This time last year Deniliquin’s Todd Marshall was preparing for a finals series with the Murray Bushrangers in the TAC Cup, the country’s premier AFL breeding ground.
The representative side for this region’s finest footballers is known as the ‘Bushies’ and stretches from Deni to Wangaratta, taking in the talent-rich areas of Albury and Shepparton. They stormed into the grand final, only to fall at the final hurdle.
But the heartache of that grand final loss is now but a distant memory for Marshall, the side’s star forward who went on to become the number 16 pick in the AFL draft later that year.
Yesterday the 18 year-old was selected in the Port Adelaide side for its elimination final against West Coast Eagles at Adelaide Oval tomorrow night.
It will be just his third game at AFL level — in front of an expected crowd of around 50,000 screaming Port fans. This match will supersede any of his junior footy career highlights and makes Marshall the first Deniliquin footballer to play an AFL final since former Sydney Swans star Leo Barry, whose final game in a glittering 237-game career was a semi final against the Western Bulldogs in 2008.
And while Barry’s rise into AFL ranks was always likely, Marshall’s wasn’t as certain despite his obvious talents as a junior footballer.
It was the gentleman’s game that could have collected Marshall’s career path after the 198cm sportsman was selected as an offspinner in the NSW schoolboys cricket team in 2015, and he decided to concentrate on his talent with the Kookaburra in readiness for a UK tour with the state team.
Deniliquin’s Wayne Pitts, who coached Marshall in both footy and cricket as a junior, said he could see the potential early in his playing days.
‘‘It was very natural the way he played both cricket and footy,’’ Pitts recalled.
‘‘He was well ahead of the rest with his cricket and was quite developed with his skills.
‘‘When he was young he was gangly but the way he covered the ground and the level of his skills in footy, you could just tell he was something special.
‘‘It’s just fantastic to see him thrive in footy.
‘‘I believe he could’ve made it in either sport, but I think he just had more of a passion for footy in the end.’’
After Marshall’s UK cricket tour, footy quickly called him back after he was invited to join the Bushrangers.
But the decision of which sport to pursue wasn’t an easy one, according to Marshall’s father, Rob.
‘‘A lot of kids at that young age have to choose between sports,’’ he said.
‘‘There would’ve been a bit of pressure on him. He came to Mary (mum) and I and said that he wanted to play footy.
‘‘He thought it might upset us, but it didn’t. I said to him, ‘Whatever you want to do is your choice’.
‘‘I think he enjoys his footy more because there is more mateship and it’s a more team orientated game compared to cricket.’’
But Marshall’s start at the Bushies didn’t quite go as planned, with a broken bone in his hand hindering his time on the park during pre-season.
He worked through the pain and comfortably made the final 51-man squad with the Bushrangers’ hierarchy liking his agility and running and jumping ability.
He played in round one, kicking three goals in their win over the Bendigo Pioneers.
Marshall went on to play a one-off game for the GWS Giants reserves side in the North East Australian Football League, a part of the GWS Academy Zone, in amongst a stellar season as a key forward in the TAC Cup comp.
But it was the seemingly innocent GWS match that created some controversy, with his name in the headlines following a decision reached by the AFL that GWS would not get priority access to the talented forward, despite him being a part of the academy’s zoning.
This left the then 17 year-old available to all AFL clubs in the draft later that year, blocking out the drama and not hindering his on-field performances.
‘‘Todd made an impact early (at the Bushies),’’ Rob recalled.
‘‘By his third game we had different agents tapping us on the shoulder wanting to represent him.
‘‘He played for the NSW/ACT Rams side and then he was selected for the Allies in the Under 18 national carnivals, and then we had AFL recruiters visiting us. It was a bit of a whirlwind.’’
It wasn’t long after that Marshall was dubbed the best key forward in the AFL draft, and with good reason.
In his first year in Adelaide he’s played 16 games for Port’s SANFL side kicking 23 goals, including hauls of three and five majors in his last two games for the Magpies.
A five-goal last quarter in the latter game was enough for Marshall to be selected for his AFL debut, against the Western Bulldogs in a historic match played in Ballarat.
The rookie collected 10 touches, three marks and laid four tackles for 50 AFL fantasy ranking points in an impressive first-up effort.
Marshall’s presence in the side has been heralded with helping the defensive pressure while dragging a key defender away from Port spearhead Charlie Dixon, who has slotted eight goals from two games with the youngster by his side.
Despite the fanfare, the quietly spoken teenager is taking it in his long stride (so much so he preferred not to talk about the upcoming final with the PT).
‘‘That’s Todd,’’ Rob said.
‘‘He doesn’t really like the attention, he just loves playing footy, and he’s loving his new life in Adelaide, which we’re very thankful of.
‘‘We can’t thank the Port Adelaide Football Club enough for their support.
‘‘I can’t speak higher of (coach) Ken Hinkley and the rest of the coaching staff with how good they’ve been to Todd and all of us as well,’’ he said.
‘‘The club can’t do any more for us and have been so helpful with getting Todd settled into life in Adelaide.
‘‘He has plenty of great teammates too who have really welcomed him with open arms.’’
Rob and Mary and some other proud family members will travel to Adelaide for tomorrow’s game, and they couldn’t be more proud.
‘‘We’ll be in Adelaide for the weekend to watch the AFL final on the Saturday and the SANFL semi final on the Sunday,’’ Rob said.
‘‘Just a few weeks ago I had the privilege of presenting Todd with his jumper and that was the greatest feeling I’ve had in a long, long time.
‘‘But to see him line up for a finals game at the top level will be an unforgettable moment.’’
■ The elimination final between the Power and the Crows will begin at 7.50pm (AEST) and can be seen on Prime 7 on free to air TV.