Anyone who has ever had experience in the racing industry will tell you about the little hit of adrenalin you get when you bring along a young horse or greyhound which in the early days does something a little bit special. You don’t get too carried away but what you see makes it difficult to contain an excited eyebrow from heading north. It’s an analogy that can be applied to the AFL because when you see someone like Caleb Serong take to the field you're immediately asking three questions. One, did you see that? Two, who is that kid? And three, where the hell did my eyebrows go?
It’s a rare occasion but when it occurs it’s a tasty feast on which us supporters dine. While you hope the player improves to reach the heights such a debut year suggests, we’re all well aware there are no certainties. But when such talent is displayed at such a young age, it inevitably re-emerges at some stage in the future, if in fact there is a consolidatory season or two.
Now we’re not clambering to get amongst the prediction game. Anyone who has made multiple predictions in any field will not have escaped the feeling of humiliation and the pain of being bitten on ones behind. The fact is most correct predictions are the result of the numbers game, the law of averages, the manipulation of the process or the ability to avoid the scrutiny of your shedload of misses.
To provide an example, a charismatic colourful horse trainer in WA back in the day had a magnificent strike rate at tipping his owners winners. He rode the guru-like notoriety, lapped up the adulation and, in more ways than one, milked it for all it was worth. Little did many know in a race with a dozen horses he’d tip twelve different punters each one of the twelve horses. There was always a winner that you heard about and the tipster trainer was always on the end of a sling. You can be wrong more than you’re right if you’re covering the angles.
Anyway, I’ve ironically gotten off track. My point being in most cases you’re on a hiding to nothing by making predictions and, to be honest, on the Caleb Serong front its more so stating of the bleeding obvious. Ray Charles can see the exciting future that lies ahead for Serong. And Ray Charles isn’t only blind, he’s dead!
On the 27th November 2019 AFL CEO Gillon McLaughlan called out the name Caleb Serong for Fremantle’s pick 8 in the national draft. YouTube saw an immediate spike in traffic as many Freo fans, yours truly included, thrashed the keyboard in search of his football prowess. Now while a package of such highlights can visibly turn anyone into a top ten draft prospect, it was safe to say we weren’t disappointed.
It was obviously a small sample but his versatility, skills and his highly intelligent decision making were enough for even the most financially conservative and risk averse Fremantle Docker fan to say, “here’s my life savings, now give me as much Caleb Serong stock as it can buy.”
Hailing from Gippsland in Victoria Caleb Serong was set for the AFL a long way out. He had showed the talent at a young age, he had the coinciding and necessary smarts, he was blessed with a great support network and most importantly he had the desire, the discipline and the dedication.
At the end of 2016 difficult decisions had to be made. The versatile Serong had to choose whether to pursue a promising cricket career or concentrate wholly and solely on his AFL dream.
So talented was he in both arenas and testament to how much he loved both sports, its rumoured that in late 2016, wrestling with the decision on which sport to continue, he once won the bat toss in a game for Warragul and Districts against Latrobe Valley and he said to the umpire, “We’ll kick with the wind.”
While that may or may not have happened (emphasis on the may not) it made little difference because Caleb picked up the bat, sauntered out to the middle and dispatched the ball to all corners of the field racking up a career high 123 not out.
It capped off an entire cricket career for numerous clubs and grades which saw Caleb play 167 matches for a batting average of 35. Further proving up his versatility he also took 204 wickets with the ball at an average of 14.5 and turned in ridiculous best bowling figures of 6 for 1.
On the AFL front in 2017 Serong suffered a broken collarbone in a Gippsland seniors match which required surgery. He spent seven weeks on the sidelines yet Vic Country under 16s still selected him and that was just two weeks after his surgery. He was only able to return to full training without contact two weeks before the game he was playing in so it causes you think that such a decision could only be attributed to the selectors owning the knowledge of Serong’s ability and character.
He played in that game, he got through it and he contributed. It was then up to Queensland for the national under 16s carnival and it probably comes as no surprise to us now that he was one of Vic Country’s best.
Upon return from Queensland Serong played a game back for the Warragul Gulls, or as a sometimes stutterless stepper Rory Lobb calls them the Warragulls, before getting the call up to Gippsland Power TAC side.
The purple bias in me believes Serong’s journey to Fremantle began with that very call from the Gippsland Power. It was a call that came from the highly talented coach, the Anvil, the big Brown dog, the man all Freo people loved, still love and were devastated to see go, our pick 5 in the 1999 national draft, Leigh Brown. He knew what this Serong kid had and I, for one, like to think that with the Justin Longmuir / Leigh Brown Fremantle and Collingwood connection, Browny guided Caleb to his own former beloved purple home in the West.
