As three Suns academy prospects threaten to lead the Allies to an unlikely championships title, it’s emerged why Gold Coast could face a tricky conundrum come the draft.
Plus all the top prospects to watch at this year’s AFL Under 18 National Championships, including a few father-son guns.
Foxfooty.com.au breaks down the latest talent news and updates in AFL Draft Watch!
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UNLIKELY MAJOR CHAMPS BOILOVER ON THE CARDS
For decades, the AFL’s Under 18 National Championships have been dominated by the major football states. Vic Metro has won 11 of the 21 titles since the turn of the century, with Vic Country, South Australia and Western Australia sharing the rest of the spoils.
But could 2023 be the year of the Allies?
Since 2016, the best draft prospects from Tasmania, Queensland, NSW/ACT and Northern Territory have been combined to take on the four teams from Victoria (Metro and Country), South Australia and Western Australia. And team chemistry has often been an issue for the Allies set-up, considering players are coming from different parts of the country to play for the one team.
But this year’s team, coached by Essendon great and former Giants interim coach Mark McVeigh, is the best since Allies team since they were introduced into the top division of the national carnival.
And it features some of the best prospects of the 2023 draft class – as many as six first-round picks, according to some recruiters – with most producing particularly eye-catching performances on the weekend.
Stacked with strong midfield and front-half talent, the Allies travelled to South Australia to kick off the 2023 national carnival, with the visitors scoring a 16-point win over the home side at Therbarton Oval. The reality is they could’ve won by a lot more, considering they smashed SA in disposals (+109), contested possessions (+19), clearances (+9) and scoring shots (+9).
If the Allies remain fit, their midfield and attacking-half power will see them challenge Western Australia and the two Victorian sides later in the carnival.
The star of the game was dynamic 195cm key forward Jed Walter, who booted 3.5 from 17 disposals and nine marks (four contested) in a breathtaking display. His power and presence, in the first half especially, reaffirmed his status as a likely top-five pick. Some now believe he’s the clear No. 2 prospect behind Harley Reid.
Walter is one of three possible first-round draft prospects tied to the Gold Coast Suns through their academy. The other two players are forward-midfielder Jake Rogers and ruck Ethan Read, who also impressed against SA.
A 200cm ruck, Read had one of his more promising outings at the top level, finishing with 18 disposals, four marks, four tackles, four inside 50s and 10 hit-outs. Read’s first half was excellent, dominating in the ruck and showing off his ability to spread from the contest.
Rogers – who last month won the medal for the AFL Academy’s best player across its two matches against state league opposition – finished with 20 disposals, eight tackles and three clearances. A speedy and dynamic 172cm prospect, Rogers has drawn comparisons to Dion Prestia.
The Suns academy trio, as well as an array of gun players from Tasmania, led the Allies to victory.
North Launceston’s Ryley Sanders had his standout game of the season, pushing his first-round prospects significantly with a day out against SA. He booted 2.1 from 36 disposals, 19 contested possessions, seven marks, seven tackles, seven clearances and five inside 50s. Sanders’ game comes after two solid outings for the AFL Academy, racking up 20 disposals against Port Adelaide’s SANFL side in April then 24 touches against Carlton’s VFL side in May.
Sanders, who’s boarding in Melbourne and averaging 31.7 disposals for the Sandringham Dragons in the Coates Talent League, stands at 186cm and rarely plays a bad game. Blessed with clean hands, strength in the contest and great overhead marking ability for a player of his size, Sanders has been likened to Dockers star Andy Brayshaw.
Like Sanders, Launceston’s Colby McKercher backed up his excellent AFL Academy games with a strong performance for the Allies, providing tremendous run all day to finish with 27 disposals, six tackles and six clearances. Likened to Essendon captain Zach Merrett, McKercher is now right in the top-10 mix as he’s considered one of the best pure midfield prospects of this draft class.
Fellow Launceston product James Leake also showed his potential in a strong performance across half-back, finishing with 21 disposals and five marks as he transferred his solid Coates Talent League form into the national champs.
The only downside from a Tassie perspective was small forward Jack Callinan, who didn’t cash in on the Allies’ dominance as he finished with 0.1 from four disposals.
Elsewhere, versatile 198cm Murray Bushrangers prospect Connor O’Sullivan was a standout in defence – after being used in forward and midfield roles earlier this year – with 13 disposals and six marks. He’s another possible first-rounder.
Harvey Thomas – the Giants’ top academy prospect at 177cm – had 17 disposals and three score assists while Caiden Cleary – the Swans’ top academy prospect at 182cm – had 24 disposals, 13 contested possessions and 10 tackles.
