It's been the longest pre-season in football history for the QBE Sydney Swans Academy's 2020 crop of Top End players but they're finally getting the chance to play together and show their talents.
The Swans Academy will play the Suns, Lions and Giants Academy teams in a three-game Northern Academy Series during August, with two games at Blacktown in Sydney, and one in Brisbane.
The AFL's regular representative schedule, including the National Under 18 Championships, was thrown into disarray when all junior football was suspended in March.
The Northern Academy Series will give the Academy's top Under 18 and Under 19 players an opportunity to impress club recruiters ahead of the draft, which is still scheduled to go ahead in November.
QBE Sydney Swans Academy co-captains Braeden Campbell and Errol Gulden, both top draft prospects this year, can't wait to make up for lost time.
Campbell already knows what he wants to tell his team-mates before the first match of the Series, against the GWS Giants Academy on August 8.
"What I'd say to them is that we've been training for so long and you've been given a chance to play. Most kids in Victoria don't have that chance at the moment, so make the most of it, and have fun. We've been waiting for this moment for a few months,'' Campbell said.
Co-captain Gulden said the shutdown was frustrating, and he's thankful the Northern Academy Series has been organised.
"It's exciting and we're very lucky there are people like Smithy (Academy general manager Chris Smith) and Crouchy (Academy head coach Jared Crouch), and the coaches from the other Academies. They want us to have the chance to showcase what we've got, and they've pushed it really hard,'' Gulden said.
The Academy's Top End players (U16 to U19) were able to resume training as a group in late June, and Gulden says they got a bit over-excited about being back together.
"Everyone was absolutely puffed after the first 10 minutes because we went 100 miles an hour straight away. They had to call us in and say 'relax, this is only the warm-up and you're already cooked','' Gulden laughed.
"But there was great camaraderie, and that's what you miss. There's nothing the same as being with your team-mates.''
Gulden used the break to improve his skills, particularly his kicking on his non-preferred foot, working with his brother Adam who is 10 years older.
And last Saturday, on Errol's 18th birthday, the brothers played on the same team for the first time ever, running out for UNSW-Eastern Suburbs Bulldogs when the Sydney AFL competition began a belated season 2020.
"We never thought that would happen. It was my birthday, so it was the perfect birthday present. That was unreal and one of the good things to come out of this year, and there haven't been too many,'' Errol said. "But I learnt through the break how much I love and really value footy, my passion for footy has got even bigger.''
Campbell plays for Pennant Hills in the Sydney AFL comp, and he also relished getting the chance to play again.
"We copped a pretty heavy defeat to Sydney Uni, but I was just stoked to get back out there with some of my closest mates like Sam Eynaud and Marc Sheather from the Academy.
It was an unreal feeling knowing footy is back,'' Campbell said.
He was '"shattered'' when the season was shut down in March but believes the challenge has helped him mature.
"I was shattered for about three days and then I decided to take it as more pre-season to get even fitter and stronger than I was before,'' Campbell said.
"This has undoubtedly been the hardest part of my footy career because I wasn't sure what the future was going to hold. But knowing that I could get through this with the rest of the Academy boys, it made me a stronger person.''
Next week Campbell and Gulden will play against each other in the Sydney AFL comp, but on August 8 they'll be back together, leading the Academy on to the field.
"We're both in good spirits and we're just counting down the days,'' Campbell said.
QBE Sydney Swans Academy GM Chris Smith said he was impressed by the attitude shown by all the Top End players during the extended shutdown.
"They had started the year really well and were fit and hungry in a couple of practice matches. They were ready to go so it was a big challenge when the season stopped,'' Smith said.
"But I was very proud of the way they handled themselves. The players didn’t drop their heads – they simply got on with it and trained by themselves or in groups of two.
"And when they returned to the Academy in late June we were amazed by their fitness and skill level. Their leadership and work ethic are a credit to them,'' Smith said.
"Now at last they have the chance to show what they can do, and we'll be putting our best talent out on the field during the Northern Academy Series.''
Northern Academy U18 Talent Series
Round 1 - Saturday 8 August
Sydney Swans v GWS Giants
Blacktown International Sports Park, Sydney
Round 2 - Sunday 16 August
Sydney Swans v Brisbane Lions Academy
Blacktown International Sports Park, Sydney
Round 3 - Sunday 30 August
Sydney Swans v Gold Coast Suns Academy