Photo: Nathan McNeill (NWM Sports)

By: Daniel Kelly (@UKurrie)

Daniel Hughes, on the field and off, is a restless individual, constantly seeking to improve and advance.

“It’s kind of a constant tick in my brain,” the Bullants ruckman says with a laugh and a sigh, when asked about how he spends his time outside of the rigours of VFL football and running ELSEA Design and Construction, his building business.

“My downtime is either going to the gym, or going for a run or bettering myself at footy. It’s never watching movies back to back or anything like that. I can’t do it.”

“I don’t have a lot of downtime – my choice though,” he says with satisfied resignation.

It was that relentless energy which landed Hughes at the Bullants in the first place.

Without a drivers licence at the time, he lent on the goodwill of his apprentices and trades, to drive him to the Bullants 2021 pre-season sessions and the chance to make the team.

But more about the Ants later.

First though, Daniel Hughes’ sporting story starts in Seaford, at around 10, when he was developing a passion for sport.

“Anything I could get my hands on really,” he said.

“All the ball sports, swimming for a bit, I gave tennis a crack, table tennis too. Probably the only one I didn’t really play was basketball.”

Finally, he settled on Australian football.

“I just loved the contact,” he says like a man who has an addiction to something which probably isn’t the best thing for his health, but loves it all the same.

Always the tallest amongst his peers and destined for ruck duties, Hughes started at Frankston Rovers before joining high school friends at Frankston YCW where he spent ten years.

Whilst loving the sport, Hughes didn’t have a strong AFL team affiliation and instead gravitated to players he admired instead.

Anybody who has watched how Hughes plays will not be surprised about the first hero that comes to his mind.

“I was really intrigued by how Jonathan Brown went about it,” he said.

“I liked his courage – I try to model some of my game around that. Not that you can compete with someone of that calibre, but I tried to work some of that into my game where I could.”

Other players which Hughes watched closely for inspiration over the years include Sam Powell-Pepper, Nat Fyfe and Patrick Cripps – notably, all have similar heights and physical game styles to Hughes.

Hughes would finish fourth in the Mornington Peninsula Football League best and fairest at the age of 21 in 2018, before moving to Sorrento for the ultimately cancelled 2020 season.

Whilst firmly a Bullant now, truth be told, given where he grew up and played his junior football, Hughes’s first love in the VFL was the local Frankston Dolphins side.

Hughes was on their list for two years but found himself with limited opportunities and only played one game, despite showing the eagerness and sacrifice that the Preston City Oval faithful recognise today.

When it came time to finding a club for 2021, the path to the Bullants came through his business dealings and a casual chat with good friend, aspiring carpenter and 2021 Ants listed player Kieran Collins.

“I called Kieran asking if he wanted an apprenticeship, ” Hughes said, “Because I knew he wanted to start his chippy apprenticeship.”

The conversation inevitably turned to football and Collins told Hughes that he was joining the Bullants. After pondering his options, Hughes asked for Bullants coach Josh Fraser’s phone number from Collins, made the call and asked if he could join pre-season training.

And from there, by calling in some favours from those who worked for him, Hughes would make his way from his home in Seaford in the south east, to Somers on the peninsula where he was on-site at the time, up to Preston City Oval, a train back to Richmond Station after training and then an Uber back down to Seaford – all just for the chance to be an Ant.

Receiving an invite to try out for the team and turning up is not enough on its own, though.

Knowing that he was up against the established VFL-ers from the recent Northern Blues era (who would train first) and a fresh group of hopefuls (who would train second), Hughes knew where he wanted to be.

“I was deliberately getting there earlier, ” he said with a little deviousness in his voice, “I wanted to train with the ex-VFL team because I didn’t want to be part of the development squad. I wanted to get in the mix with that experienced group early on.”

Taking advantage of Fraser’s good nature, Hughes innocently suggested that because he just happened to be there early, he might as well just join in with the ex-Blues.

It was a little inch that became a mile as Hughes, as chance would have it, would arrive in time for the early session each evening from then on.

“There was a bit of logic behind it,” Hughes admits cheekily.

Settling in to pre-season, and mindful that squad decisions were approaching, Hughes continued to nudge the boundaries.

“I was very pushy,” Hughes says in an acknowledging but ultimately unapologetic way. “I’m sure Frase was sick of me by the end of pre-season.”