The Allies led by 43 points at half-time then by as much as 49 points during Sunday’s match before South Australia mounted a brave comeback. Crafty 182cm South Adelaide forward Jack Delean led the charge, finishing with a game-high four goals – which all came in the second half – from seven disposals to help get SA within striking distance.
Central Districts’ Will McCabe had a tough start to the game as he was opposed to Walter. But McCabe was freed up later and finished as his side’s No. 1 ranked player, according to Champion Data, with nine disposals, seven intercepts, seven spoils and five tackles.
A 197cm prospect who can also be swung forward, McCabe is father-son eligible to Hawthorn as his father, Luke, played 138 games for the club from 1995 to 2004. Most recruiters have him in the first round – some even believe he’s worthy of a bid in the top 10.
Two top SA prospects, Will Patton and Ashton Moir, also took on the Allies. However 193cm defender Patton didn’t have a huge influence on the contest, while lively 188cm forward Moir kicked just one goal. Moir, who has slid out of the top five pick mix according to scouts, showed more competitiveness in the second half of the game, but overall his patchy 2023 form continued.
North Adelaide’s Kane McAuliffe (188cm), who played both AFL Academy games earlier this year, was a standout for SA with 17 disposals, 11 contested possessions, six tackles and four clearances, while bottom-ager Sid Draper (180cm) – the younger brother of Collingwood’s Arlo Draper – had a team-high 23 disposals, 10 contested possessions, eight inside 50s and seven tackles.
WHY SUNS’ FINALS GAIN COULD LEAD TO DRAFT PAIN
It’s all turned glass half-full for the Gold Coast Suns in recent weeks. Not only are their top three academy players starring, but the AFL team has also found form, winning five of their past seven games to sit 11th on the ladder and push themselves into the finals mix.
It’s prompted recruiters to revisit an AFL draft rule that could leave the Suns with a tough conundrum come the end of the year.
As first flagged by The Age on Wednesday, AFL rules state a club can’t match more than two bids on academy prospects in the top 20 of a draft if, in that same year, it makes the finals and is eliminated prior to preliminary final weekend.
A club, too, is restricted to matching one first-round academy bid if it’s among the last four teams remaining in the finals.
The rule was introduced during the mid to late 2010s when the Giants were constant finals features and gained access to an array of top prospects from their own academy, such as Jacob Hopper, Matthew Kennedy, Harry Himmelberg, Will Setterfield, Harry Perryman and Isaac Cumming.
So should the Suns make this year’s finals series, they could be faced with a tough call to ignore one of their academy stars.
How Suns are ‘out hunting’ opposition | 04:13
The Suns, surely, wouldn’t hesitate to match a bid on key forward Jed Walter, who some recruiters now believe is the second-best player in this year’s draft class. The prospect of Walter and Ben King in the same forward would be a tantalising thought for Suns fans.
But if they play finals, they could be forced to pick between matching a bid on either athletic ruck Ethan Read or dynamic midfielder Jake Rogers, as both have been touted as likely first-round prospects.
While Rogers is one of the best midfield options of this year’s draft, Read is a ruck with a high ceiling. The possibility of him taking over the No. 1 ruck mantle from co-captain Jarrod Witts eventually would appeal. Plus with rival clubs reportedly showing interest in back-up ruck Ned Moyle, you could argue the Suns should lean towards taking Read over Rogers.
Either way, the Suns would be devastated to lose access to any of their three players as they’re all genuine Queensland-based products who’ve been part of the club’s academy set-up for many years.
On one hand the AFL would love for the Suns to break through for their maiden finals appearance. Yet it could also mean the league would have to deny the club access to three academy prospects, should they all receive first-round bids. Although The Age reported some recruiters were fearful the AFL would bend the rules for the Suns.
TANTALISING MATCH-UPS FOR WA FIRST UP
The Allies’ next match will be on Sunday against Western Australia, with the match to be broadcast live on Fox Footy from 12.30pm (AEST).
Like the Allies, WA has some of the best prospects in this year’s draft, with Claremont’s Daniel Curtin (195cm) considered one of the best. Curtin – best on ground in the Under 17s futures game last year – has been trialled as a forward and inside midfielder for different teams this year, but WA coach Ben Dyer told SEN WA this week he’d pit Curtin against Walter in what looms a tantalising match-up.
“It is a really good chance for Daniel to show what he has got. He will take on Jed Walter,” Dyer told SEN WA.
“He will go head-to-head with him and these are the sort of games where recruiters and the general public will be able to judge players against opponents of this sort of calibre.
“He is going to be really important for us and I think he will do a terrific job against Walter.”
The other exciting match-up will be the ruck battle between Read and Peel Thunder’s Mitch Edwards (205cm). Likened to Tim English in terms of looks and playing style, Edwards is widely considered the best ruck of the class and has shot into the top-10 mix.
