When Jake Riccardi joined the Calder Cannons three years ago he wasn’t sure what he was, what he could become, or how good he could be.
Riccardi was a midfielder as a kid, for St Bernards in Essendon. He was small, skinny and had missed out on making all of the Cannons’ junior squads.
By the time they picked him he had grown, to about 192 centimetres. Still, he headed into the 2017 season not really sure where they saw him fitting in.
“It was a different sort of year because everything that happened felt pretty new to me,” said Riccardi, who started in the ruck before moving into the forward line.
“I’d never played in the ruck before so that was something I wasn’t used to, and even as a forward I played as a third tall, a lead-up, and I hadn’t done that before either.
“Coming in, I was sort of the last one into the team. There were other players better than me that they wanted playing those key roles, so I was happy just to fill other spots.
“I had a lot to take in but every week I was learning something new and it was a good year just for starting to get an idea of what I had to do to get better.”
Riccardi did enough that year to make AFL clubs notice him, us included. But by the time the rookie draft came around just one club had spoken to him. He knew he was only a tiny chance of being called out, and wasn’t disappointed when he missed out.
The next year was a little more frustrating. Riccardi signed on with the Cannons again as a 19-year-old, which allowed him to play another handful of games there.
He had to rotate out of that side as other 19-year-olds came in for their turn, meaning he spent some time back at his local club and another few weeks playing for Werribee in the VFL.
It was a happy coincidence that he ended up there, at the club he was eventually drafted from: Coburg and Essendon’s VFL team were closer-to-home options, but two teammates from Calder had got in there before him. The Cannons’ team manager had spent time working with Werribee and had contacts there, which is what got him his chance.
“It was an OK year. In some ways I felt my footy improve, but in other ways it stagnated a bit. I was moving around teams and not really settled,” he said.
“It was just an inconsistent year. I didn’t struggle but I didn’t kick on as much as I would have wanted to. People say to me now, ‘were you unlucky not to be picked?’, but I was never in that boat because I hadn’t done enough to push my name up there.
“It got to the end of last year and I signed on with Werribee again and went there to train and tried to make everything I did more consistent. I wanted to worry about one drill at a time, one session at a time, and not let anything we did at training drift past me.
“I made a few little fixes and knowing I was going to be there the whole time and that I had a chance to be in one spot all year, be around the same teammates and push for a spot in the same team every week is something that really helped me.”
So did his coaches. Riccardi had signed on with Werribee before Mark Williams got the job there, when the GIANTS’ former assistant coach started he had no idea who Jake was, no biases and no preconceptions. What he saw on the track was a big kid with some power who could take a mark.
Each week he and Nick Daffy, Werribee’s forward line coach, tried to add small new layers to Jake’s game. They taught him how to play as a key forward rather than a lead-up. He got better at using his body in contests, and at launching for the ball. He started to see what value there was in simply getting the ball to ground.
Jake is a work in progress but his improvement was noticeable, especially in the last six weeks or so of the season. When we pieced together the edits of his year and let them run from start to end, the changes he had made to his game were clear.
We also knew how keen he was to improve even further. Both Mark and Nick told us about how keen he was to learn, how well he took advice and information in and how open he was to keep adding things to his game.
“I loved it, I loved the whole year. I remember early on just really wanting to be in the team at the start of the season, and once I got in I wanted to hold my spot however I could. I didn’t want to play four games and get booted, so I did everything I could to push on,” Jake said.
“I guess I just grew as the year went on. And the coaches were pushing me not to drop off. They just wanted me flying for marks, crashing packs and bringing the ball to ground, and that was all really new to me. I was never that type of player, but I really liked it because it got me into the game more than ever before.
“Even if you have games where you have eight or nine touches, or even less, you feel like you still have an avenue to impact the game. And all you have to do is get the ball to ground. I didn’t mind that. I started to see how it could work and all the tips and advice I got, I loved it. I just wanted to keep learning how to do it better. It’s something I want to keep doing now, keep working on for my whole career.”
He got more hopeful, as the year went by, that he might get to do it at an AFL club. This time, we were one of four clubs who had spoken to him: looking at our list, we thought we could do with some key positional depth in the forward line, provided it was the right player. That Jake was young and still developing added to his appeal. He wasn’t a finished product, but Werribee had him headed in a good direction.
We just had to work out how to get him. Drafting Lachie Ash, then matching a bid for Tom Green, meant that heading into night two of the draft our two last picks were both very late ones. But the Green bid coming as late as it did, at pick 10, gave us the chance to use a third round pick from 2020 to get higher up this year’s list in order to get a player we wanted rather than sit there and hope everyone else would overlook him.
Jake was one of two players we were keen to trade up to get; as it turned out the other went way too early for us to make a move. The other clubs to speak to Jake all had multiple picks before us, but none of them grabbed him before we traded with Collingwood for pick 51, and called his name out while he watched on TV at home in Essendon, friends falling all over him on the coach.
Was it worth the wait? “It was definitely worth the wait. I look back now and think, no way would I have been ready a couple of years ago. Now I come in and I still have a lot of things to learn, but I’m more ready for it as a person,” Jake said.
“I might even have been spat out if I went into it back then. Now I have a bit more knowledge. I understand myself much better as a person. I’ve done some work and got a bit of uni under my belt so I’m in a much better position for it now.
“When you’re young you’re trying to work out who you are and what sort of player you want to be and can be. At least coming here now, I’ve got a better idea of all those things. I know what I want to work on, and now I can just go and do it.”