The AFL is a ruthless world that chews up and spits out many more than it lifts up to the dizzy heights of stardom. In the cut and thrust of it all, continuity, not talent, is king. Regardless of one’s natural ability, without a consistent run of training and development, a player can get left behind very quickly.
Round six saw a series of milestones for some of the AFL’s more unfortunate young footballers.
Matthew Scharenberg – the intercepting half back from the Collingwood football club – played arguably his best game at AFL level in a high pressure encounter against the Richmond machine.
Jayden Laverde – a big bodied forward leaning utility – made a successful return to the Essendon senior lineup after another pre-season hampered by injury.
And Nathan Freeman – an explosive inside midfielder at St Kilda – was declared fit for selection as he continues to work towards an AFL debut over four years in the making.
These young men were all highly regarded junior stars. All three possessed elite attributes that made them sought after commodities on draft night. And all three have had the start of their professional careers derailed by injury.
Scharenberg was drafted with pick #6 in 2013. He was captain of his state and one of the most highly touted juniors to come through the South Australian under 18 system. As an underage player he patrolled the half back line, plucking intercept marks at will and setting up forward thrusts with his sharp kicking skills. He organised his back six and positioned himself perfectly to cut off opposition attacks before they became threatening. His class and composure was clear for all to see in the skill and decisiveness he displayed with ball in hand.
However, in his first four seasons at Collingwood, Scharenberg managed just 14 senior games. Two knee reconstructions and a serious foot complaint limited his ability to play and train at the level. Now 22 years of age, Scharenberg is finally starting to have a decent run at an AFL career.
Freeman was taken just four picks after Scharenberg in the 2013 draft. He was likened to a Patrick Dangerfield type such was his explosiveness at the stoppages. His speed and endurance combination made him perfect for the modern midfield game. The ability to repeat surge run set him apart from other players in his draft class as he accumulated possessions and gained territory on a weekly basis.
Initially drafted by the Collingwood football club, he was still considered to be worth a second round selection when St Kilda traded for him in 2015, despite his injury history and lack of senior appearances. Freeman’s career has been marred by a series of ongoing hamstring injuries. In over four seasons, neither club has been able to witness the powerful midfielder set foot on an AFL field. At 22 years of age, and still without a single match to his name, only the staunchest of Freeman supporters would be holding their breath waiting for his highly anticipated senior debut.
Laverde’s name was read out at pick #20 in the 2014 AFL draft. He was a low production but high impact player, with a highlight reel that made him a marketable commodity before he had played a game. He had been used across half back, impressed as a mid sized goal kicker and threatened to use his frame and athleticism as a powerful inside midfielder.
Laverde was a player than screamed ‘X-Factor’ – the intuitive, creative quality that changes the course of a match at any given moment. Unfortunately, a series of shoulder, ankle and hamstring injuries have limited Laverde to just 23 games across his first three seasons. Now, in 2018, Laverde finds himself on the fringes of an Essendon side that is struggling for form and team balance.
All of which leads us to an interesting question – how much does injury early in a player’s career inhibit their development? The answer to the question is convoluted and by no means definitive. What is clear however, is that the impact of repeated injuries on a young player is multi faceted and ultimately, career shaping.
As the injured player goes through their rehabilitation, they lose valuable time that would otherwise be spent honing their positional craft and athletic profile. While an athlete can return to optimal physical condition, the time spent in rehab has seen them lose touch with the game plan, the instinctive connection with their team mates and possibly their position in the selection pecking order.
In addition to that, the mental grind of unrewarded rehabilitation – the constant effort to regain fitness without the benefit of ever playing the game they love – is often enough to cause an athlete to lose the drive they once had to become a great player. And when a player loses the fire within, self doubt creeps in. A footballer that second guesses their ability to compete at the level is a footballer than won’t be able to compete at the level. Without the instinctive decision making that confidence brings, a player will appear slow, confused or simply not up to the level.
The cumulative effect of years in the AFL system, where training and gameplay develop a player’s physicality, skills and game sense, is what allows an up and coming tyro to become a genuine star. Without that consistent development, the player that recruiters watched at under 18 level may never come to fruition in the AFL furnace.
Will Scharenberg, Freeman or Laverde ever live up to the promise their junior careers gave rise to? We won’t know for a few years yet. But for them to do so, they will have succeeded where so many before them have failed. The supporters of their respective clubs will be praying for these three to get a little continuity in their training from here on in.
Because it is that continuity that will allow them to become what we hoped they would on the night they were drafted.
If you like what you’ve read, follow the author on Twitter at @Tommy_Wolfe7