Saturday, July 16

All football, all the time

IN THE front room of Ben Ainsworth's house, four of the teenager's representative football jumpers hang on clothes hooks above the couches. In the room to the right, Ainsworth's junior sports life is celebrated in a cabinet full of trophies, ribbons and medals. There's a photo of him as a kid in the Richmond rooms with former Tigers midfielder Dale Weightman, and a framed local newspaper article highlighting the then 12-year-old’s bright footy future.

PART ONE: A split-second call goes wrong for Ben Ainsworth

Reminders of his blossoming AFL hopes are everywhere: footballs are spread around the large backyard, pairs of runners sit at the front door and in the main living room, Chris Judd's autobiography is next to the TV.

"I don't know where I'd be without sport, to be honest," Ainsworth says. "Playing footy is all I've ever wanted to do and all I've ever had my mind on. I told Mum when I was five I was going to be an AFL player and now it's getting closer to happening."

Ainsworth's single-mindedness means that when things aren't going as well as he'd like, he can get disappointed. This year hasn't panned out as he would have liked. The NAB AFL Under-18 Championships finished almost three weeks ago, and the carnival didn't go as he'd hoped. He has played 10 games this season and all have been losses.

Sport-mad: Ben Ainsworth in action for Vic Country in the NAB AFL Under-18 Champs. Picture: AFL Photos

"It's been a letdown so far," Ainsworth says. "I know what my full potential is from last year and I haven't lived up to that."

A silver lining?

Ainsworth used his time on the sidelines wisely, and felt by the stage he was back to face Vic Metro at Simonds Stadium that he was as fit as he has been all year. During his break he trained three times a week with Gippsland, went to the gym three times a week, and did an extra running session. Not surprisingly, he was rusty in the first half against Vic Metro and missed two straightforward shots at goal. It was his third quarter, however, that he reminded everyone of his talents.

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His first goal for the term came after he marked on his chest and converted his shot from 45m. Minutes later Ainsworth showed his aerial ability with a vertical leap at the top of the goalsquare to set up his second goal, before he smartly read the bounce of the ball 10 seconds later to cleverly snap his third of the quarter. By the time he had his fourth for the term, he had shown everyone his bag of tricks.

A big leap and strong hands are two of Ainsworth's strengths. Picture: AFL Photos

"The Ben Ainsworth of last year is back," said the AFL's national talent manager Kevin Sheehan during's live broadcast of the game. "He can impact the game in so many ways and we're seeing his full potential."

Ainsworth had identified earlier in the game that he had his opponent covered for speed, so when the ball came in quickly in the third term he knew he could find space. Vic Metro coaches noticed it too, and moved co-captain Andrew McGrath onto Ainsworth with five minutes left in the third term and for the all of the last quarter.

McGrath was crucial in the last term, rebounding out of defence several times, and even out-marking Ainsworth in a one-on-one contest. McGrath's efforts pushed his name into the group of top-10 draft candidates.

After his brilliant third term, Ainsworth felt like he got shut out of the last quarter, when Metro overturned a 20-point deficit at three-quarter time to win by two points.

"I didn't know of (McGrath) going into that last quarter. But I soon found out who he was when I was chasing him from behind for 50 or 100 metres out of defence," Ainsworth says. "He's a pretty good player so it was a bit of a challenge, and I accept I was probably defeated in that last quarter."

Nevertheless, the game was still Ainsworth's best of the season. He was dynamic, powerful and exciting. It was easy to see him slotting into an AFL forward line. He backed that effort up by gathering 21 disposals in Country's next game – a loss to South Australia under the roof at Etihad Stadium – when he spent the second half as a midfielder.

Ainsworth, right, endured an interrupted season for Vic Country and Gippsland Power. Picture: AFL Photos

He hoped to do the same in the fourth and final championships contest, but two days before the game he missed training so he could get his knee drained of 6ml of blood. He also had a shot of cortisone to stop any inflammation.

Ainsworth's final game for the championships was poor; he had just five disposals, no impact on the game and Vic Country lost again – this time to the Allies. 

