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Going Places: Footy Nut Darcy Tucker Cops the Recruiters’ Blowtorch

Darcy Tucker grew up a footy fanatic. He loved sorting his player card selection into teams and positions, and he could recite the jumper number of every player in the competition.

His bedroom at his family’s home in Horsham in Victoria’s west was – and still is – dominated by St Kilda paraphernalia, with posters, stickers and flags stuck on walls. His favourite player was Stephen Milne, and Tucker wore Milne’s No. 44 throughout his junior career.

Tucker’s parents, Leigh and Roxanne, were St Kilda members, and every home game would make the four-hour drive to Melbourne with Darcy in the backseat.

When they didn’t go, Tucker would watch games from the couch, and if the Saints lost, he would run into his room, shut the door and beat up a 60cm doll – Woody from the Toy Story movies – that stood in the corner. “I was a massive ‘footy head’,” he says.

Tucker, who is shaping as an early pick in this year’s NAB AFL Draft, has wanted to play footy at the highest level from the moment he realised it was possible. In his early teens, he flirted with the idea of chasing a basketball career, but football was always the priority.

He has been learning and studying the game since he decided he would play at the top level. As a kid he would spend hours in his driveway, kicking the ball between the mailbox and fence, pretending to kick a goal to win an AFL Grand Final.

When his dad Leigh came out for a kick, he would tell Darcy he would go back inside if the youngster couldn’t hit him on the chest with his left-foot. If Darcy missed, he would stay outside and practice his kicking a little more.

He would also play footy indoors, curling kicks through a long hallway. “When I grow up and play AFL and buy my first house it’s going to have the longest passage way you’ve ever seen so we can play kick-to-kick,” Tucker once told his mum.

The memories of his time in Horsham remain etched, even though he hasn’t lived with his parents for three years. In his room there’s a basket of old footballs and basketballs. He was never interested in typical toys like trucks. Nobody had to be creative to find him a Christmas gift.

Life as a Tiger cub

This week, Tucker got a taste of what AFL life will be like. As part of the NAB AFL Academy program, he spent five days training at Richmond. He stayed at second-year Tiger Ben Lennon’s house and did everything the listed players did: he trained, did weights and attended team meetings. The Tigers’ recruiters would have liked keeping him, such was the ease with which he settled in.

After an excellent 2014 season at TAC Cup level, the North Ballarat Rebels half-back is considered among the leading draft prospects this year. His week with the Tigers taught him about the high standards expected of AFL players. “On the training track the players don’t put up with crap,” Tucker says.

Tucker’s application has never been an issue. Roxanne remembers her son as an eight-year-old going out on to the front porch and tying up his shoelaces. “Where are you off to?” she asked. “Just going for a run,” Darcy replied, before returning half an hour later with sweat dripping off his forehead.

His talent was easy to spot, and he played with the Horsham Saints’ minis team. He was picked in a Victorian under-12 team, and won the local league’s goalkicking in the under-14s after booting bags of 10 and 11 in consecutive weeks. But he was always one of the shorter kids who had to rely on his sharp skills.

His dad coached him and used him as a small forward. Playing in the pocket, Tucker could take hangers and crumb goals. He also played as a point-guard in basketball, the spot for the smallest (but usually sharpest-skilled) player on the team.

“I thought I’d be too small for footy and too small for basketball. I was always one of the shorter guys,” Tucker says. “I didn’t have a big growth spurt, but when I was 15 I started growing a bit more and that was handy. I’m at 184cm now and I’m happy with my height.”

His growth spurt came in 2013, about the same time as a significant change in his life, a move from Horsham to Ballarat Clarendon College.

The school had been on to him for a while about making the move and being part of its boarding house, but his parents had resisted. There was nothing wrong with his school in Horsham, and they knew once he left, he wouldn’t come back to live with them. They had already seen that with his older sisters Beau and Pheoebe. But his parents also knew that once he reached his under-16s year with the North Ballarat Rebels, he was going to spend plenty of time in Ballarat anyway.

