By JESS WEBSTER
A NEAFL Rising Star winner, future AFL draftees and three Team of the Year members were among some of the NEAFL’s best 23rd players in 2017.
Designed to give young footballers opportunities at senior level and fast-track their development, the 23rd Player Rule was re-introduced in 2015 after a two-year absence as the competition continues to grow in standard.
All non-AFL clubs are allowed one player in addition to the regular 22 players, who must be under the age of 21 on January 1.
Each player can play no more than six matches, including finals, per year as the 23rd player. Once a 23rd player has played 20 NEAFL or senior State League (WAFL, SANFL, VFL, or TSL) matches, they are no longer eligible.
The 23rd Player Rule has seen players such as NT Thunder’s Jed Anderson and Ryan Nyhuis, Redland’s Adam Oxley and Wylie Buzza, Aspley’s Josh Wagner and Morningside’s Tom Bell progress on to AFL lists.
So who made the most of their opportunity in 2017? We’ve taken a look at some of the best performances by 23rd players.
Reed Stevens (Canberra)
Canberra’s 2016 Rising Star Award winner Reed Stevens was in the thick of the action in Round 8 when Canberra entered the top four on the ladder with a confidence-boosting win over Redland at Tidbold Park. Acting as the Demons’ 23rd player, the midfielder/forward collected 20 disposals, seven tackles, three inside 50s and three goals to be among his side’s best players in their close 11-point victory.
Ryan Hebron (Sydney University)
Sydney University’s Round 13 clash with Sydney at the SCG was the coming-of-age of defender Ryan Hebron. A NEAFL representative two weeks prior against Tasmania, Hebron was the Students’ 23rd player in their annual Friday night showdown against the Swans, where the 20-year-old was playing a shutdown role on AFL-listed Sydney forward James Rose. He limited the crafty forward to just one major, earning a NEAFL Rising Star nomination in the process to highlight a season where Hebron was selected in the NEAFL Team of the Year.
Adam Sambono (NT Thunder)
Round 1, 2017 will always be known as the day Adam Sambono made a name for himself on the NEAFL stage. There wasn’t much the 20-year-old exciting forward didn’t do against Aspley at TIO Stadium in a stunning debut as the 23rd player. Sambono booted six goals, polled nine NEAFL MVP, was named best on ground and earned the first Rising Star nomination of the season.
Oskar Baker (Aspley)
When Aspley midfielder Oskar Baker was given an opportunity by the Hornets, he grabbed it with both hands. In Round 6, Baker was playing just his second NEAFL match when he collected 24 disposals and a goal – plus a Rising Star nomination – in the Hornets’ thrilling 12-point win over the Bombers. The rest, they say, is history, as Baker went on to play every game for the rest of the season before being drafted by Melbourne.
Connor Budarick (Southport)
Teenage young gun Connor Budarick took a giant step forward in his senior career when Southport handed the 16-year-old his first NEAFL game against NT Thunder at TIO Stadium in another milestone for the exciting young Gold Coast product. Budarick, the younger brother of current Sharks midfielder Dyson, represented Queensland at the National Under-16 Championships only weeks prior. A Labrador junior, Budarick also made his QAFL debut for the Tigers in 2017, and is well regarded as a young star in the making.
Ben Sloan (Redland)
Lions Academy member Ben Sloan showed off his great potential in Round 19 when he was among Redland’s best players in a strong victory over finals-bound Aspley at Tidbold Park. The Allies squad member booted an equal match high of four goals acting as the Bombers 23rd player in their 43-point victory. Although Sloan’s AFL dream didn’t eventuate at season’s end, you’ll be seeing plenty more of this exciting talent in 2018.
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