With every game that Will Ashcroft played in 2022, the greater the likelihood he’ll be drafted with Pick 1 next month.
And most – but not all – of his peers agree the Lions father-son prospect should be the first player taken in November’s national draft.
While the No. 1 draft selection is just a number – punctuated by the fact Nick Daicos this year polled a record 60 votes to claim the Rising Star award, nine months after he slipped to Pick 4 and arrived at Collingwood as a ready-made AFL player – there’s a level of prestige and pressure that comes with being the first draftee picked.
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Past No. 1 selections Luke Hodge, Brendon Goddard, Adam Cooney, Brett Deledio, Marc Murphy and Bryce Gibbs retired with stacked CVs that included at least 250 games, while Sam Walsh is a recent example of a top draftee that can have an immediate impact at AFL level.
And many believe Ashcroft, the star Walsh-like midfielder who’s been the buzz player of the 2022 draft class, can do that at Brisbane.
Club recruiters and draft pundits have studied the field over several years. But foxfooty.com.au asked 16 players in this year’s draft class which player they’d take at Pick 1.
Nine of them, including West Adelaide tall Harry Lemmey, immediately said Ashcroft.
“I’d be silly not to take Will Ashcroft,” Lemmey told foxfooty.com.au. “He’s very elite off the field, which is the main thing, and then on the field he’s a contested beast. He’s fast, hits well on disposal – to me he’s the clear No. 1.”
Ashcroft has barely put a foot wrong during his 2022 campaign. He won almost every award possible – Larke Medal, NAB League premiership captain, best on ground in the NAB League grand final and NAB League Team of the Year captain – and dominated at every level he’s played, including a couple VFL games for Brisbane.
“I think it’s pretty hard to go past Will Ashcroft,” fellow Brisbane Lions-attached prospect Jaspa Fletcher said to foxfooty.com.au when asked who he’d select at Pick 1.
“He’s shown why he’s one of the best in the crop. He‘s just so professional the way he goes about it.
“I was pretty lucky to room with him for the Australia-Collingwood game (in May) and just the preparation he does before a game and that night after the game then in the morning, it’s second to none.”
The Giants last week sensationally traded up to Pick 1 in the draft order as part of the four-way mega deal that helped Jason Horne-Francis – the player North Melbourne selected with the No. 1 pick in 2021 – get to Port Adelaide. Subsequently, the Giants appear set on recruiting a Jeremy Cameron clone from country Victoria in Aaron Cadman. Not only was it a play to fill a positional key forward need, it’s also to help the Giants replace the class that recently in Tim Taranto, Jacob Hopper, Tanner Bruhn and Bobby Hill.
Despite the Giants’ strong attachment to Cadman, it’d be a major surprise if they didn’t bid on Ashcroft – the son of triple premiership Lion and 318-game player Marcus Ashcroft – at Pick 1 and force the Lions to pay maximum price to secure the star midfielder.
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Even the humble Cadman – who just wants to get on an AFL list, “whether it‘s Pick 1 or Pick 100” – concedes Ashcroft is top of the class.
“You can‘t go past Will Ashcroft. Just how switched on he is, his competitiveness and just how professional he is when it comes to footy – that’s pretty rare,” Cadman told foxfooty.com.au.
But Cadman had supporters among his peers.
“I’d probably go with Aaron Cadman,” Tasmanian defender and NAB League Morrish medallist Lachie Cowan told foxfooy.com.au. “He‘s got a lot of potential – and he’s already hard to stop. He’s such a good character as well.
“He’s got the longest arms, he’s very athletic, he’s quick off the lead and if he jumps up for a marking contest, you can almost guarantee he’s coming down with it.”
Woodville-West Torrens midfielder Mattaes Phillipou added: “Cadman I just think is full of potential and from what I‘ve heard and from what I’ve seen, he looks like he’s going to tap into that. He looks competitive and I would assume that he’s got a good support base based off the year he’s had. I think he could really take his career and have a really good one.”
But Cadman wasn’t Phillipou’s nomination for the No. 1 pick.
In perhaps a sign the self-belief and confidence of overseas athletes is beginning to influence Australia’s emerging footballers, Phillipou was one of several prospects spoken to by foxfooty.com.au that indicated he’d take himself with the first selection.
“I think I‘d have to say myself, just because I think if you’re not going to back yourself, you probably don’t have the confidence required to play in the league,” he said.
“Whether I think I’m the best right now, I would probably say yes as well. But look at the end of the day, it‘s what clubs need and I might not be the best fit for a club. But if I had Pick 1, I’d definitely be taking myself.”
Swan Districts midfielder Elijah Hewett declared: “I’d probably take myself, just because I know what I‘m capable of and what I’m willing to bring to a club. But it’s all subjective.