"I'm pretty disappointed with the way my year is panning out," Ainsworth says. "I was limited with injuries in the first part, then I got the suspension, and it wasn't the carnival I hoped for. I showed some signs, which was good, but now I have to focus on playing well.

Ainsworth returned to the TAC Cup last week and was solid, gathering 18 disposals in a Power loss. This weekend is a bye, forcing him to spend another week off the field.

Sport is a consuming force for him away from the football oval as well, though. Ainsworth left school in year 10 to start a sports education development program, which integrates a senior school education into a sports and recreation environment. Last year, his first in the program, he had times where he wondered whether he had made the right decision leaving school. But he got through the year, is studying sports development and community recreation this year, and has a guaranteed university spot if he completes the course.

The Morwell prospect left school in year 10 for a sports development program. Picture: AFL Photos

Ainsworth's parents encouraged him to take on the SEDA progam. They work locally – Steve as a motor mechanic and Vicki in retail – and have lived in Morwell for most of their lives. Morwell Recreation Reserve, where he has played most of his football, is a five-minute drive from their house and two minutes from the local shopping strip.

The area is known for its role as a major energy production centre, with a coalmine and power station in sight (Ainsworth has found his asthma fares better when away from home). It's a small community, and Ainsworth is known around town as being the up-and-coming star footballer. Sometimes, customers see Vicki's name tag at work and ask if she's related to Ben.

Ainsworth and his Vic Country teammates continually discussed the draft. Picture: AFL Photos

During the final week of the national carnival, Ainsworth roomed with Vic Country teammate Will Brodie. The two first met in the Victorian schoolboys' under-15s side, and have become close friends. Both are in the mix as top-three pick contenders, and have the necessary swagger and confidence to back it up. Brodie has already publicly said he wants to be the No. 1 player drafted. Ainsworth is the same.

"We speak about the draft all the time. I want to beat everyone and be picked as early as possible. We want to be the best we can and not let anyone else go past us,” Ainsworth says.

"I know others have improved and come onto the scene, but we've set the standard last year and don't want to be left behind. So, the next part of my year is pretty important. I have to play some great footy to enhance my reputation, which will go a long way to getting that early draft position."

Thursday, October 13

Heading north?

A MESSAGE popped up on Ben Ainsworth's phone this morning from his mum, Vicki. "Have you seen the trade between Brisbane and GWS?" it read. At that point, Ainsworth hadn't, so he dug deeper and discovered the Lions had traded their No. 2 pick at next month's NAB AFL Draft for the Giants' No. 3, while also swapping later selections. "When I read about it and saw the Lions had moved to pick three I thought, 'That could be me'," he said.

Ainsworth has been following the opening days of the AFL trade period closely, and plans to watch what happens intently before next week's deadline.

As it stands, Hugh McCluggage and Andrew McGrath are favourites for the first two selections in November's draft. But the Lions' move back down the order to pick No. 3 has seen them linked to Ainsworth. They are interested in him, and he is more than keen to head north to the Gabba. "If I could choose anywhere I'd like to go, I'd say Brisbane," he says. "I'd love to play there."

Clubs circled to meet with Ainsworth at the NAB AFL Draft Combine. Picture: AFL Photos

The Lions were one of 14 clubs Ainsworth met at last week's draft combine at Etihad Stadium, and are one of 10 clubs that visited him at home during the season. When they ventured to Morwell in August, they asked him how he would find moving to Brisbane, having had trouble retaining talent in recent years. Ainsworth was unequivocal.

"I put it to them pretty clearly that I'd like to join the Lions," he said. "I actually barracked for them for about five years when I was a little fella – I was a bit of a 'bandwagoner' when they won three premierships in a row.

"I think they were pretty shocked I said I wanted to go there, but hopefully it was music to their ears."

Ainsworth's desire to join the Lions existed before their shift down the draft order. He starred as a bottom-ager last year at the feet of Josh Schache and likes the idea of recreating that in Brisbane colours. Queensland's weather appeals, and he sees opportunities there, too. But that's not the driving factor, with other clubs wondering how he would handle having to do an apprenticeship at state level before settling in among elite company.

