OF THE billions of videos on YouTube, there was one uploaded in the winter of 2022 that piqued the interest of recruiters across the AFL.

It contained just five minutes of vision, highlighting a small, blond midfielder running amok in the Ovens and Murray League in north-east Victoria.

That video has since disappeared, but in its place are a handful of new clips of the same player completing a meteoric rise from the Magpies of Wangaratta to those of Collingwood, including a memorable afternoon at Marvel Stadium on Sunday.

Two years ago, when word spread that AFL clubs were making the trip up the Hume Highway to watch the then 22-year-old play, Joe Richards knew he needed a manager. He signed with John Meesen, from Kapital Sports Management. The YouTube video was his idea - and it worked.

Geelong, Richmond, Greater Western Sydney, Collingwood, Sydney and the Western Bulldogs were some of the clubs that either met with Richards, spoke to those around him or made the trek to Wangaratta to discover what all the fuss was about.

By the time Richards became a two-time premiership player – and a three-time best and fairest winner – when Wangaratta beat Yarrawonga that September, his fate was all but sealed. Enough clubs held enough interest in the 176cm midfielder-forward.

Veteran Magpies recruiting boss Derek Hine was well versed in the story. He had an unofficial man on the ground in former Collingwood key defender Ben Reid, who played in the 2010 AFL flag after being selected by Hine at pick No.8 in 2006. Reid played with Richards in 2021 and then as playing coach the following year. He was certain he had AFL traits and badgered his old club to draft him, even picking up the phone the day after Wangaratta won the flag in 2022 to remind Collingwood of the kid in the country.

After being selected at pick No.48 that November, Richards played his first VFL game in March the following year and showed glimpses of his quality around a two-month hamstring injury, but never gave the senior match committee too much to ponder.

That all changed this year. Richards made clear inroads over the summer, then kicked nine goals across the first fortnight of the VFL season, including a big bag of six against Brisbane on Good Friday to be included in the AFL squad for the first time.

With Beau McCreery entering concussion protocols following a collision against Carlton in round eight, Lachie Schultz copping a one-game suspension and Jamie Elliott succumbing to a back injury, the door swung open for Richards last Friday.

And the now 24-year-old made the most of his first chance, finishing with 18 touches, 23 pressure acts, eight score involvements, three goal assists and a goal – plus two posters from tight angles – and a coaches vote against West Coast on Sunday.

"In terms of playing AFL, it really hasn't sunk in yet," Richards told AFL.com.au.

"Even finding out on Friday, I didn't think about it too much, I just wanted to come here with a clear mind. But in terms of getting drafted, it is pretty incredible, even just moving down from Wangaratta, it is a complete life change. I still have days where I can't believe I'm here, running around with stars of the game at training."

Why did it take this long to get here? Richards went through the Murray Bushrangers and returned to Wangaratta after finishing in the Coates Talent League in 2017. By that stage, he had kicked 11 goals as a 16-year-old playing just his third game of senior football, but not done enough to attract any AFL interest.

Richards moved to Melbourne ahead of the 2020 season after signing with Carlton's reserves, where Josh Fraser - now Collingwood's VFL coach and head of development - was the coach at the time, but he returned home when the season was shut down due to the pandemic. That was supposed to be it - but it wasn't.

Late last Friday, a few hours after training, it was Fraser who stood up in the front of the playing group and football department to announce that Richards had not only won the academy player of the month award, but he was going to make his debut on Mother's Day.

"I signed with them in 2020 and moved down for the pre-season," Richards said. "I spent three months in Melbourne but ended up going back to Wangaratta because there was more to do in the country with COVID around. I wasn't contemplating another VFL return after that, I loved playing at Wang. There was no real ambition to go back and play VFL."

While Collingwood rose from a preliminary final exit in 2022 to go all the way in 2023, Richards spent the season in the VFL, developing his craft and learning how to prepare as a full-time athlete after spending the previous year working as a teacher's aide at Wangaratta Specialist School around games in places like Albury, Wodonga, Corowa and Lavington.


"I was injured for a lot of last year and it teaches you diligence with what you're doing, how you're training, things away from football," he said.

"I learnt a lot about what it takes to become an AFL footballer. The good thing about having two years on your contract is you have a little bit of time to work it out."

With McCreery ruled out for another week and Elliott set to miss at least a month, plus Jeremy Howe (groin) and Harvey Harrison (ankle) suffering injuries in the 66-point win over the Eagles, Richards will get another opportunity against Adelaide on Saturday, even if Jordan De Goey and Tom Mitchell prove their fitness in time.

Craig McRae can remember Hine regaling him with tales about this country sensation before he was drafted. He saw the traits when Richards arrived, but knew it would take some time to make the seismic leap, especially with so many gun small forwards ahead of him.

"I remember 'Dekka' (Hines) telling me about him: 'There is this kid from Wangaratta'. I think half of Wangaratta was here today watching," McRae said after the win over the Eagles launched Collingwood into the top eight for the first time in 2024.

"He has been a guy that you could tell was coming. Last year it was like, 'Oh yeah, maybe?'. But this year it has been, 'OK, this guy is too good for VFL, he looks ready to play AFL'.

"We have a pretty good array of small forwards. It is hard to go past those guys, but all of a sudden, opportunities present, and we have one more.

"We have a development player of the month and he won it in April for doing all the things that make you want to get better every day. You don't fluke this stuff, I say that regularly. You turn up here and you can hope you play well, but sometimes you come in with great belief because you've done the work."

List managers and recruiters typically watch prospective recruits on platforms like Hudl Sportscode or Scout, not amongst the billions of clips on YouTube.

But every now and then, it is worth looking outside the box. You never know where you might find the next Joe Richards.