Luke Ryan was cut from Essendon’s VFL pre-season training group and then started 2016 in Coburg’s Development League team before becoming one of the Peter Jackson VFL’s hottest NAB AFL Draft prospects.
The 20-year-old rebounding defender made such an impact in 10 senior games that he was awarded this year’s Fothergill-Round Medal for the VFL’s most promising talent under 23 years of age – the last 10 winners of which have graduated to AFL lists.
185cm Ryan averaged 19 disposals (including 13 kicks) at 85 per cent efficiency, six marks and six rebound-50s per game at senior level for the Lions before a dislocated shoulder ended his season in Round 18.
Speaking to vfl.com.au at the recent NAB AFL Draft Combine at Etihad Stadium – where he was unable to participate in physical testing – Ryan said he was surprised with how quickly he’d found himself on the radars of AFL clubs in 2016.
“I got cut from Essendon and a day later I got a call from (Coburg list manager) Sebastian Spagnuolo to come down to Coburg,” Ryan said.
“I rocked up and played a practice match and before you know it, it’s Round 1 for the Development League and then Round 2. We had a bye the first one, but it only took one game (after that) and I was in (the senior team).
“It wasn’t fair to come in after a pre-season at Essendon and come straight into a senior spot. I had to work my way to it.
“I didn’t expect it to happen that quickly and I didn’t expect how well I’ve played to come out this year, but I’m a bit older now and my body is a bit more mature, and it’s probably showed on the field.”
Ryan justified his rapid elevation to Coburg’s senior team with a stunning VFL debut in an eight-point loss to the Box Hill Hawks at Piranha Park in Round 3, recording 29 disposals (23 kicks), 12 marks (five contested) and 10 rebound-50s.
“All the boys got around me (that day), ‘Germo’ (senior coach Peter German) and all the coaches really backed me in and just gave me that confidence to go for my marks,” Ryan said.
“That was probably my best game of the year.”
Ryan’s major strengths were on show against the Hawks – “my reading of the play, intercepting marking and my foot skills” – and illustrated why at least five AFL clubs nominated him to receive an invite to the Draft Combine.
He said he enjoyed watching the play of Western Bulldogs premiership captain and 2015 All Australian intercept-and-rebound defender Easton Wood, but that he still needs to work on his speed and upper body strength to compete at the elite level.
And after leaving the Calder Cannons TAC Cup system with just nine games to his name across 2014-15, Ryan has had to learn to deal with significantly more attention on him this year.
“There’s a lot of things in the media (about me) but I try to stick out of it and just worry about my own footy,” he said. “I just be a 20-year-old kid, go out there and play footy and don’t think about the off-field stuff too much.
“The last 10 that have got (the Fothergill-Round Medal) have been drafted, so I’ve got a lot of expectation on me. But if I don’t get drafted, I’ll just work harder next year and see what happens.”
Ryan said he’d continue his carpentry apprenticeship and return to the Lions if his AFL Draft dream doesn’t come to fruition on November 25.
Despite Coburg’s up-and-down 6-12 season to finish 12th, Ryan has learnt a lot from the club in his whirlwind first year at senior level.
“They’ve done a lot for me this year and I’d stay true to them,” Ryan said.
“(They’ve taught me to) just to give it a crack and always be on the front foot. When an opposition side kicks two or three goals, you don’t put your head down – you just always keep going.
“(Coburg has taught me to) always back yourself and believe in yourself.”