Footscray’s Will Hayes completed the transition from dangerous forward to game-breaking midfielder during the 2018 Peter Jackson VFL season.
The 23-year-old’s shift into the Bulldogs’ engine room has been in the making through his five seasons at VU Whitten Oval, but greater opportunity presented itself this year at just the right time in his football development.
181cm Hayes capitalised on key injuries for the Western Bulldogs at AFL level to step up and record team-highs in total disposals (averaging 26 per game), contested possessions (10) and clearances (4.5) as well as ranking second in the VFL during the home-and-away rounds for total uncontested possessions (16) and third for inside-50s (five) across 18 matches.
His 2018 campaign earned him VFL Team of the Year honours, fifth spot in J.J. Liston Trophy voting, Footscray’s best-and-fairest award and – 77 games into his VFL career – extra attention from AFL clubs ahead of the NAB AFL Draft on November 22-23.
“I’ve always wanted to be a midfielder, because I like to think I can run all day and I enjoy being around the footy,” Hayes said at the recent Victorian State Combine. “The opportunity came this year and I took it with both hands.
“The AFL list was unfortunately a bit injured, so we didn’t have key players in the midfield that we normally do. That’s where I got my opportunity, to try and fill that void.
“I just wanted to keep building on what I did last year at the Dogs. I thought I had a strong back-end of 2017 and I worked closely with the coaches on certain areas of the game that I wanted to focus on.”
Hayes credited the three senior coaches he’s had at Footscray since 2014 – Chris Maple (2014), Ash Hansen (2015-16) and Steve Grace (2017-18) – with helping to build him into the player he has become, one with the ability to “win the ball inside and out”.
The Sandringham Dragons TAC Cup graduate said Grace and Bulldogs VFL midfield coach Stewart Edge were crucial in identifying his areas for growth this season.
“You’ve got to be able to win the footy, so I’m always working on my contested craft,” Hayes said. “That was an area of focus, along with my balance in terms of running both defensively and offensively and just staying in the chain of play.
“I’m always wanting to build on the defensive side of my game because you’re a pretty hard team to beat if you can’t be scored against.
“I’ve thought – fingers crossed – that one day I’d have the ability to get there (AFL), but you never know.”
THE AFL DRAFT WATCH ‘FAST FIVE’ with Will Hayes
Why should an AFL club draft you?
“My ability to play inside and out.”
What is the funniest or weirdest question you’ve been asked by an AFL club?
“I haven’t had any weird ones, so fingers crossed I don’t have any coming up.”
Who is your football idol?
“Rory Sloane (Adelaide). I love the way that he goes about it. He is a grinder, he puts in 100 per cent every time and is a contested beast.”
Who is the best VFL prospect for joining an AFL list this year?
“Sam Collins from Werribee (now Gold Coast AFL). A fantastic contested grab and I think he is what a lot of AFL clubs want.”
Which of your 2018 teammates should also be in draft consideration?
“There are a heap of them – a lot of talented boys at the Bulldogs. I would have to say Josh Patullo when he is right (injury-wise), Brad Olsson – a rebounding half back – Andrew Tashevski-Beckwith and Reuben William.”