School officials were relentless and called Tucker again with an improved scholarship offer, and he agreed to take a tour. He spoke with Rebels regional manager Phil Partington and coach David Loader, who both thought it would be good for him to move closer to the club.

“Moving was the best thing I’ve ever done,” Tucker says. “It sparked my footy. I got to train with the Rebels a year earlier, and I played four (under-18) games as a 16-year-old. I wouldn’t have got into the national academy without that exposure. Before then I didn’t feel too comfortable and didn’t think I was that good a player.”

He proved he was a good player last year, when he starred for Vic Country at the NAB AFL Under-18 Championships. Playing across half-back, he provided dash and delivered the ball sharply. His play would later earn him selection in the All-Australian team.

An injury setback

When he returned to the Rebels during Vic Country’s championship bye week, Tucker’s season took a terrible turn. Only minutes away from half-time, he was tackled from behind and an opponent fell on him. He was initially told he would miss six-to-eight weeks with ankle ligament damage, but after four weeks he still couldn’t put any weight on the joint. Tucker knew the injury was worse than first thought.

He had another MRI scan, and doctors found the ligament damage in his ankle was more significant than they first thought. He underwent surgery, had two bolts screwed between his tibia and fibula bones to stabilise the area and was told he probably wouldn’t get back to feeling normal on the ground for 12 months.

Ever-determined, Tucker had a gym program set out for him, followed it precisely, and surprised the surgeon with his progress, even though he missed about six months of footy because of the injury.

“I was very frustrated. I hate watching from the sidelines. I’d rather not be there watching, but you have to follow your team,” he says. “If there’s any consolation, I’m glad it happened last year and that it won’t impact this season.”

Tucker started training again in December. Tomorrow, he’s off to Florida for a 10-day training camp with the academy and he plans to make it the start of a successful year. He has already heard people talk about him as an early pick, and wants to live up to those estimations.

“I want to move into the midfield and play as an inside midfielder. That’s the natural progression for my game,” he says.

“It’s going to be one of the biggest and most exciting years of my life and it will go quickly, but I’m looking forward to the challenges ahead.”

Under the microscope

“I’ve just been smashed,” Tucker says with a sheepish smile as he walks out of a room full of AFL club recruiters. He has spent the last three hours moving in 10-minute blocks from one part of the room to another for scheduled chats with scouts. After Tucker’s quiet game last weekend for the NAB AFL Academy team against Werribee’s VFL team, the scouts didn’t waste time.

“Why weren’t you yourself?” a few scouts asked. “Was that the type of game you wanted to produce as captain?” one recruiter asked of Tucker, who was named skipper for the match. Others simply offered opinions. “That’s the worst game I’ve seen you play,” one recruiter said. One club even told him he looked timid around VFL opponents.

“They reckon I couldn’t handle the step up. It pissed me off because I’ve played plenty of senior footy back home in Horsham and I thought it was just an off game,” Tucker says.

“The day after I wanted to forget about it and move on. But then I had people asking me why I didn’t play well. The coaches had already told me I was bad, my dad said I probably wasn’t up to my usual standards and then I heard it from all the recruiters.

“I was a bit defensive and wanted to say ‘Just wait for next week’. It’s an insight into what the AFL world is like, and how much scrutiny everyone is under.”

After noticing he was a little shocked, Demons recruiting manager Jason Taylor grabbed Tucker in the foyer of the Mercure Hotel in Melbourne.

“I’ve heard you’ve had a tough time with recruiters?” Taylor said. “Don’t worry about it, everyone has off games. Try to focus on this week.”

Moving on to next week

Tucker felt better after that pep talk, and turned his focus to Saturday’s clash against the Northern Blues at the MCG. What annoyed him most was that he had started the season well; it was his first blip. In round one of the TAC Cup, Tucker had 26 collected disposals and kicked two goals against the Geelong Falcons.

Five days before that game he was appointed captain of the Rebels for 2015. Coach David Loader said Tucker was the right man for the job, having sought votes from the players. “It’s great to know they trust me,” Tucker says.