Whether that was the case or not we’ll deliberately never know but at that time Caleb Serong was just 16 years of age playing in a TAC Cup competition where most are 18 years old. His impact was evident and, observing his stellar debut AFL season, punching well above his weight division obviously put him in good stead.
While for a long time he had been on a high draft pick trajectory, his 2019 season no doubt secured the top ten selection. With a massive 33 disposals and 10 clearances he was crowned MVP in the grand final of the AFL under 18s championship between Vic Country and WA and received an All Australian Guernsey in the NAB Under 18s National Championships.
Coincidentally, in that Vic Country and WA championship grand final, Caleb’s then and now teammate Hayden Young pulled off a magnificently attacking pin point kick across ground that almost stole the win for Vic Country and then a superb textbook tackle from Serong almost saved it.
All this and so much more, that others have covered more diligently than myself, led to the point in time where we heard McLachlan say Caleb’s name. Closing in on 12 months later we find ourselves just days away from yet another award in which the superb Serong is long odds on to win.
On the 24th September the 2020 Rising Star award will be announced and, while we don’t want to disrespect anyone, get ahead of ourselves or pre-empt the result, after a 14 game debut season which saw Caleb Serong at 19 years of age average 17 disposals, 2.3 marks, 4.1 tackles, 3.4 clearances per game and take down some of the league’s midfield greats….. those investors who bought Serong stock are puffing on celebratory Cubans they lit with $100 bills.
With the defensive traits of a Ryan Crowley, the toughness of a Josh Carr, the nippy uncompromising and antagonistic nature of a goal kicking Hayden Ballantyne and the sweet skills of a David Mundy, you get the feeling that if we did a biopsy on Serong we may well see a multitude of DNA as if it has been genetically engineered.
When you look at a famous five of Freo Dockers, two of them rising star winners and four of them who turned out to be all time greats, Caleb Serong’s name sits very comfortably among them as far as debut seasons go. And the smart money is on his name being part of the greats when we look back in a decade’s time.
Coincidentally, sometimes you see a set of digits like that from Paul Hasleby and you get a reminder of how good he was. Hasleby’s debut year would be up there with the great debut seasons of all time. And, for that matter, Rhys Palmer isn’t far behind and it’s just a shame he didn’t reach the heights his talent suggested he could have. Oh and on Rhys.... maybe we should say more infamous than famous but he did win the award we're talking about.
Anyway we’re not here to reminisce and bang on about the past.
Serong’s quote now at $1.25 to win the 2020 Rising Star award reflects not only the season he has put together but also what those he is up against haven’t been able to do on a consistent enough basis.
Without taking anything away from him, we’d be foolish to think Matt Rowell wouldn’t have a mortgage on the award had he not suffered the season ending shoulder injury. But in some sense its survival of the fittest and with over four tackles, three and a half clearances and near on seven contested possession per week, Caleb wasn’t on the outside getting the bruise free cheap ball.
However, while the short priced quote is probably appropriate and our biased and one eyed purple nature says the show is already over, there is a Gold Coastian who has had a terrific year and on paper matches Serong’s stats.
Noah Anderson, the former Vic Metro captain and pick number two in the 2019 national draft, played seventeen games this year and it’s difficult to find a poor one. He would be a worthy winner but where Caleb Serong has the edge is in the individual defensive jobs he has done on the likes of Paddy Dangerfield and Jaegar O’Meara, while still maintaining his offensive influence.
If Caleb Serong is to go on and take out the 2020 Rising Star you get the feeling it’s the first of many individual awards that will come his way over the next decade, maybe next fifteen years if he takes a leaf out of David Mundy’s book of durability and longevity.
It would be deserving recognition for what has been a remarkable season. But if it happens to go to Noah Anderson, the disappointment will be all of five minutes. No doubt we all realise we’ve got a 19 year old top line midfielder in the making, if he’s not there already and one who has shown in his junior days the ability to go forward and regularly get amongst the goals.
Having exuded leadership qualities in the past, dare we suggest a future captaincy role, receiving the baton from the great Nat Fyfe in four to six year’s time…. or rather we should say whenever Fyfe wants to relinquish it.
Caleb Serong couldn’t have done any more this year to secure the 2020 award. Let’s hope those adjudicating see it the same way. We find out Thursday 24th September if Fremantle is to etch its third recipient onto the Rising Star awards honour board.