Injury and illness at the Gippsland Power drove Riley Baldi to develop his leadership skills in ways he hadn’t expected to this year.
The 18-year-old was appointed a vice-captain to Power skipper Brock Smith for 2019, with his competitive and aggressive nature as a 178cm inside midfielder tailor-made for leading by example on the field.
However, a niggling groin injury derailed Baldi’s pre-season and saw him miss the first four games of Gippsland’s NAB League Boys campaign, forcing the Moe (Gippsland League) junior to help lead his teammates from the sidelines.
He returned to the field to average 23 disposals, five marks and almost a goal per game in 10 matches for the preliminary-finalists and also represented Vic Country at the 2019 NAB AFL Under-18 Championships, where he presented himself as a prospect for selection at the NAB AFL Draft on November 27-28.
* Visit the ‘Highlights’ section of the NAB League app to watch Riley Baldi’s 2019 season highlights.
But when captain Smith was laid low by glandular fever for the Power’s first two NAB League finals, Baldi needed to take his leadership to a different level again.
“With Brock out sick, I had the chance to take the captaincy along with Ryan Sparkes,” Baldi said at the recent NAB AFL Draft Combine. “That was pretty special and humbling as well, because it’s something you dream of.
“The feedback I got from the playing group was good and they enjoyed my pre-game rev-ups. That was a new experience, but something that’s probably natural for me. It comes out in my personality.
“I’ve previously been more of a leader by example who shows how to do it on the field, but I’ve definitely become more of a communicator this year – particularly being on the sidelines early in the season.
“People who trusted me would come and ask why they didn’t get picked or how they were going, and I tried to spread my knowledge to next year’s group as well. It was about passing on things I’d learnt the year before from the likes of Xavier Duursma (ex-Gippsland, now Port Adelaide).”
Baldi said it was “definitely difficult” to be sidelined on the eve of his draft year but knew it was important to rehabilitate his groin properly.
In the end, his slower start to 2019 may have even been a blessing in disguise. Baldi hit form playing under his former Power head coach Leigh Brown at Vic Country and later finished the NAB League season in prolific touch.
“I had the groin injury a bit at the end of last year and thought I got it right, but it came back and we took a lot of time with it,” Baldi said.
“I was able to work on other things to keep me moving along while I wasn’t able to do a pre-season and I did lot of training through the year too, so I wouldn’t say the injury put me behind everyone else.
“In my first couple of games back, I’d get to half-time and the legs were giving in a bit. It took three or four games to get that match fitness and physical touch back.
“But I felt I was able to catch up fitness-wise and game-wise, and I was probably even a little bit fresher coming into the back end of the season.”
NAB LEAGUE ‘FAST FIVE’ QUESTIONS
Most influential person on your football at Gippsland:
“(Former head coach) Leigh Brown was a big one in my bottom-age season last year and then (current head coach) Rhett McLennan really stepped up this year to fill that role as a key personal relationship for me.”
Most valuable lesson learned in the NAB League:
“It would probably be just to move on. Don’t dwell on the things you mucked up or missed – just move on and learn from them.”
Teammate you’ve most enjoyed sharing the NAB League journey with:
“Sam Flanders. We’ve gone through everything together in the last couple of years. We’ve pretty much had every class at school together, done gym sessions and the extras together and we normally travel together as well. We’ve pushed each other along.”
Most difficult NAB League opponent:
“It would definitely have to be Matt Rowell (Oakleigh Chargers). He just willed himself to the ball in the last quarter of the qualifying final (an eight-point loss for the Power) and it was something you could really feel out on the ground. It was pretty inspirational for his teammates.”
Most memorable NAB League moment:
“The elimination final against the Geelong Falcons last year was a good win (by 35 points), especially playing against the likes of Sam Walsh. We’ve had a few close losses that galvanised the group which stick in the mind as well.”
* CLICK HERE to see other stories in our 2019 AFL Draft Watch series.