1,283 days after being drafted to St Kilda with pick No. 35 in the 2017 National Draft, Oscar Clavarino made his long-awaited debut in the red, white and black. The 22-year-old spoke to aflplayers.com.au about what the moment meant and his journey to playing senior football.
Kavisha Di Pietro: Congratulations on making your debut on Saturday. What were the emotions like when you found out that you’d be playing?
Oscar Clavarino: I was quite surprised to start with. I didn’t really expect it but once it sunk in and I realised that it was my name that was called out, it was a pretty exciting feeling. There was a mixture of emotions: joy, happiness and also a bit of relief as well after waiting three and a half years. There was a bit going on!
Unfortunately, in Victoria we’re in lockdown so there was no crowd meaning your family and friends couldn’t be there either. What was that experience like?
It was disappointing that Mum, Dad and the rest of my family weren’t able to be there but the Saints were great about it and got on the front foot. The club set up a Zoom call so they could see the jumper presentation in the rooms beforehand and then spent their lockdown watching the game.
In terms of the game itself, I’ve actually said this to a couple of people but having no crowd felt normal to me. Every time I’ve played at Marvel Stadium whether that was in under-18s or for VFL there hasn’t really been a crowd, so I suppose compared to the other boys who are used to the fans it didn’t make too much difference to me.
To play at the next level was another experience in itself. It’s much quicker, and more skillful compared to the VFL.
You mentioned a couple of things there but how did you find that step up?
One of the most noticeable things was the difference in body shapes and sizes compared to the VFL. I think for a lot of people they’re playing state league as part of their development and they’re a bit younger, so I didn’t feel that as much. In the AFL, everyone is big-bodied and carries their weight so differently. I couldn’t just push them around, they were doing it to me instead!
You had to wait more than 1,200 days to debut. What was it like biding your time in the VFL and working on getting that opportunity at senior level?
I knew I needed those first couple of years in the VFL. Everyone wants to play early days but being realistic about my body type – I was tall and skinny – I knew that probably wasn’t going to happen. It got pretty trying at times, but I was willing to chip away at my craft and work under Aaron Hamill (St Kilda’s former VFL coach and current backline coach). Last year was a little bit different with COVID-19 and the suspension of the VFL season. We were up in the hubs playing modified matches, but it was lucky that I was still able to play against guys on an AFL list. It was still a chance to develop even though it was a bit different. I wanted to get myself to a point where I could put my hand up to play.
In 2019 and 2020 you had a few injury setbacks with hamstring injuries and a syndesmosis injury. How challenging were they to overcome as you neared closer to AFL selection?
It was very challenging. Both times I had gotten through strong pre-seasons and then felt like I was just tripping up at the last hurdle. It was an incredibly frustrating experience. It took a couple of weeks to get my head around it after those injuries happening, but everyone in the club was supportive and helped me get back into the routine of rehab and still being part of the group. You don’t have time to dwell on those challenges because there are other things to be focusing on and I think that was probably a good thing in hindsight.
You were transferred to the Rookie list last year. What work did you do over the off-season and pre-season to put yourself in the best position ahead of 2021?
I was given a few things to work on in my exit meeting, but I also didn’t know what my future was going to look like. My position at the Saints was going to be dependent on the trade period so I went away with uncertainty about my future, but just wanted to work on things like getting my body right, a bit of footwork stuff and confidence in my marking. I went away and just focused on my love for the game and doing everything I could over that first six weeks of the off-season to try to get myself on the list and then once I did secure that spot and really charge towards this year.
You mentioned Aaron Hamill before. Are there any other mentors or people that you’ve worked closely with at the club who have really helped you in your development or have been really good sounding boards?
Nathan Brown was an important mentor for me in my first couple of seasons. He was nearing the end of his career at that point and had been through a number of experiences from winning a premiership to injuries so he had great wisdom both on and off-the-field.
Dylan Roberton was another one. He had some significant health challenges but has now come onboard as a development coach at the Saints. I’ve worked pretty closely with him and have been able to gain some knowledge from what he’s seen throughout his career as a defender.
What about the work of the strength and conditioning coach, Steve Forcone? I saw that he was the one that actually announced that you were debuting and from what I hear, you’ve done a lot of work with him…
Steve has been huge for me. As I said before, I came in as a pretty skinny guy and needed to spend a fair bit of time in the gym (laughs). He took me under his wing and we’ve worked closely together since I got to the club. We’ve been fortunate to become close friends away from the club as well. For him to present my jumper to me was really special. He’s seen where I’ve started and where I’m at now so he’s been there the whole journey with me.
What a great moment. It was a really touching video to watch. Now that you’ve hit the important debut milestone, what’s next for you?
I’m taking it one week at a time, but I think setting goals is also important. For me, it’s to develop some consistency. I’ve been able to take a fair bit out of fame one and now it’s about trying to implement that at training and working on those areas for improvement.
I want to work towards being able to keep putting my hand up for selection each week. Getting a game of football is never a guarantee but I’m willing to keep trying to consistently chip away at what I’m needing to improve on, developing my strengths, and giving myself the best chance.