Locals light up the big stage

Carlton forward Levi Casboult, pictured in his Dandenong Stingray days, has forged a strong career in the AFL 35969 Picture: STEWART CHAMBERS

With community football, state league, NAB League and the AFL all on hold for now as a result of Covid-19, sports reporter NICK CREELY has taken a look at the top 30 AFL players over the last two decades from the area. To qualify for the list, players must have been drafted from the Casey, Cardinia or Greater Dandenong regions from the 2000 rookie draft onwards.

First up it’s 30-21…

30. Ash Smith

AFL club(s): West Coast

AFL games: 45

The Berwick and Dandenong Stingrays product played some strong footy at the Eagles in his customary role off half-back, including 18 matches in 2011, but eventually lost his spot on the list after managing just the two games in 2014. But after leaving the AFL ranks, Smith returned to his home club and has been one of many driving forces in the Wickers’ incredible premiership success since 2015, including three Team of the Year selections in a row from 2015-2017. At just 29, Smith has plenty of years of quality local footy ahead of him.

Former West Coast Eagle and Berwick star Ash Smith. 169598 Picture: ROB CAREW

29. Chris Bryan

AFL club(s): Carlton, Collingwood

AFL games: 46

One of Keysborough’s favourite sons, the ex-Carlton and Collingwood forward-ruck was drafted by the Blues as a mature-age recruit in 2005 and managed to string together 16 games, before Collingwood pounced in the pre-season draft of 2007. While Bryan lasted just three more years at AFL level for a further 30 matches, he was still a valuable contributor to the Pies, featuring in four finals across 2007 and 2008. Bryan was not lost to professional sport, however, spending a few years as a punter in the NFL before returning home to play local football with Keysborough.

28. Nathan Wright

AFL club(s): St Kilda

AFL games: 35

A highly-talented prospect out of the Dandenong Stingrays and a Berwick product, Wright was taken early in the second round of the 2012 AFL Draft by the Saints and made his debut in Round 3 of his maiden season at AFL level, racking up 22 disposals in a 72-point win against Greater Western Sydney. Despite showing glimpses of what he was capable of across five years in the elite system, Wright lost his place on the list at the end of 2018 before joining Sandringham in 2019. Wright has been signed by Eastern Football League Division 1 club, Rowville, for 2020.

27. Alex Silvagni

AFL club(s): Fremantle, Carlton

AFL games: 60

One of the rare Victorian draftees that didn’t play TAC Cup football but instead bided his time in the VFL for the then Casey Scorpions over many years, becoming one of the elite state league players in the state. After being noticed by Fremantle, the Dockers eventually snared the proud Pakenham boy in the 2010 Rookie Draft. Despite falling out of favour at the end of 2016 after 53 games, Silvagni played some strong footy in defense for the Dockers. Given a lifeline by the Blues, Silvagni managed another seven games, but after injury cruelled his time back in Victoria, retired in 2018.

26. Josh Battle**

AFL club(s): St Kilda

AFL games: 26

A highly-regarded key-position forward out of the Dandenong Stingrays and Haileybury programs, the Doveton boy made his debut in his opening season of 2017 with a game against Essendon, before building on that with six matches and seven goals in 2018. But it was a major positional change to the backline that saw Battle find his niche at AFL level in 2019, to play almost every single match and become one of the rising intercept defenders in the game. With plenty of AFL football ahead of the 21-year-old Saint, Battle could very well be higher on this list later in his career.

Former Dandenong Stingray Josh Battle is making waves at St Kilda. 152135

25. Matt Buntine**

AFL club(s): GWS Giants

AFL games: 59

After being taken as a top 10 pick from the GWS Giants in the 2011 AFL Draft, the Berwick defender has enjoyed a mixed bag to date in his professional career, with injury preventing him from fully realising his potential amid some impressive runs of form in the backline. But Buntine doesn’t turn 27 until October, and has plenty of time on his side to turn his luck around and become the player that the Giants liked as an 18-year-old coming out of the revered Dandenong Stingrays program.

24. Steven Salopek

AFL club(s): Port Adelaide

AFL games: 121

If not for recurring injuries, the high draft pick out of Narre Warren and the Dandenong Stingrays could have very easily played in excess of 200 AFL matches after finishing his time in the big time at just 27, despite almost being signed by Richmond and Melbourne. Salopek was part of the Power’s 2007 grand final side and played some excellent football across the journey through the midfield and half-back. His ability to find the footy was never questioned, but Salopek’s injury issues definitely prevented him from taking the next step in his career. Salopek is currently serving as an assistant coach for Carlton’s AFLW side.

23. Levi Casboult**

AFL club(s): Carlton

AFL games: 125

A towering figure known for being one of the top contested marks in the game, Casboult’s journey since being drafted out of Berwick has been an interesting one. Talented, and with all the right attributes to be an elite player at either end of the ground, Casboult has often been the subject of trade talk over the years, but his best football – as seen in 2017 when he took out the Blues’ goal kicking award with 34 – is of high quality and one that can change the course of a game for his side. With likely a few more years at AFL level, the 30-year-old can certainly help shape the fortunes of the rising Carlton side in 2020 and beyond.

Carlton forward Levi Casboult, pictured in his Dandenong Stingray days, has forged a strong career in the AFL

22. Tom Bugg

AFL club(s): GWS, Melbourne

AFL games: 96

The Gembrook and Beaconsfield product was a star junior who went through the Gippsland Power program before linking up with Greater Western Sydney as an underage recruit in October 2010. Bugg played some excellent football with the Giants before falling out of favour towards the end of 2015, where he sought a trade to Melbourne, playing a further 31 games. Bugg was rookie-listed by Carlton in 2019 but retired before the season started. Bugg co-founded ZOOZ Group during his AFL career, a social media technology company, which is now a multi-million dollar company.

21. James Gwilt

AFL club(s): St Kilda, Essendon

AFL games: 152

Gwilt’s story of perseverance is a unique one. Plucked out of Eastern Football League powerhouse, Noble Park, instead of going through the normal development programs and VFL football, the Saints snared the left-footed defender in the 2004 AFL Draft after watching him star and win best on ground as a teenager in the EFL grand final. After taking some time to find his feet, Gwilt became part of a strong push from the Saints to win a flag, and was solid in the 2010 drawn grand final and replay a week later. Despite a solid 2014, Gwilt was off to Essendon, where he played a further two seasons until calling it quits at the end of 2016.

**Indicates that the player is still on an AFL list