TOM McDonald has a farm, and it’s where his run into the Melbourne back line began.
McDonald is from Edenhope, the small town halfway to Adelaide, which meant off-season training partners were tough to track down.
The 19-year-old drove an hour to Horsham most days, to lift weights in a gym, and kicked balls around a local oval with his brother.
He did some of his running there, too, but saved parts of the program for his 3500-acre family farm, where his father runs mostly merino sheep.
“My driveway’s about 500 metres long, so that was pretty helpful,” he said this week.
”If I had to do a three-kilometre time trial I’d just go out and run up and down six times. It made it easy to get done.”
It’s an old McDonald – James – who will be an obvious focus when Melbourne takes on Greater Western Sydney on Sunday.
That’s what happens when beloved former captains play against their old team.
But since making the side as a late call-up in round two, the younger version has spent the first half of the season giving supporters good things to look forward to.
McDonald spent last year learning how to become a defender: after training all summer with the forwards, it was where he found himself at the end of his first pre-season, asked to watch Mitch Clark when the Demons played the Brisbane Lions in a NAB Cup game.
”For the first five or 10 minutes I had a hundred things in my head, but after that I just tried to play and learn things and experience as much as I could,” he said.
McDonald had never played there as a junior, either, although his mother, a netball defender, always suspected it was his best spot.
”She was always pushing for me to play there in local footy. She said it was in my genes,” he said.
It was McDonald’s running ability that caught his coaches’ eyes when he got back from Edenhope for the start of his second summer; it was obvious that he had worked hard during the break.
He ran not only like a midfielder, said assistant coach Jade Rawlings, but one with elite endurance.
It’s what has allowed the teenager to sample such opponents as Nick Riewoldt, Michael Hurley and Andrew Walker this year, and it’s given him confidence that he can keep up with anyone, then start learning from there.
It’s also allowed him to spend more time on the ground than most other Melbourne players this year.
”He’s able to play really high game time, and that’s been good, because the more time he’s on the ground, the more things he’ll be exposed to,” said Rawlings, who likes how McDonald combines his confidence with a realistic willingness to work out how to take on particular players, and to confront things that aren’t going well during games.
McDonald’s running ability wasn’t always his fall-back, though.
As a skinny 13-year-old he lagged behind most of his classmates, and was told about it.
”When we did cross country, I could never keep up. I was always told I was slow,” he said.
”I remember being told by my footy coach that I needed to work on my speed and fitness, so that’s what I tried to do.”
Since being at Melbourne, with access to all-day, every-day advice, he feels like it’s improved even more.
”Being able to do all of the pre-season, I guess I started to realise it was a strength. It’s definitely something I try and keep building up, and using as much as I can,” he said.
There is plenty McDonald still wants to learn – he’s started writing up notes on each new opponent, things to remember for next time around on where, when and how quickly they move – and also to stop worrying. ”I was pretty quiet for the first four or five weeks and there’s still patches now where I go a bit quiet and drop my head a bit if something goes wrong,” he said.
”Jade Rawlings keeps telling me, ‘eyes up’, because when I get tired or make a mistake I start looking at the ground and thinking about myself, so that’s something I’m working on all the time.
“As a young player you don’t want to make mistakes or be the one who stuffs up, but you need to see the game through the team’s eyes and thinking, how we can fix this?”
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