The lead-up to a VFL debut can seem tumultuous at the best of times, but Nick Richards must feel like things are moving especially quickly as he prepares to play his first senior game for Werribee.
On the back of strong performances for TAC Cup outift Murray Bushrangers and local club Wangaratta Magpies across the first half of the year, the 18-year-old now finds himself being whisked away from north east Victoria to the big smoke to line up against Coburg this weekend – all without even officially being on the Tigers’ playing list.
It seems like an unorthodox process on the surface, but it’s exactly what the 23rd player rule is intended for: to provide a taste of senior VFL football for promising young players, including those currently outside the system.
“Our captain, Michael Sodomaco, played with us as 23rd player when he was still with the Geelong Falcons, so it’s something we do every year,” explains senior coach John Lamont.
“It’s part of our role as a VFL club to provide those opportunities not only for blokes on our list but also those outside the program.
“We felt it was the right time to start doing it this year, so Nick gets an opportunity this week. He may play again, and I dare say we will provide some opportunities for some Falcons boys and possibly some other Bushrangers kids and maybe a Bendigo Pioneers player.”
Of course, simply being young and in search of an opportunity doesn’t guarantee anything. Players need to show something to suggest they are capable of performing at the level, and Lamont has been impressed with what he has seen of Richards’ work for the Bushrangers and Magpies as well as in a handful of Development League games for Williamstown.
“His skill level looks good, he can play on a wing or play forward, and he makes good decisions,” says Lamont.
“There’s nothing much of him, but that’s true of a lot of blokes that age, and he’s got some good footy nous.”
The nature of the process means Richards will be forced to slot into a team he hasn’t trained with or spent a great deal of time with, but Werribee’s existing relationship with the Bushrangers should help make for a smooth transition.
While the Tigers enjoy an official alignment with the Falcons, they’ve been the beneficiaries of plenty of talent from the north east. Sixteen players on the current list hail from the region, with former Bushrangers Kyle Galloway, Jade Cleeland, and Louis Pinnuck – the latter a teammate of Richards last year – having already debuted for the club this year.
“It’s been really good,” Lamont says of the connection. “Nathan Laracy, our longest-serving player, is a former Bushranger. From that year, we’ve just gradually built things up.
“Nick played with Louis last year, he’s played with Jake Sharp’s brothers, so we’ve got a little bit of an affinity there.”
And while Richards will no doubt have plenty of support to rely on from his friends and family back home, Lamont expects two of his teammates to keep a particularly close eye on how he fares in his debut match.
“Ben Speight and Josh Porter, two ex-Werribee players, are playing with Wangaratta this year,” he explains.
“I’ve been in touch with them, and they’ve had a chat with him, and they’re rapt for him.”
Richards and the rest of the Werribee team will run out against Coburg at 2pm on Saturday at Piranha Park in Coburg.