When everyone else was taking a well-deserved break over the summer at Preston City Oval, the Bullants recruiters have their moment in the sun.
Grant King, the Bullants lead player recruiter, supported by Jackson Tierney, were both busy scouting the players coach Ben Hart needs to move the club from surviving to thriving in 2022.
At the recent season launch, Hart couldn’t be more complimentary of the role recruiting had made in providing the next generation of the football club.
‘We’ve been able to put a great list together which we think is going to be competitive,’ Hart said. ‘A guy who needs a lot of credit for that is Grant King.’
‘Grant has been brilliant in assembling a team for my needs, but also what the footy club needs.’
King has brought in a much more structured system for 2022 to triage the high volume of recommendations he receives for potential new talent.
Once interesting leads are identified, King applies his keen eye for talent by watching game film and looking for the tell-tale signs of someone who can make it at the VFL level (and potentially beyond).
‘There’s a few key elements,’ King said when asked what he is looking for.
‘I look for what do they do instinctively do under fatigue, under pressure, and when they have no space.’
‘Do they handball forward? Do they stop? Do they go backwards? What do they do?’
King is keen to see what the basic instincts are of a player when they are making split second judgement calls in unfavourable situations.
‘It’s always good to focus on the first ten minutes of a game,’ King said, ‘and then the final ten minutes of a game.’
‘So, when the game is hot, and then when the player is fatigued. That’s when we get to the truth.’
And it is not just pure football ability which is important to King. When getting to know a player, the first thing the lead recruiter looks for is humility.
‘Humble is what (previous coach) Josh Fraser, Harty and I signed off on,’ King said. ‘And that’s what I took into recruiting. That’s the first box that needs to be ticked.’
— Northern Bullants FC (@NBullantsFC) March 21, 2022
After being easy to work with, the commitment to the cause needs to be there.
‘The VFL is semi-professional but the standards are extremely high,’ King said. ‘So, you attract a different kind of player than you would in local footy.’
The disciplines and sacrifices required to maintain peak physical condition and focus are distinct from suburban and country leagues.
‘VFL players are predominantly hard-working, intelligent and diligent individuals,’ King said.
As an independent club in the VFL, the Bullants culture differentiates itself from many of its rivals who are in the shadows of their more high-profile AFL teams.
The Ants compete on the same field of battle with those AFL aligned teams but offer a better sense of mateship off the ground.
‘The comradery is there; it’s got a local footy feel with AFL standards,’ King said. ‘I promise three things – you will be valued; you will add value; and you will have fun.’
‘And my plan is to get kids drafted (to the AFL),’ King says with obvious pride and sincerity.
The connection to local football, particularly the Northern Football Netball League (NFNL), is of particular importance to the Northern Bullants.
The prevalence of Sunday games at Preston City Oval is down to the Bullants wanting to ensure that local fans can attend both their NFNL team on the Saturday and the Ants on the Sunday.
Jackson Tierney is a valuable support to King in bringing in new Ants.
Together with King, he’s been meeting regularly with coach Hart across the summer to fulfil gaps in skill or depth that will move the Ants from surviving to thriving in 2022.
Ex-Melbourne AFL, and Footscray and Essendon VFL player Kyle Dunkley headlines an impressive list of 2022 recruits for the Bullants as the club seeks to continue its promising end to the interrupted, and ultimately curtailed, 2021 season.
Dunkley (21 years old) brings versatility as an inside or outside mid, along with next level composure and decision making with the ball.
On the occasions in which the Ants do not get first use of the ball in the ruck contest, Dunkley’s competitive nature will be seen in his eagerness to tackle.
Blessed with a strong inside mid core, led by captain Tom Wilson, Dunkley’s ability to move the ball swiftly and effectively away from congestion will be one of the more noticeable benefits he brings.
Speed of ball movement will be a key theme for the Ants in 2022 and ex-West Preston-Lakeside player Ethan Penrith (22) will provide this in abundance.
Playing off half back, Penrith holds his own in one-on-one contests, but it is his ball movement which has brought him the short journey from West Preston to Preston.
“With ball in hand he is not afraid to run and carry, and hit a target,” Tierney said.
Ants fan favourite Billy Murphy has a partner in crime to terrorise static defenders in 2022.
Known as ‘Flea’, Mackenzie Dorean (22) is fleet footed and is ‘everywhere’ according to Tierney and loves to take on his opponents. He has also been a regular on the scoreboard in intra-club and practice matches already in 2022.
