Tasmania Devils midfielder Mitch O’Neill this year became one of only three players selected in the last two NAB AFL Under-18 All Australian teams, but his latest season proved much more challenging than 2018.
The 18-year-old’s 2019 NAB AFL Under-18 Championships campaign for the Allies saw him join South Australia’s Will Gould and Western Australia’s Jeremy Sharp as back-to-back members of the under-age All Australian squad.
With ball-winning ability, a skilful kick and a burst of speed, 178cm O’Neill is Tasmania’s leading prospect for the NAB AFL Draft on November 27-28 – and that’s the trouble.
While the state last year boasted top-10 AFL Draft picks Tarryn Thomas and Chayce Jones as well as later selection Fraser Turner, the North Hobart (Southern Tasmanian Junior FL) product has felt the burden of being Tasmania’s main man in 2019.
O’Neill’s mental battle was compounded by an injury to the MCL in his knee which ended his season in July, having averaged 20 disposals and five tackles per game in just six NAB League matches for the Devils.
* Visit the ‘Highlights’ section of the NAB League app to watch Mitch O’Neill’s 2019 season highlights.
“Making the All Australian Team as a bottom-ager was a great honour, but it came with a bit of pressure this year,” O’Neill said at the recent NAB AFL Draft Combine. “Being the only one here from Tassie, I felt like I’d be letting the state down if I did something bad.
“If I played a bad game this season then I’d get pretty down. I like to stay really relaxed going into a game and I think that’s what worked for me last year. I didn’t really worry about footy, but this year I was stressed a lot and it might have affected my form a bit.
“Last year I had no pressure on me – it was all on Tarryn and Chayce. A lot of people do tell me I’m Tassie’s main draft hope, but I just try to not think about it. I laugh it off and say there are other good players, but deep down it puts more pressure on me.
“To be honest, I feel like I’ve had a pretty good year, but it’s not the year I wanted.”
Tasmania’s re-entry into Victoria’s premier under-age competition in 2019 allowed O’Neill and his teammates to test themselves against many of the country’s top draft chances.
The Devils finished in 12th position with a 4-11 record but were highly competitive in losing four games to Victorian opponents by nine points or fewer – as well as suffering a six-point Wildcard Round loss to the Calder Cannons.
O’Neill said the opportunity was “really good for my growth” but that it only raised the bar for his own football.
“I set a high standard for myself, so if I don’t perform to those levels then I get pretty angry and frustrated,” O’Neill said. “I talked to a welfare lady back home though and started setting some mini-goals, which has put me in a good space.
“Since I did the MCL, my goal has been to train really hard and get fit and then to hopefully get drafted, which is the goal I’ve been working to my whole life.
“I had my expectations really high this year and things might not have gone to plan due to some bad form and injuries, but I know I still have better footy to play and hopefully recruiters understand that.”
NAB LEAGUE ‘FAST FIVE’ QUESTIONS
Most influential person on your football at Tasmania:
“Matthew Armstrong (AFL Tasmania Talent Manager – South). He’s been through it all with me. I’ve been in his footy academy since I was a little kid and he’s taught me the fundamentals of footy.”
Most valuable lesson learned in the NAB League:
“For us, it was that we could match it with Victoria’s best. Particularly against the Dandenong Stingrays in Tassie (a four-point loss in Round 8 when Dandenong was unbeaten), we gave them a good fight.”
Teammate you’ve most enjoyed sharing the NAB League journey with:
“Last year it was Fraser Turner (now at Richmond) – I’m best mates with him. This year it was probably Will Peppin. I went to school with him and we’ve been through it all together.”
Most difficult NAB League opponent:
“I got tagged by Jacob Martin from the Calder Cannons (in a 12-point win in Round 4) and it was a shocker day for me. I had about 10 touches (it was actually 16).”
Most memorable NAB League moment:
“It would have been the game against the GWV Rebels when we beat them in Ballarat (by 32 points in Round 9). No one expected us to win against their full-strength side.”
* CLICK HERE to see other stories in our 2019 AFL Draft Watch series.