AFL 2 years ago

Who Says Size Matters? The Emergence Of Caleb Daniel

With the 46th pick in the 2014 AFL draft, the Western Bulldogs select Caleb Daniel

As I sat back on the couch on draft night and watched another AFL draft come and go, I was puzzled to hear about this young lad from South Adelaide get his name called out. I had heavily scouted that year's draft crop and had not seen this name come up at all, but after doing some research at the end of the draft, it looked like the Bulldogs had unearthed a real gem.

Over the last couple of years, the Bulldogs had a few draft selections in the top 10 and nailed each pick. In 2012, the Dogs landed Jake Stringer and Jack Macrae with picks five and six and have emerged as just two of the many talented players in the Western Bulldogs line-up, and just 12 months later they drafted a guy by the name of Marcus Bontempelli, who, at just 20 years of age, has quickly risen since his debut and is on the verge of elite status, if he isn't there already.

But in 2014, the Dogs had to give up their original first-round selection, that being number six, in what later turned out to be the infamous Tom Boyd deal, so the Dogs had to use their remaining picks wisely, and they picked up some good talent. Toby McLean (pick 26), Lukas Webb (pick 27) and Bailey Dale (pick 45) have already tasted senior level since being drafted and look like they can become mainstays in this team, but the pick that got everyone talking on draft night was in fact little Caleb.

Only standing in at 167 centimetres tall and weighing in at 63 kilograms, it was easy to see why no recruiter would've wanted him in their team, as many have said he would've been too small and not many people as small as him get a look-in, but what he lacked in size, he definitely more than made up for it in skills and decision making. He had played senior footy with South Adelaide, and was one of South Australia's better players in the 2014 National Under-18s Championships.

 Before he was drafted, the shortest man in the AFL today was Port Adelaide's Jake Neade, and even then he wasn't a regular feature in the Power's 22, and is the shortest Bulldog to grace the team since Brownlow medallist Tony Liberatore, who only stood at 163 centimetres when he made his debut for Footscray back in 1986. 

Strangely enough, draft pick number 46 was the pick that Carlton had traded away to secure wantaway forward Liam Jones from the Whitten Oval in what was one of the biggest wins for the club that year, but even if the Blues had hung on to that pick, they probably wouldn't have selected Daniel, who was touted as more of a rookie-list selection to some teams, however despite all the doubts and negativity that surrounded someone as diminutive as him, he was causing a lot of noise during his first pre-season and whispers of a round one debut became more of a roar than anything else.

Unfortunately though, a knee injury that required minor surgery just before the start of the season forced Daniel to miss the opening six rounds of the premiership season, but when he finally got his chance to play in the VFL, sporting the helmet that he sported so often during his junior days, he didn't waste much time showcasing what he was capable of, displaying flashes of brilliance in every game until he got his well-deserved call-up in round 14 against Carlton where he was named as the substitiute.

He came on in the second half of that game, and made an instant impact, slotting a goal from long range as he finished the game with 14 disposals in what was essentially a half of footy. Not bad for a little guy, right? He went on to play nine of the last ten games of the 2015 season, which included the elimination final loss against Adelaide, and if Dogs fans doubted him at the start of the year, they quickly warmed to him at the end of the year, the little man became a player to reckon with.

When the AFL scrapped the substitute rule for this year, it was going to be obvious that Daniel was going to be one of the many players that would benefit from this decision, after playing four of his ten games in 2015 as the starting substitute, and from the first round demolition job of the Fremantle Dockers, he has firmly entrenched in the team's best 22 as a midfielder that can win his own ball either on the inside or outside, and can make you pay on the rebound with his disposal use and decision making.

2016 held many tales of the Western Bulldogs' premiership campaign, and whilst a main talking point was the number of injuries that the club had sustained over the course of the year the emergence of Caleb Daniel is another story that was hardly overlooked, it didn't take long into the season for him to make that sort of statement, as he starred for the Dogs in round three against this week's opposition in Hawthorn, recording 29 disposals, six tackles, four inside 50s, four clearances and a goal in a three-point loss. 

The following week however brought better fortunes for both Daniel and the Dogs, as they got back on the winners' list, beating Carlton by 36 points and for Daniel, some early season recognition for his strong start to the season, being nominated for the AFL's rising star award. From there until the end of the season, Daniel remained a firm favourite for the award, averaging 21 disposals in 20 games, missing only two games for the year.

However, he finished runner-up to Sydney's Callum Mills in the Rising Star Ceremony last Tuesday. Now before people boo and hiss this decision, it's easy to ignore what other young talent have done at rival clubs, and whilst I was personally disappointed that our little guy didn't win the award, young Mills deserved the accolade just as much. 

Think about it, as a guy who was taken with the third overall selection in the draft last year, there's a certain amount of pressure that comes along with the title of being a top five selection, he managed to play all bar one game this year in a team that finished the home and away season on top and that one game that he didn't play, Sydney rested him. How many teenagers can say they have been able do that? let alone play consistent footy? 

In a perfect world, I would've named them joint-winners of the Rising Star award, because both of them, in my eyes, deserve it.

After missing out on awards like this, it's not uncommon for those who finish as the runners-up to make enormous statements. Marcus Bontempelli, Carlton's Patrick Cripps and Adelaide's Brad Crouch all finished in the Rising Star award as the runners-up over the past three years and all three have started to seriously emerge as stars for their respective clubs – all three of them possibly look better off than those that won the award in their respective years and last Thursday night, Daniel looked to continue this trend and looked to be an entirely different player in their elimination final triumph over West Coast, as he broke through the 30-plus possession barrier for the first time in his short career, finishing the night with 33 disposals, along with a career-best eight inside 50s as well as four clearances, four tackles and a goal.

But like many of his team mates, this Friday will be perhaps Daniel's biggest game of his short career, as the Dogs will battle it out with the reigning three-time premiers in Hawthorn for a spot in the preliminary final. With about 80-85,000 expected to be in attendance for this massive clash, it looms likely that Daniel may get the job on a man that he idolised growing up in Sam Mitchell, who despite copping a heavy tag for most of the year, still manages to average 30 disposals a game in 2016.

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