In recent seasons, Western Bulldogs supporters have become accustomed to seeing their top draft selections taste AFL action almost immediately. Tom Liberatore chimed in for 19 possessions in the opening round of 2011, Clay Smith made an instant impression with four goals to commence the following season, while last year yielded debuts for Jake Stringer, Jack Macrae and Nathan Hrovat before the season had reached its halfway mark.
If early indications are a reliable guide however, the trend might be bucked in 2014 by the most recent highly-touted addition to the Bulldogs’ arsenal, No. 4 draft pick Marcus Bontempelli.
Speaking at Monday’s AFL Players Association Induction Camp, the rangy midfielder made a concerted effort to portray himself as a medium-term proposition rather than a ready-made product.
“I guess there’s personal ambitions but it’s probably a bit early even for that … managing expectations is important for now,” said the clear bolter in last year’s draft class.
At 192cm, Bontempelli stands at the extreme end of the midfielder height range, even accounting for the latest footballing fashion, which has larger midfielders very much in vogue following Fremantle’s success with David Mundy, Michael Barlow and Nathan Fyfe in the engine room last season.
Along with the Bulldogs’ glut of shorter ball-winning inside midfielders it was the, ‘this kid could be anything factor’ which contributed to hauling Bontempelli up the draft pecking order, but firstly the Northern Knights graduate must craft his body to ensure it can withstand the rigors of senior football.
“I’m weighing about 88kg, so I’ve put on about four or five kilos in the past six weeks, which is good, but I don’t want to go too big so I’m too heavy to run.” Striking this balance looms as a pivotal factor in determining whether Bontempelli forges a career more like Joel Corey than Cale Morton, to name a couple of midfielders also selected early and of a similar size to the Bulldog.
The Corey comparison is especially pertinent. The recently retired Cat has been acquired by the Bulldogs as a Development Coach, and the 276-game veteran has taken Bontempelli under his wing.
“Joel’s really good because he’s the prototypical player I’m looking to develop into. I speak to him a lot about the game and go through Powerpoints with him.”
Like it is for most draftees, the learning curve has been a steep one for Bontempelli, but noticeably measured and thoughtful for an 18-year old, he appears well equipped to digest the nuances of Brendan McCartney’s game plan.
“I think I’ve caught on pretty quickly, they cater for a lot of different learning styles which is really good. We’ve done some physical stuff, some video review stuff, and the drills themselves incorporate the game plan so it’s pretty good.”
Bontempelli paints a picture of the Whitten Oval as a welcoming environment for fresh talent, perhaps no shock given the practice senior players have had in opening their arms to the new breed of Bulldog in recent seasons.
“Dale Morris is my mentor, he’s been good, someone you can talk to immediately around the club who you can joke with and feel at home around, which was really good, because you walk into a club and think how are you going to start?”
“Also being given number 4 means my locker is right near some of the oldest blokes in the team, and some of the future leaders. Mitch Wallis is definitely a bloke who’s looked after me, always asking me how I’m going, Bob Murphy’s another one, they just ask questions and actively listen which is important.”
The Induction Camp brought all newly-listed AFL players to Etihad Stadium for one and a half days of education on the range of issues that accompany life in professional sport, including welfare concerns, financial management and preparation for a life after football. Even for a player only just drafted, and considered to be in the top handful of the nation’s elite youngsters, Bontempelli is acutely aware of the need to be prudent in planning for the future. The sessions’ major messages look to have resonated with him.
“There’s a direction to go through when you finish up footy. The average lifespan [of an AFL player] is only six years.”
“[We’ve learnt] things to do to save money, and to start getting together our education side of things.
This article originally appeared on The Back Page Lead