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Western Perspective: The reality of Round 1 selection

Will Schofield has joined the team in 2018. The Eagles defender will shine a light on the football world through his own unique lens. In the first installment, Schofield takes a look at what goes into being picked for Round 1, the anticipation and build-up of selection, and what the reality of it all is.

It’s a Monday morning in the middle of October and, every year of my AFL career, I wake up in New York, France or Bali.

Being an AFL player has given me some of life’s greatest opportunities and a terrific lifestyle to go along with it. We push our bodies to the limit during the year and are rewarded soundly by a lengthy off-season break. It’s a chance to get away from the day-to-day grind. It’s a chance to explore. It’s a chance to experience something new.

We are no different to everyone else, travel is a big part of our lives and we make the most of the opportunity when we are given it.

But on waking up that Monday morning in mid-October in a new city or paradise lost, comes that thought, that feeling. To some it’s a good feeling, to others it’s painful. It’s the first day of off-season training.

Everyone knows that feeling I’m talking about, the one you get when you are on holidays, but you have that assignment due, that contract to be closed, that client’s problem to be fixed. You know it, it’s a ‘do I really have to’ feeling. But hey, you are on holidays, those tasks can wait. Jump in the pool, have a beer and relax.

We are still six months away from Round 1, but for most players the journey starts today. And unfortunately, this first run on the program isn’t one you can put on hold for another beer. If you’ve exercised even at just a casual frequency, you know the feeling most players have on this mid-October Monday.

You’re on holidays but you get out of bed, you put your runners on and you go for your first run. It hasn’t been that long since your last run, maybe two or three weeks so you keep the run at an average pace for a short period of time.

The entire run you feel like Donald Trump when trying to run one of the world’s largest economies via Twitter in 150 characters or less — absolutely useless. It’s like you have forgotten how to breathe and running is a foreign activity to you.

You jog around on footpaths you’ve never seen for what seems an eternity. You collapse in a heap back at your front door. You feel like you’ve run a marathon, but it’s been 20 minutes. You have another run in two days, you struggle to comprehend how you’ll make it.

From experience, it gets better, but on that very first run you wonder how you will ever be fit again. That is the feeling some AFL players have, well I think it is, or maybe it’s just me. That run, that feeling, although hard, is an important memory. It signals the first of many hours of hard work — all in preparation for one thing: Round 1.

Round 1 is a big deal within the entire football landscape. Keep in mind, I’m writing this from the perspective of a 12-year, one-club player. I can’t remember a time in my career that I have had a spot penciled in for the first game of the season.

In fact I doubt I’ve had a spot penciled in many rounds of any year I’ve ever played. Out of the 11 Round 1 selections I have endured throughout my career, I have been selected just four times.

At every club there are players that are a walk-up start in their senior team. Sometimes they are the most talented on the list, but more often than not they work harder than everyone else to be a consistent performer for their team. These players are your household names, they play their role for the team, they might have a bad quarter but rarely a bad game, they play for a long time in the AFL.

By no fluke, these players are first picked, they are the best at what they do. But, for every one of these walk-up starters, there is a player fighting for selection.

If we look at it realistically, of the 45 players on an AFL list, I would say 15 are guarantees and first picked. The remaining seven spots in a 22-man side are fought for by anywhere up to 20 players in a playing squad with good depth. I’m pretty sure 20 doesn’t go into seven, so that creates pressure.

Someone wise once told me that pressure is only what you make of it. For some, this pressure to make the Round 1 team is great. It makes them train harder, focus more and brings the very best out in them. For others, this pressure, this obsession, brings out the worst. I’ve seen players crumble under it.

At the conclusion of Grand Final day, there is exactly 173 days before the first game of the following season. That’s a long time between drinks for everyone. Yes, the wait is a long one for players, but what about everyone else?

For the media — content must be produced, and no games means digging deeper. For six months, the media must find content that builds a bridge to the real thing. Articles (like this one), blogs, social content developed over the off-season is really just smoke and mirrors biding time for the season to begin. I don’t know about you, but there are only so many times I can watch a classic match replay on Fox Footy in December.

For the fans — in Perth, the hype of the season opener has been more heightened than usual. Not only are we feeling the normal build-up of Round 1 in a two-team town, but in case you haven’t heard, we have a new stadium.

Anticipation for the first bounce hasn’t carried as much weight as this since Round 1, 1987, when the Eagles hosted Richmond.

For coaches — Round 1 selection must take an eternity to come around. It’s their job to push the importance of pre-season training. It’s a time for them to build new game plans for the coming year and assess the strength of their playing squad.

But, just like everyone else, they are really just waiting for the real stuff to start. Come Round 1, most teams have a healthy list to choose from and hard decisions must be made. Coaches must balance rewarding players for a good pre-season with picking a side experienced enough for to play on the big stage. I do not envy coaches at this time, but that’s why they’re paid the big bucks, making hard decisions is a part of their modus operandi.

For players — quite obviously, pre-season is just that, all the little moments before the season. From that Monday morning in mid-October, until the night before selection is announced, everything you do as a player battling for selection seems like it hinges on your name being read out for that team.

The Donald Trump run, the weights sessions in hotel gyms, the time trial on your first day back at the club — the one that seems like if you run a poor time, your whole break has been wasted, your career as a footballer has been ill chosen and the sun won’t come up tomorrow. The grueling skills sessions, the interval running, the afternoon weight sessions that never end, the mobility classes, the team meetings that you’d pay more attention watching grass grow at the MCG than listening to the coach. All of this and more, all for Round 1 selection.

With that in mind, let me put you in the shoes of a player battling for Round 1 selection, let’s use player Schofield for this example.

The build and anticipation has been a long one. It’s Wednesday prior to the first game, team selection day. The entire squad is in the meeting room waiting for the unveiling of the team.

Suddenly Monday morning, mid-October seems a long way away. Every session, every hour you put in seems to come down to this one moment. You can hear a pin drop, the anticipation is excruciating.

The projector whirs to life and Simmo steps up to talk through the team. Flashbacks are running through your mind, that beep test, that max bench, that spring roll you had last Tuesday, that time you forgot to bring your boots and you had to wear Shannon Hurn’s for the session and got blisters for weeks after it.

The moment everyone has been waiting for. Your friends, family, the media, fans — everyone waits with you. Round 1 selection is here, Simmo opens the team on his computer and you look to the screen for your name…

The computer won’t connect to the projector.

After five minutes of tech support, the moment that should have been here five minutes ago is back. The team goes up. Naturally you look to the line where you play, for me the backline, no Schofield. You look to the bench, as the seventh defender, no Schofield. You look to the forward line, maybe Simmo got his ends mixed up or has had a light bulb moment and decided to play you at full forward. No Schofield. Eyes back to the bench, back to the backline, quick look at the midfield (in my dreams). No Schofield.

Six months of work, wasted. Six months of sweat, apart from being very dehydrated, you feel has been perspired with no result. You are gutted. I am gutted.

It seems all has been lost.

You feel like you have let your family down, your friends down, all of that work and still to be left out of the team.

It’s happened a few times in my career and it is an awful feeling. Simmo I know you are reading this, let’s not make it another one in 2018, thanks.

It’s an event that will happen in every team meeting room around the country, every AFL team will have the players that just don’t get the nod. Disappointment and despair will be at the forefront of their minds.

With all of that said and done, with all of the build-up that goes into this event, for as important as it seems right then and there, from experience there is only one thing that must stay at front of mind for any player that is not selected.

Round 2 is probably at most six days away, worse things can happen than you not getting picked.

See you at selection next Wednesday.