JOE RICHARDS had never spoken to an AFL club until a few months ago, but now the schoolteacher from Wangaratta looms as the biggest bolter heading into next week's NAB AFL Draft, five years after being overlooked by all 18 clubs in his draft year.
It has been a dramatic turn of events for the country football star, who turns 23 on Wednesday.
Richards has never played a minute of state league football, but established himself as one of the best players in the Ovens and Murray Football League this year, winning a third best and fairest and second premiership for the Wangaratta Magpies, after a best-on-ground performance in an interleague game.
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AFL.com.au understands that Richards has met with seven clubs, while others have indirectly expressed interest in the only prospect from local football to be invited to the draft combine.
The 176cm midfielder received that late invite to the state combine last month – which arrived via email days after winning the premiership – following a season where he gradually built a case for recruiters to head to the north-east of Victoria, where a few were spotted during the finals series.
Now there is a belief from some clubs that Richards will be taken in the second round, potentially even before pick No.30.
"When I was at Bushies in the NAB League I didn’t have any contact with any clubs, it has just come about this year," Richards told AFL.com.au on Monday.
"This year has been the first year where I've spoken to any club and it sort of came about three months ago when the first club reached out. Since then, I've spoken to more. It has been a really interesting time."
Geelong has a long history of plucking left-field options and is understood to have contemplated recruiting Richards ahead of the NAB AFL Mid-Season Rookie Draft in June, but it was unable to act given he was ineligible.
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It was only after a talent manager from the Murray Bushrangers called Richards out of the blue that he realised he was on the radar of an AFL club. That led to him finding someone to represent him in the form of John Meesen from Kapital Sports. Things have certainly progressed since then.
"In the pre-season I hadn't even thought about the prospect of being drafted," Richards said.
"It sort of came about halfway through the year when I linked up with John Meesen after he heard there was a little bit of interest there. That's when it came to light. Since then, it has slowly unravelled. A quarter of a way through the footy season was when it kicked into gear."
Richmond, Greater Western Sydney, Collingwood, Sydney and the Western Bulldogs are believed to be among the clubs who have spoken to Richards or those around him, with plenty of interest sparked after he published a video of his 2022 highlights on YouTube in September.
Mature-age recruits aren't new, but most are drafted out of a state league, not a powerhouse league in country Victoria. So where has the meteoric rise come from?
Richards chose to play for his local club after his time at the Murray Bushrangers finished in 2017, returning full-time to Wangaratta where he kicked 11 goals in just his third senior game as a 16-year-old.
He moved to Melbourne to join Josh Fraser's program with Carlton's reserves at the start of 2020 before the season was shut down due to the pandemic and he returned home.
After starting his senior career in the Ovens and Murray League closer to goal, Richards has developed into a game-breaking midfielder, averaging 25 disposals, six tackles, six inside 50s and five clearances – ranked in the top 10 for all categories according to Premier Data – from 19 appearances in 2022.
Richards played in a flag this year with 2010 Collingwood premiership defender Ben Reid – who was the playing coach – ex-Demon Michael Newton and former Richmond and Carlton forward Callum Moore.
Reid started fielding calls midway through the season and knew recruiters were dotted around the outer watching Richards late in the campaign.
Those who have followed Richards closely see some similarities between him and Collingwood star Steele Sidebottom, citing his polished kicking ability on both feet – and his deep range of kicks – plus a clever ability to bounce on both sides of his body.
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Richards' rise has drawn similarities with four-time premiership wingman Isaac Smith, who was drafted by Hawthorn with pick No.19 at 21 after dominating for Redan in the Ballarat Football League. Unlike Richards, Smith played a handful of games for North Ballarat in the second half of that season.
If his name is read out next week, it will be one of the most memorable stories to emerge from the 2022 NAB AFL Draft, even if Richards isn't daring to dream just yet.
"To be honest, I haven't thought too much about the whole story about the potential of being drafted out of country footy," he said. "If it does happen, I'll think about it over the Christmas break. I've just enjoyed the whole experience."
Only a few of months after appearing a long shot of being drafted, it appears to be a matter of when, not if, for the teacher's aide from Wangaratta District Specialist School.