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By Nick Crook

Former SMJFL and Sandringham Dragon Snags Rising Star NominationNick CrookIt didn’t take long for former Sandringham Dragon’s midfielder, Josh Kelly, to make his mark on the game at the highest level with a Rising Star nomination following his first ever AFL start.

Kelly kicked two last quarter goals in the wet, displaying tremendous poise and skill in the difficult conditions to seal his team’s win over Melbourne. It was only Kelly’s second game after he came on as a substitute in Round 2’s narrow loss to St Kilda.

The classy midfielder was one of three Sandringham Dragons taken in the top 10 of last year’s National Draft. His early success isn’t any surprise for Sandringham’s Region Manager Ryan O’Connor who was at the club for the duration of Kelly’s TAC Cup career.

“He makes the difficult things look easy, he has the ability to just get things done and go about his business with a minimum of fuss,” said O’Connor. “He seems to handle the pace of the game very well and probably the only thing he’s got to work on now is adding a little bit of size and bulk.

”An incredible work rate was one of the most prevalent characteristics of a Josh Kelly performance throughout his junior career. O’Connor would regularly have to add 10-15 disposals on top of his initial estimation of what Kelly had gathered based purely off his work rate alone.

It was this desire to work hard to be great that made it clear to O’Connor that Kelly did not only possess the talent required to make it at the highest level, but he also possessed the work ethic. Instilling that work ethic is something that the Dragons aim to develop in all of their charges and if recent results are anything to go by they have been mightily successful.

However, Kelly didn’t magically arrive at the Dragons as a gun recruit. Before arriving at Sandringham he plied his trade as a junior at the East Brighton Vampires in the SMJFL where he developed the work ethic that would later go on to pave his way to the AFL. It was at his junior club where the Dragons saw much of the traits they look for when hoping to further develop a junior footballer.

“Without the clubs and people involved at those clubs we don’t get kids who love the sport or display a passion to compete and take the game and the opposition on – this at the very least is an essential part of passion that drives the work-rate and commitment of these boys,” said O’Connor.

Joining Kelly in last year’s top 10 were Christian Salem and Nathan Freeman. The trio are the latest in a long line of alumni to come out of Sandringham Dragons and the SMJFL from a group that boasts names such as Chris Judd, Luke Ball and Jobe Watson.

O’Connor thinks that the talent he saw on display last year might one day equal that of their superstar predecessors. While the coaching and support staff at Sandringham assist the young men in getting drafted, they stress that they are only at the beginning of their football journey and must continue to push if they wish to reach such lofty heights.

“We spoke to those boys – in a lot of ways it’s great to get drafted but the real hard work starts now,” said O’Connor. “I think these boys, if they really tie their career together well might be thought of in the same ilk as some of those players.

”Sandringham had a real bumper year at the draft with eight former Dragons in total being picked up onto AFL lists. Zach Merrett and Tom Langdon join Kelly from the class of 2013 to have already debuted this season. O’Connor keeps an eye on all of his former players once they head to the big league and following their progress is one of the more rewarding aspects of his job.

“It’s a big part of the joy we get out of developing a young fella… We follow them and we follow them closely,” he said. 

The SMJFL continues to be a breeding ground for the Dragons with 90% of the club’s list having come from the SMJFL. The word ‘potential’ can be a dirty word in football because everyone has it. The Dragons know this well and they have provided a program that best extracts and fulfils their recruits’ potential – a program that Kelly and company are now reaping the rewards of on the back of their hard work and talent.