Ryan Clarke had been growing with each game during the 2015 TAC Cup season.
After injury forced him to miss the majority of 2014, the then 18-year-old had built on a solid pre-season and was improving on each performance leading into the Eastern Ranges Round 17 clash with the Murray Bushrangers in Wangaratta.
Clarke was already gaining the attention of recruiters but Eastern coach Darren Bewick remembers a particular passage of play that exemplified his draft prospects.
“Ryan dropped back in defence and intercepted an opposition play, gave off a handball, got it back and kicked it into the middle, followed up and got involved again before getting inside 50 and taking a mark 30 metres out all in about 20 or 30 seconds,” Bewick tells Aflplayers.com.au.
“He went back and slotted the goal which just summed up his improvement and his ability to gut run and get on the end of the play.
“That game was one of his outstanding ones and he has every opportunity to take that to the top level in the future.”
That Round 17 clash was one of Clarke’s best. He netted 35 touches and three goals against a midfield that boasted Melbourne’s future No.4 draft pick, Clayton Oliver.
But rewind to the start of the 2015 season and, besides a few simple yet vital traits, Clarke wasn’t a star junior by any means.
“As a bottom ager, he wasn’t a standout or anything like that and was just one of many boys who was trying to make a name for himself in terms of making a list at TAC Cup level,” Bewick says.
“It wasn’t until his top age pre-season where his athleticism in terms of his ability to run in time trials and really push himself to get the most out of every session when we started to take a little bit more notice.
“That flowed into practice matches and from then on we thought we may have a player here. The good thing about Ryan was he didn’t leave any stone unturned in terms of trying to be the best he could and that was able to be transferred into games.”
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Bewick believes Clarke’s hardworking nature can be applied to any level of competition and has slotted seamlessly into the club’s VFL side earlier in the year and now into North Melbourne team for his first three AFL appearances, culminating in the Round 18 Rising Star nomination against Collingwood.
But Bewick believes there may also be another Clarke on the AFL scene sometime in the not-to-distant future, with brother Dylan heavily embedded in the Eastern Ranges program this season.
“Ryan’s brother is the captain of the Eastern Ranges now and they’re similar players in that they’re very hardworking. Ryan had a great motivation and a steely nature about wanting to get better and that has rubbed off on his younger brother too.
“Dylan is a little bit different in that he has elite hands in stoppage situations and can go back and play as a defender on a dangerous forward, whereas Ryan was more offensive but Dylan has attributes that will allow him to play at the highest level as well.
“Like Ryan was, Dylan is averaging 30 touches a game at TAC Cup level and his carnival was outstanding. He has leadership qualities that are a bit stronger and his ability to read the game and the situation and understand what needs to happen next are first-class.”
From charging down the ground at Wangaratta to the wings at Etihad Stadium, the AFL world better get accustomed to seeing a Clarke or two giving their all on the elite stage.