"I've been thinking about that a bit and when I met with GWS, one of the main things we talked about was whether I'd be able to stay around for two years and have to wait for my chance, rather than get it straight away," he says.

"I said what I said to Brisbane, and that's that nobody walks into a club and expects to get a guernsey straight away. It's not a matter of where you go; it's a matter of what you make of your career. I'm not one of those players who will leave after two years."

Back in business

Ainsworth is realistic, though. With six weeks to go before the draft in Sydney, he knows plenty can change. Nothing is locked in until a club calls his name. But Ainsworth is pleased people are talking about him again as a top-five prospect after he enjoyed his best patch of form for 2016 in the last month of the season.

A move into midfield paid dividends for Ainsworth late in 2016. Picture: AFL Photos

The Gippsland Power captain moved into the midfield almost permanently, and in the last four weeks of the season he averaged 29 disposals and kicked 12 goals. With six weeks to go in the season, he spoke with Power coach Leigh Brown about how to close out the year in good form. He was encouraged to clear his mind and just play.

"At the start of the season I was caught up in he expectations around me. It stopped me from playing my natural game. But at the end of the season I thought I had nothing to lose and I played some good footy after that," he says.

"Getting more time in the midfield made a difference, but my mentality also changed."

Ainsworth looks back at how he handled the injuries earlier in his season and wishes he had done things differently. He believes he dwelled on them too much, and for too long, wasting time he could have spent getting fitter quicker.

He thinks he missed some chances to help his teammates during his stint on the sidelines. But Ainsworth also thinks the fact he's acknowledged that shows his growth.

"I was a bit off in terms of my attitude at the start of the year. I've matured a lot since then," he says.

The Lions were 'pretty shocked' Ainsworth wanted to join the club. Picture: AFL Photos

Gippsland's six-win season meant Ainsworth didn't get the chance to play in the TAC Cup finals. Instead, he had a week off and then spent four weeks training before the draft combine. He worked closely with Gippsland's strength and conditioning coach Josh Milner, doing speed and endurance testing, and booked in personal boxing sessions to improve his breathing.

He saw the results at the combine. He finished second in the 20m sprint (with a personal best time of 2.9 seconds), came fifth in the repeat sprints and placed in the top-10 for agility and the running vertical jump on the right foot. Ainsworth also reached level 14.4 in the beep test, the best he has ever recorded. He had aimed to reach 14.8 (he had a bet running with a friend) but was pleased to get past level 14 and show recruiters his improvement.

"I got a bit of satisfaction from that," he says. "So many people had talked about it all year, so I was happy."

The combine, plus his end to the season with the Power, left him feeling more comfortable with his draft year overall. But there is still a lingering sense of disappointment for him, as he doesn't think he produced the type of draft year he envisaged. But he also knows football brings challenges that can't be foreseen; things happen, and you need to deal with them. Not everything goes to plan.

Now, Ainsworth is looking ahead. He has felt ready for the challenge of the AFL for almost two years and in November his career will likely begin. He wants to play round one next year but knows there are no guarantees on that, no matter how early he is picked.

Brisbane bound? Ainsworth will learn his fate at November's NAB AFL Draft. Picture: AFL Photos

Brisbane is a preference, but it wouldn't bother him if he has to head elsewhere. He has known most of his life he would need to leave Morwell to pursue his goal. But that doesn't mean Morwell will leave him.

"It's so exciting. I've dreamed of being an AFL player since I was a little kid and to be in this position, being touted as a first-round draft pick, is something I'll be forever grateful for," he says.

"There aren't many people who come out of Morwell and go on to play sport at the top level. There's Peter Siddle (Ainsworth has a signed mini-bat at home from the Australian fast bowler), but not many others.

"It would mean a lot to me family and friends, but also the Morwell community. Everyone here wants to see a Morwell kid do well and be proud of them."

READ PART ONE: A split-second call goes wrong for Ben Ainsworth