Behind the COVID curveballs faced by recruiters ahead of the AFL Draft

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"Nothing beats live viewing, without a doubt."

It's been a while since Scott Clayton, head of player personnel at North Melbourne and long-time AFL recruiting veteran, last sat under a grandstand - clipboard in hand, watching the country's best young talent fight for the attention of list managers, coaches and agents.

"We had a very limited window a couple of months ago when some country teams played - for instance in Gippsland and Bendigo, and there were a couple of schools who had practice matches we could get to," he tells ESPN.

"But given there's been very limited footy, it's hard. So we've just watched a massive amount of vision from last year and some of the [NAB League] practice matches back in February, which seems like five years ago."

The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc with football, just as it has with most aspects of society in Australia and across the globe.

Players, coaches and partners had to relocate at the drop of a hat. Some made tough choices not to do so, others have had to accept being away from loved ones. Fans, mostly in Victoria, have had their live footy fix denied almost completely.

League CEO Gillon McLachlan spoke of being agile. Shorter games, the prospect of back-to-back footy 'frenzies', and hubs have kept the AFL (for the most part) one step ahead of the virus since its resumption in early June.

But other parts of the game have suffered. The VFL and NEAFL were canned for 2020. The WAFL, SANFL QAFL and TSL, like many entities in their respective states, managed to avoid the brunt of the damage to get a modified season away.

The NAB League, the AFL's elite Victorian-based junior league, however, was a casualty. Clayton says as a recruiter, it's been hard to adjust to the "uncertainty" surrounding around half of the country's best young players given they've been inactive for so long.

"There's a bit of uncertainty. But I say all the time we're in the futures market. We're trying to predict what 17, 18-year-olds are doing, but where they can be in three, four, five six or seven years' time with the right development," he tells ESPN.

"The fact we haven't been able to see these players in their 18th year is not ideal, but I'm not going to whinge about it either. We just need to give the opportunity to these 18-year-olds and we'll do our best to pick who we think will be the best long-term players.

"We deal in future picks in the AFL, so we must scout for the future, so a lot of our team members did a lot of work last year on this group."

ESPN's draft expert Chris Doerre believes this year's draft could be "the most speculative" ever seen.

"The small sample size of games and lack of games played is the greatest challenge for recruiters in 2020," he tells ESPN.

"With Victoria producing roughly half of the players drafted in any given year and no NAB League or VFL games happening this year, recruiters will not have an up-to-date evaluation of Victoria's best junior and mature-age players.

"There's also the additional complexity beyond the Victorians not playing - some of this year's most promising prospects suffered injuries last season which means we won't have seen them for nearly two years."

North Melbourne is in a strong position heading into the 2020 draft after securing the Demons' 2020 first round pick last year, so extracting full value from the hand they have is crucial to the club's long-term success under Rhyce Shaw.

Clayton says while the circumstances are difficult for recruiters, the players too, feel a sense of apprehension towards what should be the beginning of an enviable career, given they may not be able to show off the best of their abilities before the biggest judgement of all - draft night.

"The biggest thing for me is, the group of 18-year-olds who are aspiring to be AFL players and have a dream for a long career haven't been able to get out there and do what they want to do - play and train, grow and develop. It's just [awful]," he says.

"I feel sorry for the 18-year-olds who haven't been able to express themselves the way they'd like, and I don't want to underestimate the [impact that would be having]."

Despite a dearth of live action close to home, Clayton says he and his team have been working overtime at Arden Street, setting up interviews, watching copious amounts of vision and, as McLachlan said earlier in the pandemic, being agile.

"We've done a massive amount of interviews ... it's been good to still meet a whole host of families and see how they're going," Clayton says.

"Some of these things will probably change forever. We used to do a lot of house visits in regard to interviewing young players. Certainly that's changed, we're on Zoom or Microsoft Teams, and we're going into family homes via [technology], so I suppose the days -- the cost and time of four or more people covering massive kilometres for these things -- are probably gone."

One of the biggest risks for a club like North, which is looking to bolster its list with young talent, is the massive sense of the unknown when it comes to Victorian juniors.

A player touted as a top-10 selection in August of his underage season might fall out of favour during the course of his 18th year, or vice versa in the case of someone like Clayton Oliver in 2015, Clayton says.

"There can be fluctuation [in players], but it's more about maturity. In their 17th year we see some guys really mature. Perhaps emotionally and mentally, not so much physically. They're ready to express themselves on the field.

"I wouldn't be honest if I didn't say there were some players we didn't rate, or, rather, pay as much attention to, as a 17-year-old who just comes on with a bang in their 18th year. Clayton Oliver is an example of someone who just came from nowhere.

"You just hope that whoever they are, and if they don't get picked, they'll have a chance in their 19th year."

Doerre adds that "some players have been known to grow substantially in their draft years", and that until games are played, it's hard to tell just how much an individual will improve or regress from year to year.

"In the two years before getting drafted to Gold Coast, Tom Lynch grew almost 20cm, transforming from a midfielder into a key forward. Patrick Cripps was also late to bloom, growing 20cm in two years before getting drafted," he says.

"On the other side of the coin, there are consensus top-10 selections who either go a lot later, or in some more extreme cases go undrafted. Dayle Garlett is among the most memorable players to go undrafted after being a consensus top-10 selection entering his draft year. Garlett as an overager was drafted by Hawthorn after a strong year in the WAFL, but his career at AFL level ended up being short-lived."

And with list sizes expected to be trimmed down to between 38 and 40 from the current 45, competition for spots is going to increase, and nailing your draft picks becomes even more critical.

Clayton says North Melbourne will be keeping a close eye on those who don't get drafted in 2020, in case something was missed by recruiters given the lack of matches this season.

"Next year will be a great period for recruiting, because you'll have the 18-year-olds from that year, but also the 19-year-olds who [didn't get a chance to shine this year]," he tells ESPN.

"Next year we will certainly pay extra attention to the 19-year-olds that's for sure."

But despite more than half the talent pool currently being under Stage 3 or 4 restrictions in Melbourne and greater Victoria, Clayton says "the weeks are very busy" at North Melbourne.

"The volume of work is still there. We're still meeting, discussing, talking draft orders, undertaking reference checks and interviews," he explains.

"There are some great products available now. In South Australia, the SANFL has a digital pass, so all their senior and U18 games are available live, and there's some great vision that comes out of WAFL, and Tasmania and Queensland as well.

"The [Queensland and New South Wales] academies, too. They played two games in both states over the last couple of weeks, so we're poring over that vision.

"In Victoria there's nothing. It is what it is. But we'll watch all that vision available, and with Champion Data we can narrow in a bit more.

"But we're all here, doing it remotely, and we've learnt a lot as well. As I said, some practices we used to do will change a bit and will become more efficient and cost effective for sure."

Clayton says while club recruiters based in other states have had much more access to live games, he's proud of the work his team at Arden Street is doing in exceptional circumstances, even if he would have liked a 'golden ticket' to get up to Queensland during the depths of Melbourne's miserable winter weather.

"A couple of clubs have got guys that have decided to go away for a few months. So certainly, David Walls from Fremantle has been with the team, back to Perth and is now off again. Certainly the clubs based in Queensland have had a good go as well," he says.

"We're not whinging, we're not moaning, we've got to be organised and methodical ... But as I said at the start, nothing beats live viewing."