Jed Walter celebrates

Recapping the 2023 AFL draft

On Monday night the town of Tongala joined the likes of Traralgon, Albany and Kyabram on a list of Australian towns with something special in common.

No, they aren’t places put on the map by new monorail systems, or where miners have struck it rich — think more sport pages than lifestyle or financial, with a fair bit of hope mixed in for good measure.

When AFL head honcho Andrew Dillon read out Harley Reid’s name on Monday night, the Victorian town of Tongala — in the Goulburn Valley region — added its name to the list of home towns of AFL number one draft picks.

Each year the AFL draft is a fountain of hope for footy fans across the nation. It’s where the stars of the future are called up to new clubs, getting their first exposure to the shining lights and big stages.

For their friends and family it’s a culmination of a long journey to the big leagues.

Over 900 footballers nominated for the draft this year. Only 64 heard their names called. For those lucky enough, it was a euphoric experience.

Number one pick Harley Reid enjoyed the night of his young career.(Getty Images: AFL Photos/Michael Willson)

A single draft can make and shape footy clubs for years and decades to come.

This is what happened at the 2023 AFL Draft.

The rise of the north

Harley Reid spent most of the year heralded by the media as the presumptive pick for most talented junior footballer in the land.

But as the year progressed, one name joined him in that rarefied air.

Jed Walter celebrates

Jed Walter starred for the Allies at the AFL National Championships.(Getty Images: AFL Photos/Graham Denholm)

Jed Walter, from the Palm Beach-Currumbin Lions Football Club on Queensland’s Gold Coast, shapes as being maybe the most complete tall forward to come through the draft in half a decade.

Walter was one of the focal points for a breakthrough victory by “the Allies” at the Under 18 National Championships, breaking the stranglehold of the traditional footballing strongholds.

This stunning victory foretold a shift in the usual pecking order of the youth talent pools.

This year’s top 20 draft picks saw the fewest Victorians drafted since 2002 as top three picks Reid, Walter, and Colby McKercher led the way for eight of the top 20 to be selected from Queensland, New South Wales and Tasmania combined.

Perhaps more interestingly, all eight came from just three cities — the Gold Coast, Launceston, and Albury.

The Gold Coast Suns did well, grabbing three Palm Beach-Currumbin talents alongside one Broadbeach Cat — all from their Academy — in the first round.

The price was relatively miserly too, an assortment of traded later draft picks gathered carefully like driftwood on the coastline.

The Suns were involved in 13 trades across the entire player movement period, a quarter of all transactions, each designed to maximise the chances of being able to grab all of their local talents.

This year’s run from the north may be joined by even more talent in the near future, with the Allies providing 12 of 22 Under 16 All Australians this year.

The tides of footy talent pipelines may be slowly shifting more permanently.

A long first round followed by a short-ish night

In theory the first round of the draft should last 18 picks — one for each club in the league, handed out in reverse order.

This year’s first day, however, saw a whopping 29 first round selections called out.

The first round was blown out by a high number of academy and father-son selections, as well as free agency compensation selections and special competitive assistance picks handed to North Melbourne.

The length of the first night was also compounded by the high number of live pick trades across the draft.

The weeks leading into the draft were filled with speculation of trades involving high end picks — potentially even pick one.

While most scenarios were left unfulfilled, there were still a number of chaotic moves all around the order.

The trade of GWS’s pick eight to Adelaide — eventually used on WA product Daniel Curtin — opened up the floodgates for other moves.

In the end the first round was only narrowly shorter than the other four rounds of the draft combined.

The draft also signalled the continuation of a longer term trend of the shortening of the draft. This year’s draft was slightly longer than last year’s 59 picks, but far shorter than the near 90 selections of the past.

As the draft continues to be impacted by the long-reaching COVID pandemic and, as more clubs believe they are closer to a premiership, few sides are taking a punt on the more speculative talents available at the lower end of the draft.

Four clubs took just two selections at the draft, with another five clubs stumping for just three new players.

At the end of the scale stood Geelong, who took six players across both nights. Three of those six players were mature aged talents designed to make an impact to help the 2022 Premiers rise up the ladder after a down season.

Who were the surprises?

Each year’s draft sees a number of surprise selections that throw the cat amongst the pigeons and some names that seemingly slide down the predicted order.

This year’s biggest bolter was Albury’s Phoenix Gothard, an athletic small forward chosen by GWS at pick 12.

Phoenix Gothard celebrates with friends

Phoenix Gothard was one of the draft’s real bolters.(Getty Images: AFL Photos/Dylan Burns)

Gothard wasn’t considered by many to be in the draft mix on the first night — he only came down as a guest of Connor O’Sullivan, his close friend from Albury who was selected at pick 11 by Geelong.

O’Sullivan had to cut short his introduction to Geelong and club legend Joel Selwood to not only celebrate his mate’s selection but to also hand him a Bushrangers polo so he could go up on stage.

Gothard wasn’t the only bolter in the draft, however.

Oscar Ryan, Billy Wilson and VFL star Shaun Mannagh were not generally expected to get picked up in the draft, but all three heard their names called within the first 40 selections.

Clubs seemed to look outside of the box as the draft progressed this year, with many of the intentions of clubs well hidden below a layer of public speculation.

With every bolter comes a name that seemingly gets lost in the names of recruiters.

GWS capitalised on the first of these with their selection of Tasmania’s James Leake at pick 17 — while most experts had pegged Leake as likely going within the top 10 selections.

Some were left waiting a little longer, with predicted top 30 picks Arie Schoenmaker, Archie Roberts and Ollie Murphy left waiting until late in the draft to hear their names called.

Whether any of these players prove to be a bargain will take some time to work out.

Check back in a decade or so to find out.

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Author: Russell White