“That confidence that a lot of players have, it‘s almost something that probably separates me from all the players that self-belief, but I know a lot of other players probably think the same. I guess the pick as you come to mature a bit is really irrelevant. Come December for the pre-season, everyone’s back to square one and it’s about trying to play Round 1.”
Speedy on-baller Elijah Tsatas, who’ll be in the top-five mix come draft night, said he’d take Oakleigh Chargers teammate George Wardlaw first – but only if he couldn’t select himself at Pick 1.
“I’d love to be the No. 1 pick,” Tsatas told foxfooty.com.au.
“I think I‘ve always wanted to be the best and prove that I’m the best. That’s just the way I’ve been wired as a kid growing up, but if I was lucky enough to have that privilege, I’d take it with both hands.”
Still, Ashcroft remained the overwhelming favourite among the draft prospects.
As for who Ashcroft himself would take with the first selection, he told foxfooty.com.au: “I’d take Harry Sheezel. I know him really well, he’s very reliable and know what he can do.
“He’s just crafty, he‘s good in the air and on the ground. He’s pretty versatile because he can take a contested mark but he’s got good leg speed. He’s just got so many dimensions to his game.”
These are the Pick 1 preferences gathered by foxfooty.com.au during interviews with prospects at the recent AFL draft combine. (And if they answered Ashcroft, we asked who they’d take at Pick 2.)
Harry Sheezel: “Will Ashcroft – you can’t argue with that. He’s put all the runs on the board and showed that he can do it at any level and do it so consistently. Just his professionalism, I think it’s going to set him up for a great career.”
Asked who he would select at Pick 2, Sheezel said: “I think George Wardlaw or myself. George could probably challenge Will for being the best player. I think if he had a whole year, I reckon he probably would be the No. 1 100 per cent. I‘ve played against him since juniors and he’s just always been like an absolute beast – no one can really stop him. I think he’s really added his kicking ability to his game in the last couple of years and it’s been really great to see.”
Cameron Mackenzie: “I’d have to go Will Ashcroft.”
Asked who he would select at Pick 2, Mackenzie said: “I’d have to go Elijah Tstatas. He‘s very athletic with his speed endurance and I think he could translate that pretty comfortably and smoothly into an AFL team. That would allow him to be pretty impactful early on and I think he’d only continue to grow and get stronger.”
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Bailey Humphrey: “I guess it’s a given – it’s Will Ashcroft.”
Asked who he would select at Pick 2, Humphrey said: “To be honest, I really rate Harry Sheezel. He’s something special, so agile and very quick on his feet. He does it in the midfield and does it in the forward line as well.”
Olli Hotton: “Obviously Will Ashcroft. You look at the GPS each week, he just works really hard on the field but also off the field. He’s very professional – and has had a professional mindset for years, so that’s a massive credit to him.”
Asked who he would select at Pick 2, Hotton said: “I’d actually go Harry Sheezel. He’s just dangerous wherever he is on the ground. One-on-one I don’t think I’ve ever seen him lose a contest. He’s maximum impact per disposal – and maximum goals per disposal.”
Jhye Clark: “The obvious one is Will Ashcroft. He’s just so driven. His burst away from the stoppages, it’s just so hard to defend. He’s pretty hard to tackle because he always seems to dispose of it somehow.
Asked who he would select at Pick 2, Clark said: “I’d have to go Aaron Cadman. For such a tall player, his workrate up and down the ground is huge and he’s got great hands.”
Henry Hustwaite: “It’s hard to go past Will Ashcroft. I’d probably go with him.”
Asked who he would select at Pick 2, Hustwaite said: “Playing with Jhye Clark, he’s been great, so I could understand why a club with Pick 1 would take him. His workrate and his passion towards the game, he just gives it 100 per cent every week, every game. Plus his skills and his courage for a guy who’s probably not as big as others, it’s great.”
(For the record, with Pick 2, Jaspa Fletcher would take Jhye Clark, while both Aaron Cadman and Harry Lemmey would take George Wardlaw.”
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Alwyn Davey Jnr: “I’d definitely say George Wardlaw. Seeing what he brings to the team and playing alongside him, you can tell he’s going to be a very handy player in the future. He’s made my life easier. He probably doesn’t get that much credit, but it doesn’t really matter. He’s such a great teammate and he’d be pretty handy for clubs.”
George Wardlaw (who provided the only non-committal answer): “It‘s a hard question. I guess it really depends on your club a little bit and what you really need. I think Will Ashcroft’s the standout player, he’s so professional and really classy on the field as well. But Elijah Tstatas is a unique character and a unique player as well. His run on the outside is perfect for a team. And I think I’m a bit of a different player to Elijah in terms of an inside mid, so I guess it really depends on your team.”
FINAL PICK 1 PREFERENCE TALLY (of 15)
Will Ashcroft: 9
Harry Sheezel: 1
George Wardlaw: 1
Aaron Cadman: 1
Elijah Tsatas: 1
Mattaes Phillipou: 1
Elijah Hewett: 1