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‘We knew we had a player on our hands’

Essendon’s Andrew McGrath received the Round 4 Rising Star nomination following his 28 disposals against the Crows. Jeremy Barnard coached McGrath at the Sandringham Dragons in the TAC Cup and gives an insight into the player and person McGrath was at under-18 level.

Andrew was always a quiet and unassuming kid and it took him a while in his bottom-age year to come out of his shell.

We were having an average season during his first year with the Dragons, so we wanted to have a look at a few players.

There was a game against the Eastern Ranges right at the end of the season and he and Tim Taranto played their first game together. Andrew played on Blake Hardwick who has since been drafted by Hawthorn and we weren’t quite sure how he would go because Blake was in his final season and at the time he was quite a successful goal-kicker.

After that game, however, we knew we had a player on our hands because of the ability he showed to play one-on-one and not only beat his opponent, but win the ball as well.

There was something special for us to work with heading into his second year.

The first year is all about finding your feet and working into the Dragons’ system, but we certainly saw some attributes there that we really liked. We always thought he was good enough to play AFL, but we had to knock off a few sharp edges.

He was always willing to do the work and seek improvement which is a great attribute for a young TAC Cup player to have.

He had a reasonably strong pre-season leading up to his top-age year — he stuck to his work and he proved to be a quick learner which impressed the coaching group.

It was easy for me to tell after the first couple of games that he was beginning to come out of his shell and we started to see a real improvement in him. All of the hard work he had been doing was starting to come into fruition.

He’s an elite lateral mover in space, and his ability to make strong decisions with ball in hand stands out. He also had the rare ability to play both tall and small — so he could play on guys who were 6’1’, and also guys who were shorter and just as quick.

In regard to coaching, we didn’t have to push him do the work because he was always willing. In terms of strategy, the Dragons play a real system type of style as part of our program, so our ability to coach and design that helped him, but he had no problems developing what we wanted him to develop.

I can remember vividly in his last season with us when we realised that we had a really high draft pick here. He came back from Brighton Grammar at about Round 7 to play with us after they had a bye, and we were a bit thin in the midfield.

We played Gippsland Power on the day and they’re always well-known for trying to beat up on the Sandringham Dragons — it must be a culture thing.

They’d go out of their way to get stuck into us but our boys coped with it quite easily and that was the game where we took him away from half-back and inserted him into the midfield and we saw some real talent on display.

He finished with around 44 possessions, 19 tackles and 10 or 11 clearances. We thought that was the day where we didn’t just have a reliable defender, we had a guy who could play multiple roles.

Adrian Dodoro and his crew were pretty quiet when it came to releasing information. What I can say is that we saw him at the start of the season as a 40+ pick because he had some deficiencies with his kicking, but you always see developing top-age players improve there so by the end we saw him as a top-10 pick.

To put that into context, a few of our other high picks in recent years — Josh Kelly, Christian Salem and Nathan Freeman — always looked poised to be in the top 10 in 2013, whereas Andrew developed after a great finals series.

It was only about two hours before he was drafted that we knew he’d go No.1.

I wouldn’t say that I’m surprised at how seamlessly he has fitted into life at Essendon, but you’re never 100 percent sure because it’s such a big jump.

Sometimes you don’t even know how they’ll settle into their first two years, let alone their first four games. To give a bit of context, we have our boys for six contact hours a week, and when they go to play for their schools, we have just two contact hours a week.

From two hours a week to 40 hours is a big step, and some thrive and others struggle. Andrew was always going to be one that thrived. His thirst for knowledge is really high, and I know quite a few of the coaches at Essendon personally and they have a great system down there.

It’s been pleasing to see how assured he is in his first four games. We’re really proud of him.