Football's coronavirus-enforced break has heightened an already uncertain time for potential AFL draftees desperate to impress recruiters, writes JUSTINE McCULLAGH-BEASY.
Teenage footballers wanting a breakout season to thrust their names into AFL draft calculations are facing the grim reality their dreams might be on hold for 12 months.
The coronavirus pandemic which has brought world sport to a standstill is expected to impact players' career prospects, at least in the short-term.
Those who impressed in the talent pathway programs as 17-year-olds have suddenly found themselves in prime position while the bolter could be all but eliminated from this year's draft race if underage football is not played this year.
AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan expects the 2020 draft to take place, with or without elite underage competitions such as the NAB League and under 18 national championships.
One industry source said the COVID-19 setback would test players' resolve, particularly those who might be robbed of a chance to impress.
"They'll just have to wait another year. It's the way it will be," he said. "It's all that can be done in this particular circumstance."
He said bottom-age form could be the difference between getting drafted this year or being overlooked.
Three top-35 picks in 2019 - North Melbourne's Flynn Perez (Bendigo Pioneers), Geelong Cats' Cooper Stephens (Geelong Falcons) and Port Adelaide's Mitch Georgiades (Subiaco) - had their top-age years wiped out by injury but had done enough the year before to earn selection.
GWS Giants coach Leon Cameron, who was drafted to the Western Bulldogs at 16, expects more mature-aged players to be drafted in coming years.
"I think you're seeing more mature-agers being picked up now. We took a 24-year-old Tom Hutchesson from Millicent, just outside of Mount Gambier, and he's been a terrific kid," he said.
"There's lots of players out there who have come through different systems, whether it's the under 18 system, the championships or WAFL, SANFL or NEAFL and have matured a little bit later."
Cameron expects the football hiatus to impact the draft standings.
"Some might take longer than others. But in terms of the draft, the kids are still very, very good kids," he said.
"Are they six months older now and haven't been able to show their talents off because there is no games on at the moment? Yes.
"But there would have been lots of people watching them last year as well and if footy does resume later on for the under 18s then they will get an opportunity to show their wares again."
Former Adelaide defender Luke Thompson, who now captains SANFL side Woodville-West Torrens, believes a body of work will be integral for this year's draft class.
"I think it helps if you can get your name in there earlier," he said.
"If you can play (state and national) under 15s and under 16s and get your name in the spotlight a bit and are good at that age then that helps you later on down the track."
Thompson also knows the importance of top-age performances. He was drafted from Timboon in south-west Victoria via Geelong Falcons in 2010.
"This is how it is when you get drafted - I was a forward and they were looking for a defender so I played five games of state football as a backman and they drafted me as a defender so it's funny how things work out," he said.
"If you can play a few good games at the right time in a high standard of competition then that goes a long way.
"Gary Rohan (Sydney and Geelong) had a lot of years out of football, was playing netball and stuff like that, and then he had one good year at the Falcons and showed his good speed.
"It's amazing how you can have one good year and put your name up in lights.
"Gary Rohan got drafted at number six and came from nowhere."
Thompson developed in the Victorian-centric TAC Cup, now the NAB League, but is a fan of the SANFL program.
The South Australian state league, like the WAFL, is structured like a country club where players work their way up the ranks.
"I would love to have grown up in Adelaide. I think the system they've got here works," he said.
"It is similar to your under 18 TAC Cup but you're at your home club so you learn extra things.
"If you're good enough you get to play against big bodies in the men's competition.
"If you can be at a club and play league football at a young age, I think that really helps you later on. It is like country footy. I was playing senior footy at Timboon and you might think 'it's just Timboon'.
"But I was 15 playing senior footy and I still remember I was kicking seven or eight goals a game. It sounds stupid but that does get you confidence."
Isaac Wareham put his name in draft calculations last year when he played a crucial role for Vic Country in one game at the under 18 national championships.
A knee injury ruled him out of testing at the AFL combine and he was subsequently overlooked in the draft.
Wareham joined Geelong's VFL program for the 2020 season and was also invited back to NAB League club Greater Western Victoria Rebels as a 19-year-old prospect.
"It is going to be hard for recruiters to see many bolters this year so maybe we have a bit more of a chance (of getting drafted) with previous stats," he said.
Wareham, 18, said footballers understood the game took a back seat to public health and safety but it was a predicament for those striving to make a career out of the sport.
"I think it's pretty stiff. The only reason I am in contention is because I had an alright (AFL under 18) national champs last year, so I think it's hard for those kids who can't prove themselves," he said.
"They may have had unbelievable off-seasons and it's just been cut short."
Geelong Falcons talent manager Michael Turner believes a 19-year-old competition in 2021 could help ease the stress on some players on the fringe.
"Boys develop at different levels," he said.
"They can be high-profile players, like (Hugh) McCluggage or Sam Walsh, but there are boys that take a little bit more time and they don't get going until halfway through the year or towards the end of the year. Brayden Ham is a good example of that for us.
"He was a 19-year-old who had a really strong second-half of the year, didn't play national championships but still got drafted to Essendon."
No one knows if and when the potential draftees will get a chance to play. But amid the uncertainty, one thing is certain.
"Footy will find a way to play on, whether it's the draft, local levels, the semi-professional level or the AFL, it will find a way," Cameron said.