It’s a long way from Clovelly to Dodges Ferry.
It’s even further to the AFL.
The AFL draft is the place where dreams for young footy players are made. Hundreds of footy players — mostly kids — will sit on the edges of their seats waiting for their name to be called out.
Silence will greet most.
There’s a few that will be content with the fact they gave it a go, and they will refocus on a career of playing footy with mates. A select few will take the path less travelled, re-dedicating themselves to their task.
The fate of the 2022 season is set to be shaped by three such late bloomers, all playing similar critical roles for their clubs.
Every club passed on Dane Rampe, Tom Stewart and Jeremy Howe multiple times.
Given the old maxim of defence winning premierships, they all look likely to play a critical role in who will be left standing this year.
Number one against the rush
Each club has an identity, a stamp that defines the way a team plays. In modern parlance, it’s the side’s “brand”, metaphorically stamped onto the side of a team’s guernseys.
There are two overarching archetypes of teams — defence-first sides and attacking-focused ones. No side ignores the other end of the ground, but most good teams have a clear calling card to build the brand from.
For Sydney, Geelong and Collingwood that stylistic base is their defence.
These three sides have built their success on how they lock down other side’s forays forward.
The three sides display rock-solid defensive principles while threatening to hit the scoreboard at practically any time. Turning defence into attack is an art, one of the most beautiful parts of the modern game.
All three sides move the ball quite directly towards goal when winning the ball from their back half. The Cats and Swans tend to be a bit slower when transitioning it out, while the Magpies have thrown caution to the wind on the counter.
Brisbane — the fourth preliminary finalist — is also potent on the rebound, but has a more attacking focus and occasionally has had issues with stopping opposition sides from scoring.
The Cats, Magpies and Swans all have multiple trusted ‘quarterbacks’ from their back half, able to direct plays in a variety of ways.
That includes taller options, such as the aforementioned Rampe, Stewart and Howe.
The longest short journey
In a straight line, the distance from Clovelly to the SCG is only about four kilometres, or about an hour-long walk.
In high school for Rampe, that four kilometres may as well have been four light years. The young Rampe only took up footy seriously at the under-17 level, having previously focused on soccer and basketball.
But as many an AFL opponent has learned in the past decade, when Rampe commits to a task he tends to succeed.
Sydney coach John Longmire spoke of Rampe’s approach when he won the club’s best and fairest in 2019.
“When he was invited to train for a rookie spot in the preseason of 2013, he had missed four national drafts,” Longmire said.
“It was apparent, at the very least, he looked like he loved to compete.
“We weren’t sure what this bloke from Clovelly could provide us. We invited him down to train and 10 minutes later we looked at each other as coaches and thought we could have a reasonable player here.
“But we couldn’t project what he’d turn out to be.”
Unlike Rampe, Stewart and Howe played a fair bit of footy growing up in Geelong and southern Tasmania respectively.
They progressed through the standard junior pathways but both were overlooked at draft time, several times in fact.
Stewart and Howe took jobs as tradespeople and honed their football craft locally.
Cats great Matthew Scarlett mentored Stewart at his local club (South Barwon), while Howe gained attention for his show-stopping highlight reel from his small town of Dodges Ferry and later Hobart.
Since finding the AFL, Stewart, Howe and Rampe have combined for five All Australian selections, two further squad nominations, a premiership and four grand final appearances.
Beyond their long journeys to the big time, the three share significant similarities to how they play on the field and influence the game. The three are archetypes of a modern style of defender, one sought after by all.
All three play a somewhat similar role for their sides, in slightly different stripes. The three hover around 190 centimetres tall and are trusted by their coaches to cover both small and tall forwards to both defend staunchly and launch attacks.
There are few players in the league that the three aren’t trusted to cover, and all are very willing to peel off their own players to assist as the third man up as required.
Of the trio, Rampe has traditionally taken the tallest assignments despite being the shortest.
This year, the development of the McCartin brothers has meant that Rampe often slides to smaller opponents, allowing him to be deployed in a more flexible manner.
Against the Demons in week one of the finals, Rampe covered taller players such as Ben Brown and Luke Jackson, mid-sized options such as Bayley Fritsch and smaller players like Jake Melksham with equal care.
There’s not a defensive job that Longmire doesn’t trust Rampe to do.
That’s similar to Chris Scott’s use of Stewart at the Cats. Stewart is relied upon to cover all types, but usually defaults to smaller options.
Stewart’s biggest strength is knowing when to fall off his opponent and play the role of the interceptor. He shows an innate ability to read the play as it develops, often finding himself at the drop of the ball on his own.
Stewart is also the best of the three with ball in hand. No player has launched more points from intercepts this year than the veteran Cat.
Stewart’s ability to use the ball both in contested situations and in space stands out against his peers. He might not be the longest kick in the league but he is one of the more effective.
Howe’s journey to being a critical defender was nearly as circuitous as his path to the league. The high flyer first found a place at AFL level in the Melbourne forward line.
It was Paul Roos that firmly started Howe’s shift to defence, with his ability to read the ball in flight and athleticism proving valuable in the back half.
Howe’s positioning is a key strength of his game, as he covers for the occasional chaos upfield. He tends to play a bit taller than Stewart, sometimes taking the opposition focal point.
In an undersized Collingwood defence, Howe plays as a true tall at times — at times marking up on the 206-centimetre Rory Lobb last week.
Like Rampe and Stewart, Howe is also trusted with the ball, but often has to do less due to the Magpies cavalcade of effective users.
The missing piece
The Lions have a mature-aged defender of their own, but Marcus Adams has been forced to miss the finals due to concussion-related issues.
The Lions defence isn’t their calling card, instead their attack is their strength. While the Lions are strong on the counter-attack, they tend to bleed points when their opposition can get the ball inside 50.
If the Lions are going to win the flag this year, it’ll probably be due to their attack and the ball-winning ability of their inside midfield.
But the defence will have to hold up their end of the bargain, led by former All Australian Harris Andrews.
In 2022, it’s likely that defence will play a big part of winning the flag.
Source: AFL NEWS ABC