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Over to you, rising stars

Cast your mind back five years and try to recall the game’s most promising young player.

Rhys Palmer, a fresh-faced Docker, was unanimously voted the AFL’s Rising Star. Injuries and a change of club have meant Palmer’s career hasn’t exactly gone to script, but the careers of his contemporaries are worth noting.

Hawthorn’s Cyril Rioli and Richmond’s Trent Cotchin were voted runner-up and third-placed respectively in the 2008 Rising Star Award, while the likes of Kieren Jack, Kurt Tippett and Jack Riewoldt were nominated but didn’t receive a single vote between them.

It’s impossible not to get excited by Jaeger O’Meara – a deserving winner of this year’s Rising Star Award – but it’s important to remember some stars rise quicker than others. caught up with some of the game’s most promising young players at the Rising Star Award earlier this month.

Aaron Mullett

Looking around the room, Mullett didn’t see too many familiar faces.

“This is my third year, so I didn’t really grow up playing against them too much in the TAC Cups and that, but obviously I played on a lot of these players during the year,” he said.

“It’s good to catch up with them and talk away from the footy field.”

The 21-year old played just nine games in his first two seasons, but was promoted from the rookie list and didn’t miss once in 2013. He has well and truly cemented a spot in the back six of Brad Scott’s young outfit; his run and carry from defensive 50 has become a staple of North Melbourne’s attacking brand of footy.

Averaging 18 possessions and more than three rebound 50s per game, the raking left footer also kicked 14 goals for the season.  By year’s end, North Melbourne supporters had just one question about Mullett. Why wasn’t he there earlier?

His sharp skills and footy nous were being wasted on the club’s rookie list in 2011 and 2012, but the 184cm Roo admits he wasn’t consistent enough early in his career.

“I’d start well and then drift out of the game,” Mullett reflected.

“Being more consistent and defensive, and running both ways, was my focus. I went back to the VFL and did that and Brad Scott gave me an opportunity this year and I’ve taken it.”

While Scott has helped shape Mullett’s career, the dashing half-back flanker says his brother Ryan has been just as significant.

“He’s been a massive influence on my career. He comes to most games and we always talk footy flat-out,” said Mullett.

“As a junior he taught me the right way to eat – he’s a personal trainer – and little things like that… I always look to him for advice and even now, he’d be one of the most professional players at local footy that I know.

Ryan Mullett is the captain of Vermont in the Eastern Football League and regarded as one of the best suburban footballers in Australia.

“I still learn a lot from him now, even though I’m playing a higher level than him.”

George Horlin-Smith

The footy public was hardly flabbergasted when Geelong’s Joel Selwood was voted the game’s best captain at the AFL Players’ MVP Awards last week, but some might have been surprised by his acceptance speech. Asked who the next captain of the club might be, Selwood mentioned George Horlin-Smith – a young Cat Selwood believes will “do the club proud” in years to come.

It’s high praise from one of the game’s most respected players, but for those who’ve followed Horlin-Smith it makes a lot of sense. His 23-disposal performance against Sydney in Round 4 gave a great insight into what’s ahead. He finished that match with 15 contested possessions, seven clearances, four inside 50s and a goal.

Like many of his teammates, he’s also a proven big-game player. He was judged best on ground in Geelong’s VFL Grand Final win in 2012, and looks set to play a pivotal role in the side’s push for back-to-back flags this week. He had 26 possessions – 16 contested – in the Cats’ 82-point Preliminary Final win on the weekend.

While the tough midfielder has spent plenty of time at VFL level this season, it’d be unfair not to recognise his successes at senior level based on the limited amount of opportunities he’s had. Has there ever been a tougher midfield to break into? The likes of Joel Selwood, Jimmy Bartel, James Kelly and Steve Johnson aren’t likely to give up their spots anytime soon.

“There are a lot of guys in contention to play finals footy for the senior team,” Horlin-Smith said.

“There’s a whole group of guys that are right on the cusp, which is healthy for the club and competition for spots is only going to drive the training standards.”

While the 20-year-old who broke into the senior Geelong side for eight games in 2013 is a fierce competitor on the field, he’s softly-spoken and intelligent off it. His mature and professional mindset reaches beyond AFL. His football journey may be just beginning, but he’s determined to be well-prepared for life when his AFL career finishes.

“I’m not sure if it’s going to be involved with football or if it’s in an administrative capacity – or whether it’s just in the business world, but I’m certainly keeping an eye on the future,” he said.

“When I do leave football, whether that be in a couple of years or ten years’ time, [I want to be prepared to] transfer into life after footy comfortably.”

Zac Williams

It’s becoming very difficult to keep track of Greater Western Sydney’s young talent. While most sides are lucky to blood a handful of promising youngsters in any given season, the Giants seem to unveil a new young star every other weekend.

18-year-old Zac Williams is the latest Giant to make an impact.

“I got the Rising Star nomination in Round 19,” Williams recalled.

“It was a massive honour to get it. It’s a big privilege to be put in the calibre of some of the players who are here today.”

It’s been a whirlwind season for the 180cm midfielder. After starting the year on the rookie list, Williams broke into the senior side to play 11 games for the season. Having played the final six matches of the year, he’s gearing up for a big 2014. Unfortunately, he’ll do so without one of his greatest mentors, retiring Coach Kevin Sheedy.

“As soon as I got to the club he’s been my number one supporter,” Williams said.

“He’s the person who gave me my first game against the Gold Coast in Round 6. I owe pretty much everything to him and he’s probably been the reason why I’ve had a big year this year.”

Having grown up in Narrandera – a small country town in New South Wales – Williams wasn’t always sure AFL was for him.

“I was more [interested in] rugby when I was a bit younger, he said.

“Then I got into basketball… I started to get serious [about footy] a bit later in life.”

Williams seemed to become more comfortable at AFL level as the season wore on, averaging more than 17 disposals and four tackles per game in his last six matches, and can’t wait for 2014.

“I’m just hoping to have a really good pre-season – for it not to be interrupted with injury or getting sick or anything like that,” he said.

He’s excited “just to get through pre-season and have another good year next year.”