Matt Rendell was assessing the latest Champion Data document when one name kept popping up — a name that lead to one of the best draft steals in recent memory.
The document ranked the country’s best juniors by position and category ahead of the 2011 AFL National Draft and Rendell couldn’t help but notice the name that was continually catching his eye.
Then Adelaide’s recruiting manager, Rendell had no choice but to review the footage of a particular player who ranked in the top five for a small defender in each category.
The player had featured in all five games for South Australia in the national championships that year but had flown under everyone’s radar.
The player was Rory Laird.
“If you weren’t looking for him, you wouldn’t have noticed him, to tell you the truth,” Rendell told AFLPlayers.com.au.
“He was solid but small and you were watching too many other players who were bigger, more athletic and in positions you need more from a draft point of view. Honestly, I didn’t notice him in the champs.”
Re-watching Laird’s highlights, Rendell fell in love with the West Adelaide product with the best part being the likelihood of another club showing interest was slim.
Laird had progressed through the Westies junior ranks over the years and even broke through for seven reserves games in 2011, where he impressed his teammates with aerial prowess and abilities one-on-one.
Former Carlton forward, Brad Fisher, then the Centre of Excellence Performance Manager at West Adelaide while playing for the club, remembers a young Laird putting his head down, bum up and not saying a lot.
Fisher liked what he saw of the small defender, with the shy teenager reminding him of an AFL legend he played alongside at the Blues.
“There were times where he’d break away from a stoppage, have some burst of speed or do something that would remind me of Chris Judd,” Fisher said.
“Clearly, he wasn’t Chris Judd but he’d have these snippets during training or in a game where I’d think ‘gee that was Judd-like’.”
Rendell was already convinced they found one and was prepared to take Laird late in the national draft if required but was confident no other club had noticed the Kenilworth product.
Laird’s contest work was his strength but his height, or lack thereof — Rendell reckons Laird being listed as 177cm is overs — and the fact he wasn’t overly attacking.
“He was super defensively — never got a heap of the ball but it was hard to get a kick on him, which is a good starting point for a small defender,” Rendell added.
“He was diligent with his opponent and was defense oriented — he wasn’t running off and getting 30 like he does now but he knew how to shut out a player.
“If you’re going to play as a small back, a lot of the small forwards can mark the ball, so you better be good in the air. You need to be able to compete in the air and he was like a cat on the ground, too.”
As the draft neared, Rendell had to push a case for Laird — his team weren’t overly impressed with the dogged right-footer.
The Crows went into the 2011 draft with picks 27, 41, 46 and 64 and had their sights on Lachie Neale, Cam Ellis-Yolmen and Laird, hoping to snatch them later in the event or in the rookie draft.
Rendell and his team had a long wait between picks 46 (Nick Joyce) and 64 and during that time Fremantle swooped on Neale — another of Rendell’s favourites — with pick 58.
Knowing other clubs were into Ellis-Yolmen, the Crows jumped on the rangy midfielder with 64, leaving Laird to the rookie draft, where the Crows held the sixth selection.
Adelaide thought they were in the clear to get their hands on Laird but the teenager trained with Essendon in the two weeks between the national and rookie drafts. Someone had discovered what the Crows had hoped they could keep secret.
Smarting from missing out on Neale two weeks earlier, Rendell put his foot down and refused to budge on selecting his latest discovery as early as possible.
So the Crows took Laird with their first pick in the rookie draft and it was lucky they did with the Bombers certainties to take him not long after, according to Adelaide’s National Recruiting Manager, Hamish Ogilvie.
“Matty loved Lairdy and we had a guy called Chris Smelt working for us who loved him as well so we probably should’ve listened to those blokes a bit more and picked Rory earlier but fortunately we got him in the rookie draft,” Ogilvie said.
“Once he trained with Essendon, we were petrified they’d take him so we jumped with our first pick in the rookie. They were going to pick him — I’ve spoken to Adrian Dodoro since and they were going to take him.
“To get one that good that late is an absolute bargain. They say if you’re good enough, you’re big enough so we shouldn’t have marked him as hard or have him as low because he plays taller than he is.”
Immediately, the Crows knew they found themselves a good one — but no one could’ve predicted how good Laird would be.
He stepped almost straight into the seniors at West Adelaide the next year, playing 18 consecutive games and showing the SANFL that bigger things were to come from him.
Not progress straight from under-18s into senior state-level footy and make an impact similar to Laird and Ryan Ferguson, then West Adelaide skipper, now Richmond Development coach, remembers his on-field persona being similar to his off field.
“He has that unflappable nature, where he’s very driven and his worth ethic was as good as anyone’s,” Ferguson said. “He had the ability just to get on with people and he was genuine in his dealings with others.
“That’s the way he plays his footy as well — he was unflappable on the field and played the situation.”
Rendell remembers Laird being quiet, very quiet, “He was like Humphrey,” but underneath his silent exterior was a steely determination. Rendell got the sense that Laird was a player you didn’t have to worry about — he’d be fine, do the work and turn up to play each weekend.
In 2012, West Adelaide made their way to a the SANFL Grand Final but with a player coming back from injury, Laird was surprisingly dropped. Understandably, the young defender was devastated and Adelaide couldn’t believe it. Some believe he was so self-sufficient and wasn’t in the faces of his coaches trying to improve that it may have gone against him in the lead-up – dropping Laird might have been the easier call to make.
He was hardly the Westies’ worst performer across the year and Ferguson admitted he was as stiff as anyone to miss out but there were players who had been through a long journey with coach Andy Collins who deserved a chance.
Despite this, Laird took the omission as well as he could, which only enhanced his character. In a low-scoring affair, West Adelaide lost the game by 49 points.
The next season, the young defender got his start with the Crows in Round 4 and never looked back, leaving a legacy after his time in The Bloods’ jumper.
“I have a vivid visual of Lairdy reading the ball in the air, nudging his opponent under the ball, jumping up and taking the ball at it’s highest point and winning the ball back,” Ferguson added.
“I don’t know why I have that visual — maybe it’s because I’m a tall defender and I value that side of the game myself.
“I just remember him, as a little guy, taking marks and out bodying opponents, they’re the things that standout most for me with Lairdy wearing a Westies jumper.”
Laird could well be the most underrated player in the game and you could mount a case that the 24-year-old should have three All-Australian blazers instead of one.
He’s averaging nearly 33 disposals per game in 2018 and could easily claim Adelaide’s best and fairest award at season’s end. The Crows will need him to fire from half-back if they’re a chance to beat the finals bound Port Adelaide in Showdown 45.
This is a far cry from the player Rendell rookie drafted back in 2011. “I hoped he’d be a rock solid, reliable defender like Nick Smith at Sydney.”
“Reliable, comes to play each week, stops his opponent but not expecting too much offensively, nothing over 15 possessions, and be able to put a line through his opponent’s name each week. Simple as that.”
Now with 117 AFL games under his belt and getting better, Laird is a favourite among the Crows fraternity, despite his simple style of play not be hugely attractive to the wider footy public.
“I don’t think he’d bring one extra fan through the gate,” Rendell said. “But I tell you what, his coaches and teammates love him, I know that.”