to be,” he explained.
“If we can get great role models, coaches, staff and players then we can be really strong.
“We have great conversations, we play good footy, we’re always working on being the best group we can be and we remind ourselves that success if the outcome of development, not the other way around.”
With the effects of COVID-19 on the world cascading into the football industry, the VFL competition will look significantly different in 2021 following a merger with the NEAFL.
Collins is hopeful that the state leagues will continue to be nurtured and remain a breeding ground for top-end talent.
“We have these tremendous state leagues and they must be valued for what they are,” he said.
“If we’re giving young footballers the opportunity to challenge themselves against the best of their state – both men and women – then we’re seeing the best of the competitive side of human nature.”
What has occurred as a result of COVID-19 will continue to affect all levels of football and funding likely for years to come, but Collins hopes that the standard of football remains.
“There is naturally a bit of fear around but I really hope that we have a group of footballers Australia-wide that continue to strive to play at the elite level,” he said.
“And for club recruiters, don’t be scared about recruiting from the VFL, even sight-unseen this season, because you won’t be disappointed with what they bring to your club.”