Tucker isn’t a big talker, and he knows he needs to work on his communication. He wants to treat everyone the same, lead a professional unit and be there for his teammates if they need him.

“Darcy fits in seamlessly,” one AFL recruiter said. “He’s not an outgoing kid. He just does his bit but he’s not overly expressive with his personality. Being captain might bring out his personality a bit more.”

Tucker was a sound choice as skipper on another front, with the 18-year-old working at the club full-time. After finishing secondary school last year and doing well enough to start an exercise/sports science course at Deakin University, Tucker was keen to have a gap year.

Rebels regional manager Phil Partington raised the idea of him working full-time at the Rebels as part of the AFL’s SportsReady program, and Tucker started at the beginning of February. His desk is adjacent to Partington’s office inside Eureka Stadium, and during the day he helps with the administration of the club.

He sets up team training, and edits Champion Data game vision for the team’s opposition analysis session, taking notes and presenting to the Rebels every Thursday.

In the past two months, representatives of most AFL clubs have visited Partington to ask about the Rebels’ prospects, and Tucker sat in on North Melbourne’s visit. He noticed how the Kangaroos scouts didn’t necessarily want to know what Partington thought of the players now, but were more interested in the type of players they couldbecome. Tucker left the meeting thinking he could never become complacent.

A choice to make

Partington offers Tucker advice on many things, and recently the youngster had a decision to make. After performing well at last year’s under-18 championships, letters started arriving from player managers. Tucker met with all eight who contacted him. He found they all offered similar support (mentoring, courses, finance help, management fees), but each was different. Some were casual, others more corporate. He set himself to reduce his options to three, so called five of them and said ‘Thanks, but no thanks’, and they respected him getting in touch personally.

Tucker met with the remaining candidates three or four times as he weighed up his options. He asked his parents which way he should go, but they didn’t give their view. Partington did the same, but encouraged him to get it done before the season started. Tucker took his parents to Melbourne and visited the last three agents’ offices, and a day later chose Nigel Carmody at ESP to manage him.

“I’m not used to making phone calls that disappoint people. I’d sit there and stare at the phone for a very long time just thinking about what I was going to say,” Tucker says.

“The process taught me that I’ve grown up a bit, and that when you’re at this stage of your life, you’ve got to start making decisions like that. If I had my time again I wouldn’t have met with as many as I did initially.” Tucker is mature, and wanted to handle each enquiry politely. He’s also independent, a trait helped with his move to Clarendon College from Horsham.

This year, with his time at the school boarding house over, he’s living in Alfredton, a suburb 15 minutes out of central Ballarat.

Two of his housemates – Tom Templeton and Josh Webster – are over-agers with the Rebels, while Connor Barnes is a schoolmate. The boys’ parents chip in and package up meals, they eat once a week at the club, and on Tuesday nights Brooke Brown, the Rebels’ team manager, makes the boys lasagna. “We’re no master chefs,” he says.

Recruiters can’t speak highly enough of Tucker’s character. And they all say character is now a crucial part of the draft selection process.

But there are parts of Tucker’s game recruiters want to see more of, especially his ability to win contested possession. The majority of his play so far has been as an outside type. “He’s a pro already and he’s in great nick,” one scout said.

“He’s got a few things to work on with his footy – his kick can be a bit awkward at times, and he tends to hover when the ball’s in the area instead of going right at it – but he takes that feedback on board really well. You’d happily bring him into your club and know he’ll go well.”

“I love him as a player and he’s right up in the top echelon of prospects this year,” another recruiter said. “He just looks a readymade AFL player.”

Tucker doesn’t want to think that far ahead, with his immediate focus on returning to form on Saturday morning for the Academy. He wants to back himself in; he wants to run harder, kick longer and “take the grass” ahead of him. If he sees a gap, he wants to split it. He wants to show last week was a one-off.

“I set myself high standards all the time, but playing a bad game showed me that everyone else does too. I wasn’t happy with last week, and it’s pretty clear nobody else was either,” Tucker says. “But there’s a lot of time to make up for it.”

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