Angus Anderson and Toby Alker have lots in common.
They're both typical NSW boys who've played their fair share of rugby union before concentrating on junior AFL, and both relish tackling and the physical side of the game.
Both know the true meaning of persistence, having faced their share of setbacks along the way.
And when they run out for the QBE Sydney Swans Academy's U19 team against Gippsland Power in the NAB League comp this afternoon, Anderson and Alker can take confidence from the fact they've both been in good form in the Academy's lead-up games against the Giants Academy.
But in other ways their paths to this point have been worlds apart.
Anderson, 17, has taken the long road, literally, to the Academy. He lives in Sawtell, just south of Coffs Harbour and nearly six hours drive north of Sydney.
A strong-bodied midfielder, he only officially joined the Academy this year after being invited down to training in Sydney by Academy Head, Chris Smith who had word from up north that Anderson was developing well.
It's meant many hours travelling to and from Sawtell, as well as a few Zoom feedback sessions with Academy Head Coach Jared Crouch when he can't make it to Sydney.
"I'd had some contact on and off with the Academy over the years and did a couple of training sessions in the under 13s,'' Anderson said. "But it was hard with my geographical location, so I'm super-excited to be part of the Academy this year.''
He grew up playing both rugby union and footy but his love for AFL was fostered by his Melbourne-born father and his brothers.
"I started when I was four or five. I played rugby union too and it's the tackling and physicality that I like most,'' said Anderson, who for the past two years has been playing senior football against men in the local North Coast comp.
Crouch and the Academy's Head of Development Nick Davis have both been impressed with Anderson over the past few months.
"He's showed a real willingness to learn and been diligent in watching the vision that we've sent him,'' Crouch said. "He's a hard-working and physically strong midfielder, he's clean with the ball and makes good decisions by hand and foot.''
Anderson said he had learned a lot since joining the Academy and loves getting feedback from the coaches. "I'm trying to pick their brains, trying to find out a lot more about where to position myself at stoppages. It's great to get that tactical knowledge about where to stand and where to run to,'' Angus said.
By contrast, Toby Alker has grown up only a few kilometres from the SCG and been part of the Academy since the Under 12s.
He comes from a rugby family, with his dad working in the code. But when he was 10, one of his mates asked him to come and have a game for the Maroubra Saints (where he later played several seasons with Errol Gulden).
"The first time I played I loved it. But I was still playing rugby until Year 10 when I stopped to focus on AFL. I really enjoy the freedom of the game, and now my dad and I are massive AFL fans,'' Alker said.
He's had a difficult 18 months, suffering a couple of nasty injuries. He broke his ankle while playing in his club grand final in 2019, and then in the interrupted 2020 season he suffered a knee injury.
"I'd got really fit and done a lot of running during COVID and then my first game back I hurt my knee and that took me out for the whole year,'' he said.
The injuries and setbacks of 2020 have led him to re-set his attitude and he's reaping the rewards.
"I used to put a lot of pressure on myself but my main goal this year is to enjoy footy. I missed out on a lot last year so I'm just focusing on enjoying training and playing,'' he said.
Crouch says Alker has bounced back well.
"We've played him in defence this year and he's been good. He has played a bit of rugby and that shows with his physicality. He's composed with the ball in hand and smart with his decisions,'' Crouch said.
Both Anderson and Alker are excited to play Gippsland this afternoon, and then the Dandenong Stingrays and Northern Knights in Melbourne over the following two weeks.
"I can't wait,'' Toby said. "I've been looking forward to it since last year, before it got cancelled. Going to play in Melbourne against the best of the best and test ourselves, it's such a great opportunity.''
The Academy's U19 boys have a bit to live up to, after the success of the Academy's U19 girls' team in the NAB League who beat the highly-fancied Geelong Falcons. "The girls did so well, it was awesome,'' Toby said. "Now we want to show the Melbourne teams that we might be from NSW but we can play good footy too.''
QBE Sydney Swans Academy v Gippsland Power
Saturday May 22, 2.15pm
Avalon Airport Oval, Werribee
Live stream the game via the NAB League app, which is free to download