By Tyler Lewis
Holding the last stepping stone in place for a NAB League prospect on the way to an AFL career is no easy task.
Shifting magnets, setting up cones and addressing the group at the intervals on game-day are the seen tasks, but behind the scenes is where most important actions take place.
For current Dandenong Stingrays coach Nick Cox, his coaching career at the club emerged in an unfamiliar way.
“I actually got a role as the runner,” he said.
“My first job was the game day runner, and then it evolved from there.
“Graeme Yeats was the coach then, I got a role as a runner, the last couple of games I was lucky enough to get an opportunity from Graeme, and he bought me into the coaching box to watch the midfield and a few other things on the ground.
“From that, Craig Black was appointed the year after and Craig gave me the midfield role.”
Once a tough footballer, himself, Cox encourages his players to play a physical brand of footy, which is now getting noticed by the important people.
“You have to be really careful – everybody has different levels of bravery and toughness,” he said.
“The ones you see putting their heads over the ball all the time aren’t always the toughest because it has just become natural, but the ones who have to actually think about it might be tougher than you think.
“It is a fine line these days, going out and saying ‘we need to be physical, play on the edge’, because people take that the wrong way.
“The teams I coach, I expect nothing else than them to play on the edge, be a physical team that is hard to play against, that isn’t being unfair or dirty, it is just making sure you are competing as well as you possibly can.
“I think the thing with it is, what these AFL clubs like is, they like the competitive nature, physicality is big, they like the fact the Stingrays boys that I have coached this year have become a bit more combative when it comes to the physical side of things.”
Within the role is a strong communication with talent manager Darren Flanigan, and the crucial conversations with AFL clubs.
“They (AFL clubs) keep a keen eye on things, at the huddle all the time, asking questions,” he said.
“We sat down with most clubs at the start of the year – they went through the players that they had some sort of interest with.
“We gave them feedback on them and what they are like as a person, the last few weeks I have had eight clubs I have spoken to and Darren has spoken to a few as well.
“It becomes really important that you tell them the truth, be honest with them because they know anyway.
“The scary thing is you have these kids’ faith in your hands to a certain extent – it is daunting in a way.”
With the joys of getting kids to fulfil their childhood dreams comes the difficult moments of prospects who haven’t heard their name called.
“A lot of the mentality of the kids and the parents these days think if they don’t get drafted they have failed as people,” Cox said.
“It is a conversation we had at the start of this season – we had an orientation day, we spoke about it isn’t the be all and end all to get into the system.
“It is hard, not easy, for an example, Mitch Riordan.
“At the start of the year was touted as a top 20 pick, (and) he didn’t get picked up.
“He was lucky enough to get picked up mid-season this year.
“They are really tough situations – the kids feel like they haven’t achieved obviously what they wanted and they have failed.
“But all we can do is assure them that being a good VFL footballer or local footballer is sometimes a real big tick in their box.
“The conversations are hard – unfortunately they all don’t get there.”
Making the move from NAB League football to the elite level can be a big step for some in terms of professionalism, but Cox visualises a lot of attributes in a player in this year’s crop who was a previous number one draft pick.
“It is important we tell them to be professional with their time, sleep, food, drink, everything they are doing,” he said.
“But is really driven by the player, it is a tough environment.
“(Jacob) Weitering was like that – he had a lot of pressure on him, and I think he stood out to be one who was a real role model to everyone around him.
“You see them straight away when they come into the system; you hear what they have been doing at junior level, how professional they are, how driven they are.
“This year Hayden Young has been really good at doing that – he knew what he wanted to get out of his football from the word go.”
The first round of the NAB League draft will commence on 28 November, with the remaining rounds on the following night where Cox and his Stingrays will be hoping to hear as many Dandenong names called as possible.