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Sunday Age

The pup-and-comers

Date: 12/08/2001
Words: 1000
          Publication: The Sunday Age
Section: Sport
Page: 13
The Western Bulldogs play Collingwood at the MCG today. One team has an impressive list of rising young stars, the other team is the Bulldogs.

That, at least, has been the perception.

The reality is that one team has had three players win rising-star nominations this season and the other team is Collingwood.

For the Doggies, though, this is a new reality.

Until Luke Penny won a nomination for his performance against West Coast in round nine, the Bulldogs had not had a rising-star nomination since Luke Darcy was recognised in round three of 1996.

No club had experienced a longer drought.

When nominations were then won by running players Daniel Giansiracusa against Fremantle in round 15 and Robert Murphy the following round against St Kilda, the winds from the west carried a whiff of revolution.

Murphy and Giansiracusa were among seven untried young players secured by the Bulldogs with their first seven picks in the 1999 national draft.

Six have since played league football. The seventh, Perth-bred Ryan Hargrave, is an emergency for the Pies clash.

Any doubts that the club had markedly shifted its recruiting policy were extinguished last November, when not only did it secure rookies with its first four national-draft picks, all of them were 17-year-olds.

One, former Glenelg dasher Jordon McMahon, has already played three senior games.

The philosophy that drove the Bulldogs' recruitment of players in the last days of coach Alan Joyce and the early years of his replacement, Terry Wallace, remains a sensitive issue.

In those times, early draft picks were wasted on the likes of Allen Jakovich and Nicky Winmar as the club topped up its list in search of a premiership. Rookies picked up late in the draft often fell by the wayside due mainly, says Wallace, to poor development programs.

In 1998, amid the disappointment of the Dogs' second successive preliminary final defeat, recruiting manager Mark Kleiman's acquisition of 17-year-old Penny with the club's first draft pick was overshadowed by the gamble on Winmar.

When Scott Clayton, the former Brisbane recruiting manager regarded by Wallace and Robert Walls as having the best eye in the league for spotting young talent, became available in '99, the Bulldogs coach snapped him up.

Kleiman departed, and faces his old club today as the head of football operations at Collingwood.

Wallace says that despite the on-field success of '97 and '98, he and Clayton were aware that the club had fallen behind many of its rivals in its development of youth.

"We just felt that if we weren't very careful, in three or four years we were going to be left behind," Wallace said.

Experienced players Leon Cameron, Stephen Powell and Michael Martin were traded to allow Clayton a full swing at the nation's best young talent on national draft day, 1999.

"We made some difficult decisions at that time, letting a couple of senior players go to just up the ante and get some better draft selections," Wallace said.

Clayton spread his net far and wide, picking up Murphy (Gippsland), Giansiracusa (Williamstown), Patrick Wiggins (Tasmania), Mitchell Hahn (Queensland), Lindsay Gilbee (Coldstream), Patrick Bowden (Northern Territory) and Hargrave (Perth).

"When we analysed the list, we realised we had to get some quality youth on board," Clayton said.

Said Wallace: "You go to draft day and you hope things go right, but I must say from that draft we ... were able to say we've got a very good bunch that's going to have a very strong impact on our club."

And an impact on the coach.

It is the youngest AFL list Wallace has coached, and he can't hide his excitement.

"I think all coaches would like the opportunity to work with their recruiting man and eventually get the team that they've gone out to select," he said.

The closely knit new group, which Giansiracusa describes as "a team within a team", has had a reinvigorating effect on the senior players.

After the disappointments of '97 and '98, Wallace said the likes of Chris Grant, Tony Liberatore, Scott West, Brad Johnson and Rohan Smith deserved the support of an emerging group of talented youngsters.

"We thought that if we were going to have a real honest shot at being able to win a flag, we needed to give our senior player group ... another opportunity with some real quality players coming through prior to the time of them stepping away and retiring," he said.

It is spur enough for Liberatore to look forward to a 16th AFL season next year.

"For the first time in a while we have got a lot of young kids around the place," he said.

"The likes of Giansiracusa, McMahon and Luke Penny - it's very exciting and I want to be here to help them and teach them about footy."

For his part, Giansiracusa is happy to be feeding the likes of Grant and Johnson, and making a success of every assignment. "Your spot's never cemented as a young bloke, but I'm starting to feel a part of it now," he said.

Wallace is encouraged by the progress of Giansiracusa and Murphy, the club's first pick in '99. Both are gifted ball-carriers with silky skills who can be used in a variety roles.

Gilbee and Hahn, too, have grown more comfortable in senior football as midfield types.

But it is to the coach's frustration that the club's work in attempting to rectify its most obvious weakness - a lack of quality tall defenders and key position players - has yet to reap rewards.

Big man Wiggins and the 201-centimetre Nicholas Bruton, picked up from Diggers Rest in this year's pre-season draft, have both had injury problems that have hindered their development.

In the meantime, Penny is being brought up rough as the team's only young tall. Wallace has given the former Oakleigh Chargers youngster some big tasks, including jobs on David Neitz, Adam Goodes, Ben Graham, Brad Ottens and, in the Docker star's last game of league football, Tony Modra.

"That's great for his development," Wallace said. "He's had some ripper games in amongst that, and he's had some ups and downs as well, but those guys are quality players."

Wallace puts great stock in the young players enjoying a "winning environment" together at reserves level, and says the decision this year not to split the second tier between Williamstown and Werribee, instead using only Werribee, was a positive move.

If there has been one criticism of the group of young players on which Wallace is pinning the future hopes of the club, it is that most arrived with light, undeveloped bodies.

Wallace said all of the '99 draftees had put on 11 kilograms or more since coming to the club, but on such matters he defers to the philosophy of his recruiting manager.

"Our answer to that is we find it easier to put on weight than ability," Clayton said.

The Bulldog rising stars


Age: 20.

No: 27.

Height: 193cm.

Weight: 96kg.

Debut: 2000.

Games: 25.

Roles: Key defender.

The coach says: ``He's had some big tasks ... we haven't tried to hide him. That's great for his development ... Each challenge that he faces he's going to learn a little bit more from."


Age: 19.

No: 2.

Height: 184cm.

Weight: 78kg.

Debut: 2000.

Games: 14.

Roles: Half-back flanker.

The coach says: ``We thought he'd show us a fair bit early, (but) it took him a little bit longer than what we expected. I think over the last six weeks he's really matured into a quality player for us. Where we saw him heading, he now sees himself."


Age: 20.

No: 13.

Height: 180cm.

Weight: 72kg.

Debut: 2001.

Games: 7.

Roles: Half-forward flank, wing.

The coach says: ``Through injury (last year) we didn't get to see much of him at all ... At the start of this year Daniel was under the question mark, `Do you understand what this is all about? We really need you to step up,' and he's been terrific. He's beaten even our expectations ... and settled as a regular in the side."

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