It’s often said that hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard.
It’s one of the biggest truisms in sport.
But what happens when such an undeniable talent belongs to someone with an insatiable appetite for competition?
Well, that’s what set Caleb Serong apart through his junior sporting career – rising through the ranks in both footy and cricket.
And it’s translated to the biggest stage of them all, as he capped off his astonishing rookie AFL season with the 2020 NAB Rising Star Award, in addition to being named the AFL Players Association’s Best First Year Player – an award voted on by his peers and announced in recent days.
Serong won the Rising Star with 48 votes from Gold Coast’s Noah Anderson on 39, and St Kilda key forward Max King with 28.
“It’s a great honour to be awarded the NAB AFL Rising Star, but it’s definitely been a full-on year,” he told Fox Footy’s Sarah Jones during the AFL Awards Show.
“We didn’t really get much of a break at the end of last year, going into the Combine and the draft, and then straight into an AFL pre-season, so to have that carry on into the shutdown period and train for a bit longer, and then finally get a few games underway – it was nice.
“It’s been a long season, but to be honest I’ve loved every minute of it and learned so much this year.”
Serong said he’s learned more than he could have imagined throughout the season from the likes of superstar team mates David Mundy, and dual Brownlow medallist Nat Fyfe.
“Coming in as a naive 18-year-old, you think you know a lot, but to be honest – training alongside those guys David and Nath, as well as the younger guys like Andy (Brayshaw) and Chez (Adam Cerra) – I’ve learned so much, as well from coaches like JL (senior coach Justin Longmuir) and Josh Carr.
“They’ve all been fantastic – some off-field, some on-field – but to have those guys in the midfield to learn from where I’ve been doing most of my work, it’s been fantastic. I’ve been grabbing them as much as I can – whether it’s on the track after training, or just in the vision room, just to improve as much as I can.”
Serong also spoke about his past footy experiences – such as debuting in the senior Warragul Gippsland League side as a 15-year-old, and boarding as a player at Geelong Grammar – and how they’ve helped shape him.
“Initially, playing a bit of senior footy when I was a bit younger was a great experience – (but) I don’t think I was really in-and-under and getting much of the contested ball, I was just waiting on the outside for it. The senior guys used to always try and get the younger guys, so I just stayed on the outside but I really appreciated that opportunity at the Warragul footy club, and then to move down to Geelong Grammar was a fantastic experience in Year 11 and 12 – not only the school footy and the school itself, but the experience of moving away from home to boarding school. That held me in really good stead to (ultimately) move over west.”
Serong didn’t make his debut until Round 4 this year, but had an instant impact when he first took to the field and made a season-long impression that has many believing he’ll be the Dockers’ next great midfielder.
He averaged 17 touches, four tackles, and a shade under three-and-a-half clearances a game over his first 14 games in footy’s top flight, and refused to take a backward step against any of the proven stars he matched up on.
In six of his last 10 games of season 2020, he recorded more than 20 touches.
Though the 19-year-old is only 178 centimetres tall, his game casts a giant shadow.
Fittingly, he earned his Rising Star nomination through his standout performance in Round 8 against the Cats – and arguably the game’s best midfielder, Brownlow medallist and now an eight-time All-Australian, Patrick Dangerfield.
It was a game in which he finished with 22 touches, seven tackles, three clearances, a goal… and the attention of everyone throughout the footy world.
But his thirst for greatness was evident from long before he reached the bright lights of the AFL and became a household name.
The Serongs are great Gippsland stock – a tightknit family genuine as the day is long, and with the spirit to match. So it was only fitting they got to mark Caleb’s debut on the same day they celebrated his father Jamie’s 50th birthday back home in west Gippsland.
The team backing Serong stretches far beyond those he takes to the field with each week, and – combined – they’ve given him the belief to accomplish anything he sets his mind to.
Whether it’s through his close network of family and friends; his former teachers and school mates at St Paul’s Anglican Grammar in Warragul, or Geelong Grammar; or his former team-mates at Inverloch Kongwak, the Warragul Gulls, Gippsland Power, or Vic Country, Serong has never had to look far for support.
He’s spoken often with the Gazette over his footballing, and even cricketing, journey. And each conversation revolves around the same themes – a hunger for the contest, a relentless pursuit of excellence, and his love of his family and close circle of mates.
The Dockers know full well they have a star building block for the future because Serong is a footy perfectionist. The last thing he ever wants to hear is “keep doing what you’re doing”.
He’s continually on the hunt for ways to improve his game – acting as a sponge for any advice he can soak up.
It’s that trait, among others, that has him squarely on the path to stardom.
The hard, uncompromising midfielder is a star seriously on the rise, which makes his Rising Star award so fitting.
Former Dockers jet Lachie Neale put together an MVP-winning, Brownlow-calibre season for the Lions in 2020, and the similarities in his and Serong’s game styles are undeniable.
Serong’s leadership by example is clearly one of his standout qualities, and has been all through his staggering rise over recent seasons.
The Gazette spoke with him in 2017, after a badly broken collarbone he sustained as a 16-year-old still failed to dissuade selectors from picking him in the Vic Country squad just two weeks post-surgery.
He starred in that subsequent national carnival in Queensland.
“Back in the under-16s I was relying on what I’d already done and what they’d already seen to make the team,” he explained last year.
“Once I got to the championships, I just wanted to prove to them that they’d made the right decision to show faith in me. They kept telling me that the reason they picked me was because I was good enough, and they backed me in.”
It hasn’t all been easy, and the advice Serong has received hasn’t all been easy to stomach.
But he’s taken it all on-board in his quest to improve.
Serong knows it’s about more than taking his chances. It’s about taking even the half-chances along the way.
“Sometimes that full chance never comes,” he told the Gazette after the Dockers drafted him.
“You might only get one game, or a quarter, to really stand up in and make your mark.
“If you go alright, then they’ll keep picking you. That’s when you take the opportunities you get and try to make the most of them.”
In 2018, Serong had a heart-to-heart about his game with Vic Country coach Leigh Brown (the Collingwood 2010 premiership-winning utility and former Gippsland Power coach), Power high performance manager Matt Ross, and then AFL Academy coach and Brisbane Lions icon Luke Power.
“They just said I was playing really good footy and they were happy with that side of things, but it was just my body shape – they wanted to see if I could trim down a little bit,” Serong explained.
“It was just about trying to take it to the next level so I could make it to more contests out on the field.”
So, as he always does, he took that advice to heart and over last year’s pre-season did everything in his power to get himself into the best shape possible.
And his performances in the AFL this season are testament to that relentless hard work and drive.
“People like Luke Power, Browny, and Matty Ross showing interest in me and giving me some of their advice, and what they think I should improve on, has really helped me,” he said.
“I just want honest feedback on what I can work on because I’ll never be satisfied – I always want to improve. Getting fitter and trimming up over the pre-season really helped me through the year.”
Serong explained the modifications he’s made.
“I kept putting on size (in the gym) so it wasn’t necessarily fat – it was muscle – so it was just about getting leaner and doing a bit more cardio, so boxing and bike riding rather than just doing bicep curls,” he said.
“It’s a fine line between doing too much, and doing too little.
“It just comes back to listening to people. You can’t just go through life thinking you know it all because a lot of time you don’t. Listening to that advice you get is really important.
“I want something I can work on to keep improving. As soon as you get satisfied or complacent, that’s when everyone either catches up to you, or you go backwards.”