A memorable moment for Sydney Swans fans may yet reap dividends for a rival club should draft prospect Connor Ballenden deliver on his potential.
The University of Queensland student was born into a rugby union family, his mother hailing from New Zealand and his father from South Africa. Standing 198cm and weighing 96kg, the 18-year-old boasts an imposing build and enough athletic talent to make the Wallabies wince.
But Ballenden was lost to all codes bar Australia’s indigenous sport when, at the age of seven, he heard AFL broadcaster Stephen Quartermaine bellow: “Leo Barry, you star”.
It is a famous moment in football. The Swans defender soared to the front of the pack in the 2005 grand final against West Coast — the 32sec 37min mark of the final term — to mark strongly and assure Sydney their first premiership since 1933.
The subsequent jubilation shown by Swans players and supporters hooked Ballenden, who immediately sought out a club on returning home.
“My journey to football has been my own. It is self-motivated. Both my parents grew up in rugby backgrounds, being from South Africa and New Zealand, watching rugby, playing rugby,” he said.
“But since the 2005 grand final between West Coast and Sydney — I was in Melbourne at the time and we watched that — I wanted to come back and play it in Brisbane, just seeing the camaraderie and mateship that was displayed. I wanted to give it a crack here in Brisbane and I have taken it from there.
“It is what I love about AFL, the mates that you bond with. You become somewhat like brothers.”
Within five years the key position prospect was playing well enough to represent his state.
Not long after an invitation to train at the Brisbane Lions Academy was issued and it has provided a training base for his progression since.
Barring a remarkable bid from a rival club it seems likely Ballenden, who was rated in the top 40 prospects by the AFL’s talent manager Kevin Sheehan yesterday, will become a Lion tomorrow night.
According to Sheehan, Ballenden is a “strong overhead, contested mark and excellent penetrating kick”.
The latter talent, in particular, stood out at the AFL draft combine in Melbourne last month when he was the only invitee to achieve a perfect score in the kicking drill.
The teenager is full of praise for the way in which his development has been assisted by the Lions Academy, where former Cats dual-premiership player Josh Hunt, who was a prodigious kick, is the head coach.
“It has been a massive part of my development,” he said. “It has been six years that I have been in the academy and every year I have learnt new things and been able to take away new things, whether it be diet, preparation, recovery and being able to have the chance to train with the senior side as well.”
Although the Lions have been lowly in terms of performance in Ballenden’s time at the Brisbane academy, training at least once a week alongside AFL players while stepping out in the NEAFL has been invaluable.
“When you first get there, it is very nerve-racking,” he said. “The younger boys at the club were really great, especially as Brisbane is such a young list at the moment. There are a lot of young guys who know exactly what it is like to come in and put your best foot forward and work hard. They were really great welcoming me to the club, helping me settle in.”
Given his size and kicking nous, Ballenden shapes as a potential key forward and has devoted time to studying the leading patters of Gold Coast star Tom Lynch.
“As a young key forward, I think if I was able to play similar to him, his ability to get up the ground and work hard, it would be great,” he said.
“Watching someone like that makes you see how hard you have to work to be a good AFL player. You try to replicate that as much as you can, maybe watch footage of what they did on the weekend, how they go about their game style and what they do in different situations, that sort of stuff.”