With the 16th AFL Rookie Draft taking place today, Mitchell Wood looks at the successful careers of 10 players that entered the system as rookies.
1. Dean Cox (West Coast Eagles)
Pick No.28, 1999
The best ruckman of the last decade was remarkably drafted as a rookie. Dean Cox was quick to establish himself as a quality ruckman after being elevated off the rookie list in his debut year for the Eagles in 2001. He started as Michael Gardiner’s back-up in the ruck, but would take the No.1 position from 2004. The 204cm giant was crucial during West Coast’s era of dominance (2005-07), palming the ball down to the midfielders and setting up the play at centre bounces and stoppages. Cox has a desire to win every ruck contest and his mobility has created major difficulties for opposition ruckman. He was a member of the Eagles’ 2006 premiership, winner of the club’s best and fairest in 2008 and has been selected in six All-Australian teams.
2. Brett Kirk (Sydney)
Pick No.40, 1998
Brett Kirk was nearly 23-years-old when he played his first game with the Sydney Swans in 1999. Kirk’s journey to the AFL was a long process, seeing as he was delisted from Sydney’s supplementary list prior to being picked up again in the 1998 Rookie Draft. Following his elevation off the rookie list, he struggled to gain selection in his first two years in the competition. From 2001, ‘Kirky’ never looked like losing his spot. It was his ferocious in-and-under work around the contests and brave attack on the footy that made him a crowd favourite with the Swans faithful. He was one of the finest tacklers of his era and was often used as a tagger, limiting the impact of the opposition’s best midfielder. Kirk’s inspirational efforts throughout Sydney’s premiership year of 2005 were rewarded with the Bob Skilton Medal (Sydney’s best and fairest award). The loyal servant also co-captained his beloved Swans from 2005-07 and 2009-10, claimed the Bob Skilton Medal again in 2007 and was an All-Australian in 2004.
3. Matthew Boyd (Western Bulldogs)
Pick No.23, 2002
It’s hard to comprehend how Matthew Boyd wasn’t drafted in the 2000 National Draft. He made his way onto the Bulldogs rookie list after several consistent performers with Frankston in the VFL. At 21 years of age, he would debut for the Bulldogs against Fremantle in Round 7, 2003, and was elevated to the senior list in the same year. His prolific ball-winning ability, combined with his superior work-rate made him a regular inclusion in the Bulldogs’ midfield from 2004 onwards. Boyd has well and truly exceeded his club’s expectations since joining Whitten Oval as a rookie in 2002. He has captained the Bulldogs since 2011, won the club’s best and fairest three times, and is a two-time All-Australian.
4. Stephen Milne (St Kilda)
Pick No.23, 1999
The 1999 Rookie Draft produced the greatest small forward of the modern era. Milne was elevated from St Kilda’s rookie list after the one season and quickly proved his worth in his debut year of 2001, kicking 27 goals from 17 games. At only 176cm, the little goal sneak has a rare ability to make something out of nothing and is always dangerous around goal. An exceptional reader of the play, he has won the Saints’ goalkicking on four occasions and is a two-time All-Australian. ‘Milney’ has kicked more goals than any other player at Etihad Stadium with 337. He enters the 2013 season with an impressive 546 career goals to his name.
5. Darren Jolly (Melbourne, Sydney and Collingwood)
Pick No.31, 2000
Wherever Darren Jolly goes, he brings success. He was given a chance at league footy by the Demons in the 2000 Rookie Draft. Jolly showed promise as a back-up ruckman to Jeff White in his years with Melbourne from 2001-04. However, he longed for more opportunities and was traded to Sydney. The ambitious ruckman tasted premiership success in his first year with the Swans and acquired the No.1 ruck position following the retirement of Jason Ball. He would leave Sydney at the end of the 2009 season for family reasons and join another successful culture in Collingwood. Jolly was favoured ahead of Josh Fraser in the ruck and helped the Magpies win their fifteenth premiership in his foundation year with his third club.
6. James McDonald (Melbourne and GWS)
Pick No.51, 1996
How James McDonald went at such a high pick in the 1996 Rookie Draft is quite baffling. This selection would prove to be a real win for the Demons. He was a fine tagger and had the ability to win his own footy under the packs. His strong work ethic made him a premier inside midfielder of the competition during his lengthy time with Melbourne. McDonald led from the front and his courageous style of play was admired by his teammates. He came out of retirement in 2011 as a playing assistant coach for the GWS Giants, helping the young list in their inaugural year. Among his achievements include captaining the Demons from 2009-10, winning back-to-back Keith ‘Bluey’ Truscott Medals (Melbourne’s best and fairest award) and being named on the bench in the 2006 All-Australian team.
7. Mal Michael (Collingwood, Brisbane and Essendon)
Pick No.6, 1996
Mal Michael was the face of the Brisbane Lions defence in its golden era from 2001-04. The three-time premiership player with the Lions started his career with Collingwood, after being elevated off the rookie list in 1997. He failed to make the most of his opportunities at Collingwood and was traded to Brisbane at the end of the 2000 season. The strong-bodied Papua New Guinean slotted in perfectly at full back, nullifying the competition’s best forwards during his six seasons with the club. Despite effectively holding down the position in a successful side, he amazingly never received an All-Australian selection. Michael spent his last two seasons in the game with Essendon, providing Dustin Fletcher with solid support in the back half.
8. Brad Sewell (Hawthorn)
Pick No.7, 2002
From the rookie list to winning a best and fairest with the Hawks, Brad Sewell has undoubtedly come a long way since first coming to the scene in 2004. The elite tagger has been a decisive part of Hawthorn’s midfield, winning his own footy and putting his body on the line in contests. Sewell’s best year with the Hawks was in 2007, where he played an instrumental role in helping the club experience finals football for the first time in six years. He would win the Peter Crimmins Medal (Hawthorn’s best and fairest award), after finishing third the previous year. The workhorse was also amongst Hawthorn’s best in its upset win over Geelong in the 2008 Grand Final and will be pivotal to his side’s premiership hopes in 2013.
9. Ben Rutten (Adelaide)
Pick No.40, 2001
Many serviceable defenders have come into the system through the Rookie Draft, none more so than Ben Rutten. Despite originally being used as a forward and managing only 11 games in his first three seasons with the Crows, Rutten finally came of age in 2005. This would be a breakout year for the strong key defender, as week in, week out; he would shut down the opposition’s full forward and use his strength to his advantage in one-on-one contests. His efforts didn’t go unnoticed and he was a worthy selection at full back in the All-Australian team. Rutten has continued to be a handful as a full back and his consistency has seen him lead the Crows’ backline for almost a decade.
10. Chad Fletcher (West Coast Eagles)
Pick No.27, 1997
Chad Fletcher went from West Coast’s rookie list to being part of their greatest midfield, alongside Ben Cousins, Andrew Embley, Chris Judd and Daniel Kerr. The ball magnet was one of the most hard-working players on the Eagles’ list throughout his 11 years at the club. He took quite some time to stand out in the league, but his best football would come when West Coast started to make their mark on the competition in the mid-2000s. Fletcher won All-Australian selection in 2004 and finished second to Judd in the club’s best and fairest. He combined beautifully with the classy midfield to help the Eagles secure the 2006 premiership and redemption over the Swans after the disappointment of the previous year.
Mitchell Wood is a first-year Bachelor of Sport Journalism student at La Trobe University. You can follow him on Twitter: @Mitchell_Woody