St Kilda fans would be well aware of Hunter Clark’s foot skills by now.
With 10 AFL games under his belt, the Saints’ seventh pick in the 2017 draft has been a shining light in a challenging year for the club.
And Clark has shone brightly, culminating in a Rising Star nomination for his Round 13 efforts against the Suns, where his kicking was on display.
Clark is equally adept on both sides of his body but this isn’t anything knew to Dandenong Stingrays Talent manager Mark Wheeler.
“He would go into games and only kick on his opposite foot,” Wheeler told AFLPlayers.com.au.
“He hurt his right leg as a 15-year-old so he learnt how to kick on his opposite foot. I think his dad originally told me that through growing and copping a couple of knocks to his right leg, he’d challenge himself to get his skills to a new level as he progressed through the ranks.”
But Clark’s skills were on the Stingrays’ radar well before, where, as a 14-year-old he attended a ‘skills day’ designed to give 10 players from each local club a taste of what may be coming their way.
Clark was the most talented player on the training track that day and it made the Dandenong coaches mouths water.
But Clark’s best performances were yet to come and Wheeler describes a couple of games late in the Padua College product’s time as a underage player.
“The one that stands out for me is when he was wearing the Vic Country jumper. They were playing Vic Metro at Punt Road and Hunter hurt himself but continued to play.
“He was cutting them up on the outside with his skills. Some of the country’s best 40-odd junior players were on the ground that day and Hunter looked a level above.
“He stood out in the finals series later in the year, too, especially in the last two matches. As the games get bigger, you always look to your best players and he always stood up when it mattered most.”
In the Stingrays’ Preliminary Final loss to the Falcons in 2017, Clark was his side’s best player on the day with 25 touches and a goal.
And while he spent the majority of his career in the junior ranks using his outside abilities at half-back, Clark doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty.
“He can be aggressive at the footy, too,” Wheeler added.
“Sometimes you want to keep the Ferrari on the outside and the Dodge on the inside because you don’t want a bashed up Ferrari but Hunter doesn’t mind getting bashed up.
“When Lachie Whitfield came through the system, recruiters wanted us to throw him through the midfield all the time but I kept saying ‘you can draft him but I’m looking after the Ferrari’ but Hunter just wanted to get in there.”
There wasn’t much the teenager needed to do in his early years to learn the game. According to Wheeler, his footy IQ was sorted for their standard but, clearly, he has room to grow.
While he wasn’t always the most vocal out on the track or during meetings, Clark was a director of traffic on the field and when he spoke, teammates listened. Wheeler believes it won’t be long until we see that on the big stage.
Off the field, Clark is a relaxed 19-year-old, who’s already identified the need to switch off from the sport when required.
“He’s laid-back, he’s that surfer-style guy from safety Beach,” Wheeler said.
“We talk about the bottom end as the ‘Sleepy Hollow’ because they’re laid-back down there, it’s just their personality. He’s quite happy sitting with his mates in Safety Beach overlooking the water listening to some music but he’s really competitive and dislikes losing.
“Once the game finishes, he knows how to switch off and chill with his mates but once he crosses that line, he has a fair competitive streak in him. He reminds me a lot of Nathan Jones. I started when Nathan finished in our system and I can see a little bit of Nathan in him.
“He’s happy to have his football but he’s also happy to have separation from it with some time in the water with his mates.”
With St Kilda diehards crying out for some positivity in a season that’s steadily becoming a darker one, Clark’s clean skills and smart ball use stands out. And Wheeler believes the Saints have found a good one on the field and off it.
“He’s one of the guys you just love. He was easy to coach and bring through the program. You always knew he’d be doing the things you asked him to do, the only issue was that he wanted to do too much.
“He wanted to train four nights a week to get better so we had to tell him at times to back off and give to give his body a rest. He’s a great young man with a great personality. He always wanted to make it to the next level, I’m glad he achieved that.”