John Worsfold grabbed his mobile phone on Thursday and flicked through a text message to one of his former West Coast boys, Matt Priddis.
“I sent him a brief message congratulating him on the 200 games and letting him know how proud I am to have been part of his journey,’’ said Worsfold, who coached Priddis in his first 151 games.
“And at some point I’ll give him a call as well, but I thought that first I’d let him get through what’s going to be a huge game for him and the team.’’
The Priddis journey is heartening for Worsfold, who is now the coach of an Essendon squad crammed with footballers looking to climb through an AFL window suddenly left ajar before them.
Back in 2005, in the days after Worsfold coached West Coast to a four-point Grand Final loss against Sydney, the coach was part of a list-management meeting that decided to crack open the same window for Priddis, at the time a 20-year-old premiership midfielder at Subiaco.
“When we brought him in as a rookie, we didn’t really expect that he would crack his way into the team” – John Worsfold
“When we were looking at our rookie list at the end of 2005 I remember clearly sitting down with our recruiting staff and they had a list of names for the last available spot,’’ Worsfold said.
“They said ‘this kid here, everyone knows how good he is at WAFL level, but there are massive doubts about whether he can make the transition to AFL level. But he’s such a good kid, such a quality person that we really recommend looking at taking him on’.
“We thought that was a good enough reason to give him that chance. So we put him on, not necessarily because we thought he was going to make a real impression in the AFL, but because we thought he would add a lot of value to our list with his character.
“So even when we brought him in as a rookie, we didn’t really expect that he would crack his way into the team.’’
Priddis, who said he was “shattered’’ at having been overlooked in the three previous national drafts, duly joined the Eagles via pick 31 in the rookie draft.
“The question mark on him and the reason he probably hadn’t been drafted was his speed,’’ Worsfold said.
“That was always a concern for us picking him, but he compensated for that with how great he was in his areas of strength. And then as you get to see someone up close, get to know their attitude, see their strengths first-hand within your own system, we thought, ‘yeah, this kid does deserve an opportunity’ and those opportunities slowly began to open up for him.’’
The first opportunity only came in Round 10, when he was a late inclusion to play the Cats at Geelong, gathering 19 disposals on debut as the Eagles came back from a 54-point deficit during the third quarter to win by 10 (pictured above).
But he would only manage one more AFL match (pictured above against Port) in what would be a premiership season for the Eagles. In that 2006 season he played in another WAFL flag with Subiaco and picked up the Sandover Medal along the way.
“We had a pretty good midfield, loaded up with Kerr, Cousins, Judd, Fletcher, Braun and Embley, so it was always going to be tough for Pridda to get in there,’’ Worsfold said, “but he was always among the best players in the WAFL and his work ethic and desire to improve was outstanding. It was a credit to him that he hung in there and waited to seize his opportunity.
“So really him getting a good crack at it was around positions opening up in the team. In 2007 we had quite a few injury problems: Juddy was struggling with OP (osteitis pubis), Kerr missed a fair chunk of footy with a broken thumb and Cousins had his issues, so all of those things conspired to open up opportunities for Pridda.
“And he was ready to go. It wasn’t as if he had to find form or build up his strength, it just stepping up to the next level, and he impacted on the AFL straight away.’’
Priddis switched from the No.45 to the No.11 jumper in 2007 and played every match that season, averaging 24 disposals as the Eagles got knocked out in the second week of the finals.
He has gradually improved ever since, winning the Eagles best-and-fairest in 2013, the Brownlow Medal in 2014 and All-Australian selection last year.
“His hands are as clean as anyone’s I’ve seen” – jOHN wORSFOLD
Fremantle coach Ross Lyon, who will coach against Priddis in his 200th, paid tribute to the Eagles champion the lead-up to the Western Derby: “To come off a rookie list — as Denis Pagan says: `It doesn’t build character, it eliminates the weak’.”
Eagles coach Adam Simpson said simply: “I’m sure every club has their warriors. But he’s ours.”
Worsfold, who a spent more than a decade at West Coast as a player and more than a decade as coach, believes Priddis measures up with the Eagles’ finest players.
“When you look at the West Coast midfield over the journey – Judd, Cousins, Kerr and then back to guys like Matera, Kemp, Turley and these guys – I think Pridda sits comfortably in that company and then it’s just a matter of personal preference in what you like in a footballer and the way they play in terms of how you rank them,’’ Worsfold said.
“His ball-winning ability and his strength at a contest are exceptional, and around stoppages his hands are as clean as anyone’s I’ve seen.
“His ability to hold his ground when others are trying to push him out of position is enormous, and his fitness and work ethic is brilliant.
“At every stoppage for West Coast you can be sure that he’ll be front and square and creating an opportunity for one of the flashier guys.
“Pridda is not necessarily the sort of player you’re going to see on the highlights reel, but a lot of his teammates are on the highlights reel because of what he does.’’
An edited list if selections in the 2006 AFL rookie draft:
Pick 1 (Carl) Ryan Jackson, 9 AFL games
2 (Coll) Alan Toovey, 151
3 (Haw) Luke McEntee, 0
4 (Ess) Lachlan McKinnon, 0
5 (Rich) Angus Graham, 48
6 (Bris) Jason Roe, 50
7 (Frem) Paul Duffield, 171
8 (WB) Tom Davidson, 0
9 (Melb) Jace Bode, 9
10 (NM) Ed Lower 42
16 (Syd) Jonathan Simpkin 38 (for Geel, Haw, Ess)
20 (Ess) Heath Hocking, 124
31 (WC) Matthew Priddis, 199
34 (Haw) Stephen Gilham, 114 (for Haw, GWS)
49 (Bris) Cheynee Stiller, 100
52 (Port) Tom Logan, 114
55 (Haw) Ben McGlynn, 153 (for Haw, Syd)
58 (Syd) Kieren Jack, 187
62 (Syd) Sam Rowe, 53 (for Carl)