The state leagues have often been a breeding ground for some of the AFL’s most prestigious talent.
From triple premiership Tiger Kane Lambert to three-time All Australian defender Tom Stewart, the VFL competition has unearthed and developed several high-profile and accomplished footballers.
The feeder clubs of Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs, the Casey Demons and Footscray, have played significant roles in the make-up and development of this year’s Grand Final sides.
In Saturday’s Grand Final, four (Bayley Fristch, Ben Brown, Michael Hibberd and Mitch Hannan) players will line-up who have been drafted directly from the state leagues, while there will be more who undertook lengthy apprenticeships at the level.
Former Footscray VFL captain Jordan Russell, who led the side to two premierships in 2014 and 2016, said it was no surprise to see two clubs with strong development programs facing off in this year’s Grand Final.
“If you’ve got a program that is surrounded by good people and showcasing their talent week in, week out then it creates a strong club,” he told aflplayers.com.au.
“Not only does it put pressure on the AFL guys to hold their spots and perform, but it’s also important from a cultural point of view… you’re working together to develop the skills of the players around you but also drive standards towards a winning culture.”
Russell led the ‘Scray’ to the 2014 flag, where Jason Johannisen and Tory Dickson would play important roles before then going on to star in the 62-year drought-breaking 2016 premiership.
Playing in that 2014 VFL side was also a 20-year-old Mitch Hannan, who was working towards a hopeful AFL career after failing to get drafted out of high school. Alongside Hannan was 19-year-old Will Hayes, now a member of the Dogs’ AFL list.
While Hayes won’t line-up for the Dogs in the Grand Final, his story is a positive testimonial for the VFL program.
After spending five years in the Bulldogs’ VFL program, following time with Sandringham’s under-18s and at school level with Melbourne Grammar, Hayes was drafted to the Dogs with pick No. 78 in the 2018 National Draft. Since debuting in 2019, Hayes has played 11 games (none in 2021).
Hayes performed admirably in the new-look VFL season this year before the cancellation due to COVID, averaging 29 disposals and seven marks.
Russell, who retired from the AFL at the end of 2013 (after 116 games with Carlton and nine with Collingwood), joined the Dogs’ program with a desire to continue playing football at the highest level, but also working towards a career as a development coach.
Although he is no longer with the Bulldogs, having taken the opportunity to join North Melbourne’s coaching ranks ahead of the 2021 season, Russell is proud of what the group has been able to achieve.
“They’ve come full circle since 2016 and even though I’m watching from the sidelines now, it’s fantastic to see,” he said.
“There have been a few bumps along the way but as a group they’ve worked really hard in the last couple of seasons to play their way back into finals.”
In part, that success has come from the significant development of the Dogs’ top-end draftees such as Bailey Smith, Cody Weightman and Aaron Naughton, and players such as Bailey Dale, Bailey Williams and Roarke Smith who have all matured into reliable senior footballers.
The latter three made up the Footscray’s half-back line in the 2016 VFL premiership.
While Russell always knew the potential the three players had to make it at AFL-level, the success of the Bulldogs’ senior team at that time put the pressure on second-tier players to perform strongly and push their case.
In the years since that VFL flag, Roarke Smith and Williams have experienced the highs and lows of professional football, with neither player managing more than 15 senior games in a single season.
Dale, on the other hand, has transformed from a high half-forward to an All Australian defender, a transition Russell is proud to have watched.
“For a long time, these guys have had to chip away at their craft and improve on certain aspects of their game,” he said.
“You see the frustrations and emotions, but I think it also strengthened them mentally and has allowed them to continue to build on their careers.
“The journey is more special when you’re given an opportunity after working so hard to earn it and I can only hope they finish the day with a medal around their necks.”
As with any coach, Russell didn’t like to have favourites, but he can’t help but have a soft spot for Smith.
When he reflects on the player he’s most proud of ahead of Saturday’s decider, it’s undoubtedly the 25-year-old from Sunbury.
Russell was an important figure in Smith’s development, with the two playing several years together in the backline.
Smith’s journey to the Grand Final has been one of remarkable determination and resilience, with the Sunbury product facing uncertainty every off-season, including twice being delisted (and being re-rookied) and two torn anterior cruciate ligament injuries in his knees.
“You just have to look at his journey to feel proud… there was so much uncertainty for him every year,” Russell said.
“He continually fronted up and worked hard to stay fit, get stronger, improve his weaknesses and capitalise on his strengths… even when things were tough, he did this week in, week out.”
“When you’re invested as much in someone as a person, as you are the player, you ride the highs and lows with them… I’ve felt that enormously with Roarke.”
On Saturday night, Russell will be watching the Grand Final in lockdown from Victoria and proudly cheering on those he worked closely with to develop.
As he reflects on his time with Footscray and the Bulldogs, and embarks on his new journey with North Melbourne, he is most proud to have invested his time in a development program that he still feels passionately about.
“(Prior to 2016) we had some success but when you really invest your time and energy and there are bumps, bruises and broken bones along the way, the culmination of that experience in a flag is truly special,” he said.