Recruiters are also keen to see where Subiaco prospect Koltyn Tholstrup lines up, considering the 184cm player is regarded as one of the most mysterious prospects of this year’s class as it’s unclear where his best position is. He played as a high half-forward as a bottom-ager for WA in last year’s national carnival, but has been used as a run-with tagger at WAFL league level then played as a wing for the AFL Academy. Ideally, recruiters would like to see him have a good run on the ball at champs level.
Speedy, hard-running Swan Districts defender Riley Hardeman and Peel Thunder ball magnet Clay Hall — the son of former Eagles and Cats forward Derek Hall — will also be important for WA.
There’s a couple of familiar names to keep an eye on, too: Claremont’s Sam van Rooyen – the brother of Melbourne’s Jacob van Rooyen – and Aiden O’Driscoll – the brother of Fremantle AFL/AFLW duo Nathan and Emma O’Driscoll. Van Rooyen (193cm), who’s been in terrific form at WAFL colts level with 12 goals from five games, is expected to spearhead WA’s forward line, while O’Driscoll is a different player to his brother but highly regarded as a 175cm half-forward/wing with great running capacity.
And keep an eye out on Subiaco’s Lance Collard, who might be WA’s most talented prospect this year. A 179cm forward who’s kicked 12.6 from his past three WAFL colts games, Collard is tied to the West Coast Eagles via their Next Generation Academy. Although West Coast can only match a bid on Collard if it lands outside the top 40 picks – and at this stage, Collard is regarded as a top-40 player.
BOTTOM-AGERS TO LEAD VIC METRO
Prior to the WA-Allies game, Vic Metro will commence its carnival campaign with a clash against South Australia in the first of a double-header at Therbarton Oval.
And all eyes will be on possible top-five prospects Nate Caddy and Nick Watson, who both represented Metro as bottom-agers in the Under 18 carnival last year.
Caddy is in red-hot form, recently coming off his best Coates Talent League display for the Northern Knights where he booted 4.2 from 21 disposals and six marks in a dynamic display. Caddy (191cm), the nephew of dual premiership Tiger Josh Caddy, also booted three goals for Vic Metro against SA as a 16-year-old last year.
On talent alone, 170cm Eastern Ranges star Watson is a top-five pick this year. A mercurial and eye-catching forward with innate goal sense, high-flying ability, elite ground ball work and indisputable swagger, Watson had a big start to his Coates Talent League campaign, booting 5.6 and averaging 26.0 disposals and 4.7 inside 50s in his first three games, which also included impressive stints across half-back.
Western Bulldogs fans should keep an eye on father-son prospect Jordan Croft – the son of former Dogs defender Matthew Croft. An athletic 200cm key forward, Croft has kicked 11.2 from his past three Coates Talent League games, while his four-goal haul for Vic Metro against the Young Guns in early May caught the eye.
Other Vic Metro prospects to monitor include Oakleigh Chargers duo Nathan Philactides and Will Lorenz. There’s also in-form 192cm Western Jets forward Logan Morris, who’s kicked 17.4 from five Coates Talent League game this season, and skilful 204cm Northern Knights ruck William Green, who’s coming off an impressive match against Murray Bushrangers where he kicked 2.2 from 22 disposals, five marks and 18 hit-outs, while 200cm Sandringham Dragons key defender Ollie Murphy has lots of fans.
But what could get Vic Metro another championship this year is their strong bottom-age crop, headlined by 2024 Lions father-son prospect Levi Ashcroft – the brother of Will and son of Marcus.
Ashcroft (Sandringham Dragons), Jagga Smith (Oakleigh Chargers), Zak Johnson (Northern Knights), Tom Gross (Oakleigh Chargers), Taj Hotton (Sandringham Dragons) and Luke Trainor (Sandringham Dragons) are all highly-rated prospects for next year’s draft that should get some game time for Vic Metro at stages during the next month.
Vic Country won’t play its first game of the championships until June 18 when it hosts South Australia at Ikon Park, which will also be broadcast on Fox Footy.
Harley Reid: 2023’s no.1 AFL draft pick? | 00:48
Likely No. 1 pick Harley Reid will spearhead the Country side, which will also include Gippsland Power duo Zane Duursma – the brother of Port Adelaide AFL/AFLW duo Xavier and Yasmin Duursma – and Archer Reid – the brother of Essendon’s Zach Reid.
Murray Bushrangers midfielder Darcy Wilson, who was excellent for the AFL Academy against Port’s SANFL side in April with 19 disposals, will also feature, alongside GWV Rebels pair George Stevens and Luamon Lual and Dandenong Stingrays duo Cooper Simpson and Harry DeMattia.