Former Calder Cannons talent manager Ian Kyte can recall standing in the bathrooms of Highgate Reserve – the Cannons’ training base at Craigieburn in Melbourne’s north – teaching a young Noah Balta how to put in his new contact lenses.
Balta was a promising draft prospect at 194cm tall, but according to Kyte he had trouble seeing the ball.
Whether it was blurry or Balta saw two of them coming at him and it was starting to affect his marking ability and, consequently, the way he went about his football.
It might seem a bit of a stretch but Kyte believes once Balta knew how to put in his contact lenses and look after them his game improved.
“Immediately he started to see the ball better and it was really piecing together that missing bit of his game,” Kyte told aflplayers.com.au ahead of Richmond’s preliminary final clash with Port Adelaide.
The defender, who grew up in St Albans (north-west of Melbourne), was a rare commodity in the AFL world.
A ‘prospect’ player, Balta was on the radar of AFL clubs early on but was quiet, introverted and seemed to lack confidence in his ability.
Kyte, who was involved in the under-18 talent pathway in Victoria for more than 15 years, sat down with Balta and his Dad, Ivan, during the season to encourage him to push aside his concerns about getting picked up.
“I sat him down and said, ‘Noah, you’ve to get out of your head if you’re going to be drafted or not because yes, you are’,” Kyte said.
“He needed to focus on playing footy because the pressure was getting to him but players like Noah – of that size and athleticism – don’t come around often.”
After all, Balta had played one of the greatest games, more notably his third quarter, Kyte had seen in his time working in football and it was enough to put him firmly on the radar of club recruiters.
As a bottom-ager against the Bendigo Pioneers in Swan Hill, Balta made his name known to AFL recruiters, setting the game alight with six marks and three goals.
“Noah’s third quarter was as good as I’ve seen,” Kyte said.
“He turned that game around and that was when people started to notice him.”
At under-18 level Balta had played in various positions across the ground. Where he would line up each weekend was dictated for the most part by what elements of Balta’s game club recruiters wanted to see.
He’d shown promise as a forward and as a ruck, but it wasn’t until the 2017 National Championships where Balta made a name for himself as a defender.
“Noah had shown some traits that he would be able to play at full-back and was given a few jobs during the year, but that carnival he really showed what he was capable of as a player,” Kyte said.
Underlying Balta’s talent was always a level of self-doubt – something the Cannons continued to work on during his time in their pathway program.
“We needed Noah to know that he was a special player and if he was going to keep putting the work in, then the results would come,” Kyte said.
Part of that development was working closely with former Carlton captain Lance Whitnall, who spent time with Balta working on his forward and defensive craft.
The other element was a ‘buddy’ system where Calder Cannons players were paired up with each other to offer support, guidance and feedback during the year.
Balta was paired with Jake Firebrace, a lightly built Indigenous boy not taller than 175cm, and the complete opposite of Balta.
After an abysmal performance against the Greater Western Victoria Rebels (GWV Rebels) in their Anzac Day clash in 2017, the Cannons brought the group together to share what they’d learned from their partner in that game.
It wasn’t about highlighting the circumstances around the loss, but rather what they could work on in the next part of the season.
Kyte recalls Firebrace being open in sharing what he had learned from Balta both on and off-the-field – something expected of the group – but then, for what felt like the first time to Kyte, Balta piped up saying that he’d actually felt the relationship had been one-sided and he hadn’t contributed the way that he should have.
“Noah explained to the group that Jake had taught him about his Indigenous culture, heritage, what he wanted to achieve in football and life whereas Noah had been quite reserved,” Kyte explained.
“I think for Noah that was a bit of a turning point to start finding his voice and improving.
“That pairing helped him realise his athletic ability, but also that he needed to know how to use it to his full advantage.”
Unlike a number of top-25 prospects, Balta was no walk-up start to Richmond’s best-22.
Following the 2017 Draft, the Tigers were coming off their drought-breaking premiership and had one of the stingiest defences in the AFL made up of the likes of Alex Rance, Dylan Grimes, David Astbury and Nick Vlastuin.
Balta spent the early stages of his first pre-season training as a forward, but was hampered by general soreness and an inability to break into Richmond’s side.
Despite the challenges of not playing in his first season, Kyte believes it set Balta up for a level of success beyond year one.
“Joining Richmond brought about a work ethic in Noah where he knew that he wasn’t going to be one of those players to walk into the club and play every game, but rather he was going to have to work for it,” he said.
Kyte likened Balta joining Richmond to an 18-year-old getting their driver’s license – you never really know what you’re doing, despite the 120 hours you complete as a learner, until you are on the road by yourself.
Since then, Balta has played 13 and 15 games, respectively, with his most impressive season coming this year.
Balta hasn’t missed a beat since seizing his opportunity to return to the senior side in Round 5 after Astbury went down with a knee injury, culminating in his inaugural selection in the AFLPA’s 22Under22 side.
On Friday night, Balta will be the sole player to take to the field for Richmond that hasn’t won a flag, but it won’t affect him.
As he does most weeks, Kyte will be watching on eagerly ready to support those players who have joined the AFL under his tutelage at the Cannons.
“Noah has really shown that next stage of his development this year and there are things he does on the field where it gives you that tingle through your entire body,” he said.
“Those are the things that are fantastic to see.”