On the upper levels on Marvel Stadium, the biggest two days of the year for a crucial contingent of Collingwood’s staff has come. Plonked in the middle of a row of 17 other clubs looking to secure the nation’s best talent, the Pies’ recruiting team take their place in a blacked-out bunker filled with computers, whiteboards, and TVs, all with hidden gems of knowledge within them.
Of course, there has been months, perhaps years, of time and effort that has gone into what will unfold over the next few hours. Never wanting to give their secrets away, scouting reports are compiled, and phone calls frequently dialled, as the Pies await their chance to pick.
And while a small and muted glimpse is often seen on the TV broadcast, honing in on Graham Wright and Derek Hine as they debate their selections and zooming in on a smiling Craig McRae as the pick is confirmed, much of it is left to the imagination.
So, what really goes on across the two days? From phone calls, to quickly made decisions, this is the inside story.
It’s a little before 6pm on Monday evening when things begin to feel in readiness. General Manager of Football Graham ‘Wrighty’ Wright is the first to arrive, smile on face and backpack in tow.
His arrival comes almost simultaneously with the event’s complimentary food platters, as meat pies and sliced fruit are placed on the table to keep stomachs full throughout the almost four-hour broadcast. But as Wright unpacks his bag, it’s clear one necessity of draft night is missing.
“Gotta have some lolly snakes,” he smiles.
If he’s nervous, it doesn’t show. One of the masterminds behind the Club’s current list, Wrighty has been involved in draft decisions at both the Hawks and now the Pies for almost two decades. His right-hand man in 20-year Head Recruiter Derek ‘Dekka’ Hine arrives shortly after and the two immediately relax into their chairs and fire up their laptops, knowing it won’t be until later in the evening that their work really starts.
Talent ID Manager Adam ‘Shep’ Shepard is there too and much like Hine, has studied each player eligible for the year’s draft intently. The aforementioned trio are one of the most experienced in the competition when it comes to list management and talent identification, with over 50 years’ experience between them. Dekka and Wrighty especially are a unique one-two punch when it comes to recruiting, having watched and valued more pathway players than any other pair in the AFL throughout the 2000s. Even before the selections have started, they discuss some of the more complex aspects of the night such as draft points and bid-matches, preparing themselves for anything that might rear its head throughout.
Head Coach Craig ‘Fly’ McRae, Head of Innovation and Strategy Justin ‘Leppa’ Leppitsch, List Administration Manager Shannon Collins and Board member and Club legend Paul Licuria round out the room, all there to join in discourse and observe as the night unfolds. Leppa brings the outside the box thinking, as well as a few jokes, while a replay of a 1998 fixture between the Dees and Pies – the final season of Wright’s career - plays on the screen before the broadcast starts, relaxing the room once more as they revel in the GM’s storied playing career. They have prepared all they can, watching game after game, making call after call, and doing interview after interview to get themselves into the strongest position possible. Their national part-time recruiting staff have been crucial as well, helping them see games all across the country to have every player covered. With pick 19 currently theirs and a flurry of academy selections expected to push it into the mid-20s, they must adapt with how the night unfolds.
A chorus of head nods fill the room as the West Coast Eagles select Harley Reid with pick number one. He sits at the top of the Pies’ own power rankings too and has been the general consensus as the best player 2023 has to offer for some time, so there are no surprises there. Shep sits behind the computer that has each player ranked from their perspective, all the way into the picks into the fifties. Those around the 20s will likely have the most relevance for the Pies.
Harry DeMattia sits in that bracket.
Picks two and three go as expected, but it’s at North Melbourne’s chance with the fourth selection that the room goes silent in anticipation. Dekka says the Roos are split over whether to pick Vic Country mid Zane Duursma or WA utility Daniel Curtin, with the decision set to shape the coming picks in the draft.
The Roos do land on Duursma, creating intrigue around where Curtin – who the Pies rate at number five in the pool – will go. He eventually lands at Adelaide with the eighth pick – one the Crows acquired in a pick swap with GWS and one that also ruled out any chance of the Pies dealing with GWS later down the track at pick 16.
