'Last-chance saloon' welcomes new members at AFL draft

Each AFL draft is littered with feelgood stories of junior stars realising their dreams and starting their journeys in the hope of forging long AFL careers.

The 2017 event, at the Sydney Showgrounds on Friday night, of course featured many of those stories, but a key narrative of the night was that of resilience and second chances.

While the early selections - highlighted by Cameron Rayner, who was taken by the Brisbane Lions at No. 1 - of course generated plenty of excitement pre, during and post-draft, many picks during the later rounds proved mental toughness and resilience are just as important as talent for those seeking an AFL career.

Because for every young star who shines brightly enough to be snapped up early in their draft year, there's others who have to accept the harsh bitterness of rejection. Possibly many times over.

From there, they face a daunting question: accept you're not quite good enough and search for a Plan B, or work even harder, dominate at state league level and eventually force recruiters to call your name out in the future.

Before Friday's draft, former Sydney great and ESPN columnist Jude Bolton outlined the importance of mental toughness for those seeking to make it at the top level.

"If I was a recruiter, one thing I'd pay huge attention to is the psychology of the young players. More than ever, the AFL demands so much of a person's mental strength - it really is one of the most rigorous and pressure-filled environments. You are tested day in, day out, and week in, week out," Bolton wrote.

And Friday night was littered with examples of those who were denied a red carpet entry to an AFL list but eventually banged down the door.

Tim Kelly was the first state league selection, with Geelong snaring the 23-year-old WAFL star with pick No.24.

The benefit of selecting mature-age talent is, of course, they're more likely to be able to play senior footy straight away, with the premiership-hunting Cats confident that Kelly - who finished second in the Sandover Medal this year at South Fremantle - can impact from day one.

Two picks after the Cats grabbed Kelly, West Coast then swooped on another WAFL star, explosive and dynamic forward Liam Ryan. Just 24 months ago, Ryan was just a raw country footballer who then exploded to prominence with two sensational seasons with Subiaco.

At pick No. 31, Melbourne was happy to grab VFL dynamo Bayley Fritsch, who became the 12th straight Fothergill-Round Medal winner to be recruited to the AFL, having starred with the Demons' VFL-aligned side Casey. A dangerous and spectacular mid-sized forward, Fritsch came from the clouds having endured a back fracture in 2015 and a knee problem last year before getting a clean run at it during the 2017 VFL season.

The state league success stories continued later in the draft. NEAFL playmaker Oskar Baker (Melbourne, 48) was rewarded for his exceptional form for Aspley, former Melbourne wingman Dom Barry was drafted by Port Adelaide at pick No. 61 after a brilliant SANFL campaign, WAFL stars Zac Giles Langdon (GWS, pick 56), Scott Jones (Fremantle, 75) and Matt Guelfi (Essendon, 76) finally fought their way to AFL lists, while the VFL's Sam Switkowski (Fremantle, 73) was also rewarded after his sterling season with Box Hill.

Each would have surely had moments during the past few years where they doubted whether they'd ever be given a chance; each must have banished those thoughts and fought on.

Fighting on too are Billy Hartung and Jarrod Garlett, the final two picks of the draft who squeezed into the last-chance saloon just on closing time.

Hartung, who played 63 games for Hawthorn between 2014-17 before being delisted, swapped the brown and gold stripes for blue and white after North Melbourne offered him a lifeline with the draft's penultimate pick, No. 77.

Putting a fullstop to the evening was Garlett, a supremely talented midfielder-forward originally taken by Gold Coast at pick No. 15 at the 2014 draft. He returned to WA at the end of 2016 for personal reasons, but his WAFL form with South Fremantle this year was encouraging enough for Carlton to roll the dice on him with the last pick.

And then it was over. Seventy-eight happy, relieved and excited men who can now call themselves AFL footballers. However, many overlooked hopefuls were left pondering 'what now?'

But as Bolton concluded in his pre-draft column, those who missed out now have to prove they had the resilience and mental fortitude to overcome the setback.

"For the players who miss out on Friday night, they need to realise it's not the end of their journey - the disappointment must drive them to work harder and dominate the state leagues to earn a second chance," the 325-game great wrote.