Victorian links galore among AFL debutants

Nine players with strong ties to Victorian community footy debuted across the AFL's Opening Round and Round 1.

Across the AFL's Opening Round and round one, nine players that have come through community football in Victoria made their debuts at the top level.

Blake Howes (Mordialloc Braeside JFC / St Bede's College / Sandringham U18)

He had to wait for his AFL debut, but Blake Howes made every moment count when he finally got the call-up in Opening Round. Drafted with pick 39 in the 2021 National Draft, the former Mordialloc-Braeside Mustang immediately looked at home on the big stage, finishing with 17 disposals, seven marks, and a game-high 12 intercepts against Sydney. It was a well-earned breakout for the 20-year-old, who missed two months with a stress fracture in his foot in his first season with the Demons and more time with a fractured wrist last year.

Caleb Windsor (Lysterfield Wolves JFC / Eastern Ranges U18)

Caleb Windsor joined the Demons with high expectations after being selected at pick seven in last year’s National Draft, and he immediately stepped into their senior side in Opening Round. That was certainly no surprise after a pre-season campaign where his blistering pace and clean disposal caught plenty of eyes. The Lysterfield Junior Football Club product was assured on debut at just 18 years of age, collecting 13 disposals including four score involvements.

Charlie Dean (South Melbourne Districts JFC / Collegians / Wesley College / Sandringham Dragons U18 / Williamstown)

It was a feel-good story for all when Charlie Dean ran out for Collingwood in Opening Round, making his AFL debut 834 days after being signed from the VFL. Magpies coach Craig Macrae said the Collegians Football Club product would have played early in 2022, but two serious foot injuries saw him miss almost all of the next two years. The 22-year-old slotted seamlessly into the reigning premiers’ backline, and he shapes as a key player for them this season.

Nick Watson (East Ringwood / Eastern Ranges U18)

One of the most exciting players in the 2023 Draft, it was no surprise to see Watson slide straight into Hawthorn’s lineup. After emerging with the East Ringwood Junior Football Club and starring for the Eastern Ranges in the Coates Talent League, he was taken by the Hawks at pick five and earmarked for a spot in their forward line. While it was a quiet first outing for him in round one, he showed flashes of the brilliance that he possesses.

Zane Duursma (Foster Secondary College / Foster FNC / Gippsland Power U18)

A highly touted player from a very young age, Duursma was selected by North Melbourne with pick four in last year’s National Draft and was immediately called up in round one. The brother of AFL player Xavier and AFLW young gun Yasmin, it took no time for him to make a big impact to kick-start his own career at the top level, as he booted two goals from ten disposals in an impressive debut. After kicking a mountain of goals for the Foster Tigers in junior football and then the Gippsland Power in the Coates Talent League, it would be a shock if the trend didn’t continue in the AFL.

Shaun Mannagh (Murray Bushrangers U18 / North Albury (NSW) / Werribee)

Mannagh’s story is one of persistence, and his efforts were finally rewarded with an AFL debut for Geelong at the age of 26. After growing up and playing his junior and early senior football in Albury, Mannagh made the move south and spent three years with Richmond in the VFL. He finally earned an AFL call-up in last year’s National Draft, and he made an impact as the substitute in the Cats’ close win over St Kilda in round one.

Darcy Wilson (Wangaratta Tigers JFC / Murray Bushrangers U18)

After a strong pre-season that saw him put on nine kilos of muscle before starring in St Kilda’s practice match, Wilson’s debut in round one quickly became a formality. That hot form continued at GMHBA Stadium against the Cats, with the former Wang Tigers Junior Football Club star kicking two goals from 11 disposals in an impressive display. Praised by coach Ross Lyon as “the best runner we've seen come through an AFL club”, Wilson looks to have a bright future with the Saints.

Harvey Gallagher (Sandhurst FNC / Bendigo Pioneers U18)

He was overlooked in his initial draft class, but Gallagher persisted to first earn a spot on the Bulldogs’ list in the 2022 Draft, and then grab his chance for a round one debut this year. The Sandhurst Dragons product and former Bendigo Pioneers captain certainly didn’t look out of place in the AFL, kicking a goal in the first term against the Demons and showing plenty of promise. His first game for the Dogs came 471 days after being drafted, but it almost certainly won’t take that long for his second to come around.

Harley Reid (Tongala FNC / St. Josephs College / Bendigo Pioneers U18)

It was one of the most hyped debuts in recent memory, and Reid looked every bit the part of budding AFL star in round one. The Tongala and Echuca product flew out of the gates before finishing with 16 disposals and five clearances, the second-most of any Eagle, in West Coast’s opening clash with Port Adelaide. It’s a strong platform for the 2023 number one pick to build from as he works into his first season in the AFL.