But, like Murphy, he relishes the contest.
‘He’s as tough as nails,’ Tierney said. ‘He’ll take on a 200cm full back if he needs to and lay a big tackle’.
Nobody questioned Daniel Hughes’s performance as the lead ruckman for the Ants in 2021; indeed, his efforts were rewarded with second place in the Bullants best and fairest and the Ray Shaw Medal.
But even he acknowledged the Ants could do with a specialist big man. The brains trust agreed and in comes Andrew Courtney (20) from the Casey VFL team.
“He’s not just a man mountain,’ Tierney said. ‘He’s a ruckman who can spread around the ground, which really backs up what Harty wants – he wants speed and mobility, and Courtney provides that’.
Courtney is young and developing, but him potentially taking over ruck duties has important structural benefits for the Ants too.
It would allow the physical Hughes to play more time at centre half forward, and for the promising Jack Boyd to focus on his full forward role without the rigours of part-time ruck duties.
In an effort to find more creativity and be less predictable, the Bullants have brought in x-factor potential in Matthew Day (22).
The ex-Essendon VFL man has the ability to break away from the pack and is equally capable on the ground and in the air.
‘He’s an impact per possession player,’ Tierney said. ‘When the ball is in his vicinity, or in his hand, you can tell something is going to happen. He’s exciting.’
Ben De Bolfo (19), from the NAB League Northern Knights who are the Ants co-tenants at Preston City Oval, attracted some AFL draft interest in 2021 and will provide further quality to the defense.
Standing at 191cm but seemingly still growing, De Bolfo is another tall backman available to Hart. The former Knight will be trusted to use his left foot to rebound with care once alongside his defensive duties.
De Bolfo’s eagerness to learn has been as impressive as his ability across the pre-season and he has built a close affinity with fellow backman Doug Lawrence.
‘They’re two peas in a pod,’ said Tierney. ‘They play a similar way – they both stand in the hole and are not afraid to take a big, contested mark.’
The Bullants have added to their backline depth with the additions of Sean Martin, Peter Gentile and Jaden Collins.
Martin (26), from Tatura, brings versatility through his athleticism, his ability to play on small or tall forwards, and being able to time his impact in the contest.
Gentile (21), from Narre Warren, brings outstanding vision and skill in defense in a Caleb Daniel sized package. In addition to his skills, it is Gentile’s determination that also caught the eye.
‘He’s always one of the last one’s on the track,’ Tierney said.
Jaden Collins (20), most recently with Eltham in the NFNL, has a strong pedigree from being part of the elite pathways as junior, culminating in representing Vic Metro in the under-16 competition.
At 195cm, Collins has been given the arduous task of matching up against Daniel Hughes and Jack Boyd in intra-club match ups but his progress has been obvious to see.
‘He has got better every training session of every week,’ Tierney said. ‘He’s really living up to that potential.’
Talent and potential has also been added further up the ground with the additions of Kobe Brown (21), Liam Kolar (19) and Will Richards (18).
Brown is a talented small forward with great goal instincts. But one major upside that Brown possesses is his tackling prowess.
‘What surprised us most was how hard he hits the contest,’ Tierney said. ‘It’s like he’s had a rugby upbringing; he just goes straight at the hips and will take anyone on.’
The Northern Knights have also provided a bonafide athlete in Liam Kolar.
Kolar won national junior carnivals in both 800m and 1500m track events, and was a gifted soccer play before being coaxed into a regular lunch time kick of Australian rules football at school with friends.
A couple of years later and Kolar produced interest at the 2020 draft given his endurance, speed and vertical leap.
Once he has overcome some fitness issues, like the Knights, the Ants intend to exploit Kolar’s pace and leap as a lead up forward.
Richards future in the Ants jumper will have to wait after suffering a broken pelvis as part of pre-season. His toughness was one of the reasons the Ants were attracted to the Melbourne Grammar product, but it has put his 2022 prospects on ice.
Once back, Ants fans will see Richards hard running, physical style on the wing, as well as his innate ability to read the play and position himself accordingly.
The Bullants have retained a strong core from their improving 2021 side and the latest additions, thanks to King and Tierney, have ensured that pace, potential and depth will be a few of the most exciting things to watch in the 2022 version of the Northern Bullants.