Hughes’s relentless energy is as much of a state of mind as it is a game style, and it is clear that his motivation is as much an asset as his talent is.

“I didn’t care,” he said, “I just wanted to be there.”

“I was chasing it. I wasn’t being forced, I wasn’t being asked to be there – I was fighting my way through. I had to push for everything this year.”

Hughes knows that his personality and unabashed eagerness probably got him noticed those early weeks.

“I think that is why they kept me around,” he said. “I’m a bit extroverted, a bit loud and they thought ‘oh my god, who is this bloke with long hair and tattoos – who is he kidding?'”

“Frase actually told me that the first session I rocked up (at the Botanic Gardens for pre-season conditioning), they thought I was just a local out to run The Tan.”

Hughes impressed with his tenacity, workrate and ability, eventually establishing himself as the number one ruckman by Round 1 and is a fan favourite due to his crash or crash through physical style.

Coming it at an impressive 195cm (six foot five inches) he still gives away height in almost every encounter, so Hughes’s added value is around remaining competitive in the ruck duels but then becoming a presence around the ground.

This is most often seen in the form of tackling at the stoppages, forcing aerial contests around the ground, keeping his opposing ruckman honest with his mobility, and helping being part of a wall to lock the ball inside 50.

His relationship with outgoing coach Josh Fraser has only been enhanced given Fraser is an ex-AFL ruckman himself.

“It’s been massive,” Hughes admits. “Putting aside that Frase is the best coach I have had – period – him being a ruckman himself, means he just gets it.”

“I remember the first couple of weeks after watching the vision, he was pointing out a few things which were positive but four or five things which were negative. By mid-season, we were only reviewing for about five minutes, and I was picking out the stuff before he would say it.”

Fraser also had created an impact on Hughes by explaining how his positioning alone, even if he is not in contention for the ball, helps the team win possession back.

“Me understanding all that stuff and actually seeing it (on video) made an immense difference,” he said.

“The feedback kept getting better each week between him and I.”

That understanding hasn’t opened the door for Hughes to spend time forward, with the opportunity to kick goals, when he is not rucking…yet.

With that predictable forwardness, Hughes admits he had asked Fraser about that too.

“Every week!” he says with a laugh that lacks remorse.

“But we’re a ruckman short, it’s as simple as that. We’re just missing that bloke who is 200cm plus who can take the bulk of the tap outs, and then I can give him a chop out when he needs a rest, then play forward myself.”

Early on during the season, Hughes felt he was not getting the balance right.

“My big thing was my discipline, ” he said.

“I’m a pretty aggressive player – that’s something I had to work on straight away. I wasn’t trying to punch on, or be stupidly aggressive, but I was just using my body in the wrong way.”

“I think I gave away five free kicks in my first game and I just said to Frase I want to work on this right away, I don’t want to be doing this all year.”

“So then Frase and I watched the vision and worked on it all year. By the end of the year I was hitting some pretty good form.”

Hughes lists the one point thriller victory at Coburg as his favourite of the season – the match which he won the inaugural Harold Martin Medal as the best afield.

“That was my most enjoyable,” he says. “I’ve never been that gassed after the game, or during it to be honest.”

“The adrenaline after that, and during – I have never experienced anything like that – it was crazy.”

Hughes is a striking figure on the field with long hair and tattoos to go with his physical style. The tattoos have a mix of symbolism and artistic value.

“A couple have got meaning, a couple I have found looking for other styles,” he says. “I have a massive lion on my quad which represents strength and keenness.”

That courage and eagerness curtailed the 2021 season for Hughes just before half time of the, ultimately, season ending loss against Werribee in round 16.

Hughes was contesting possession around 40 metres out from goal when a head knock ended his day, although he doesn’t remember any contact.

“I remember being in a contest, trying to get the ball and then felt pretty light headed and dizzy,” he said.

Eager to continue after the concussion tests in the rooms, caution won the day and Hughes did not return.

“I was fine after ten or fifteen minutes but I saw the vision back later and I could hardly walk and was falling over, so I obviously wasn’t in the best shape,” he admits.

Both Hughes and the Ants have faced closed doors in the past but have refused to accept the apparent reality before them.

With equal doses of talent, opportunism, drive and a dash of boldness, both have had a 2021 to be proud of.

Like the Ants, Hughes’ restless energy is now looking for ways to not just survive but thrive in the VFL.