Collins’ screen has all the live trades popping up allowing the table to analyse each swap between opposing clubs on why it might be the case and what player they’re targeting out of it, all helping the Pies know the lay of the land before their imminent selection is upon them.
Things start heating up in the room as the picks roll into the late teens. Dekka places air pods into his ears in anticipation of any calls, while Fly continues to observe with increasing intrigue.
Hardeman, DeMattia and Cleary are all still on the board as the picks enter the 20s. Dekka believes it’s unlikely the WA defender in Hardeman will still be available at pick 24 where the Pies now sit, while Collins does a small fist pump each time the trio are passed through. With 22 picks gone and just one from North Melbourne set to go before it’s the Pies’ chance, ideas flow given at least two of their favoured players will still be available.
“Are we prepared to move back one spot if both are still there?,” Wrighty floats while Hardemann and DeMattia stay available.
That’s squashed by the Roos taking Hardeman, with the decision now easy. Cleary, a Sydney Swans academy player, has the right to be retained by the NSW-based club. The Recruiting staff rate him highly and plan to bid on him at this selection.
Five agonising minutes later the bid is matched, meaning Cleary will be wearing the red-and-white. But it doesn’t perturb anyone in the room, given it mean the Pies have got their man, with the table thrilled to pick Dandenong Stingrays co-captain and star cricketer DeMattia at pick 25. Given he was rated 18 at the start of the night by Hine and co, it’s quite the coup.
The decision has been made, but Wright suggests using a couple of the five allotted minutes “just in case” an offer for a pick swap comes through.
It doesn’t, as the newest member of the Pies is confirmed. An explosive midfielder who starred for Vic Country throughout 2023, DeMattia is a leader, with speed and class. Fly tells him he’ll wear the recently vacated number 13, while the rest of the recruiters revel in the 18-year-old’s maturity and poise.
“He’s courageous, quick too,” Dekka says.
“Yeah he’s a ripper,” adds Shep.
“Good moustache for a young boy,” Leppa quips.
So, night one is done. Pick 37 is there for the Pies when things resume on Tuesday, with a few more who have slipped through the cracks right in their sights.
With the Pies holding the ninth selection of the evening when Tuesday rolls around, calls are made a bit earlier this time to try make some moves.
Wrighty hops on the phone, with fellow Victorian clubs St Kilda and Richmond potential suitors for a pick swap. If Archer Reid and Logan Morris are still on the board at the Saints’ pick, which sits at 33, Wright says they’d be prepared to hand pick 37 and a future third round selection over to nab one of the talls. There are also discussions around moving back to pick 40, which currently sits with the West Coast Eagles.
But perhaps predictably, the pair are snapped up by West Coast (Reid) and Brisbane (Morris) with the first two selections of the night, with the Pies now focussing on who will be available at pick 37. Sandringham defender Ollie Murphy and Tasmanian Arie Schoenmaker are rated around the 30s, but there’s a name up higher that’s yet to be called: Tew Jiath, younger brother of Hawthorn’s Changkuoth, who is a Collingwood fan.
An athletic, floating defender, Jiath brings pace and has been one of the biggest bolters of the draft class. When Geelong opts for mature-age recruit Shaun Mannagh at pick 36, only a small discussion ensues over whether to confirm the Pies’ second selection of the draft.
“I back you guys in. He looks good with his pace and marking,” Fly confirms as the overriding positives of Jiath are articulated.
“Yep, put it in,” Dekka says.
The call is made after Jiath’s name is read out, causing a chorus of cheers in his family home in in the state’s east. Gracious and thankful, Jiath joins DeMattia in the draft class of ’23.
“We’re done,” declares Wrighty. “We’ve got our two.”
“The benefit with not taking anyone else tonight is there’s more opportunity for SSP (Supplementary Selection Period) players,” Fly adds.
“Yep. We said we were going to take two picks and that’s what we’ve done,” Dekka and Wrighty agree.
And so, the national draft concludes for the Pies. Not the busiest in terms of quantity, but two selections the recruiters believe are steals to have gotten at their picks. Options remain for the rookie and pre-season drafts, but for now the list is all-but set.