Michael Gleeson June 07, 2012
Learning curve: Jack Watts at training yesterday. Photo: Paul Rovere
Jack Watts has grown since his big-time debut.
FOUR years ago Jack Watts took off his school tie on Friday afternoon, put on a pair of large shorts and Melbourne jumper gaping around the arms, and on Queen's Birthday Monday played his first senior game.
He started on the bench but when he came onto the ground he happened straight into the play when he gathered a loose ball. In a moment Shane O'Bree had caught him. Then Heath Shaw joined the tackle. Then Nick Maxwell. O'Bree appeared to realise who it was and pushed harder to bring him to ground, with Shaw and Maxwell happily joining the crush. As a schoolboy Watts had played "stacks on", but never like this.
Later, Leigh Brown caught him in a tackle and, again, managed to sling and slam the schoolboy into the ground. Brown embraced the idea of physical and verbal intimidation and he let Watts know he was playing senior football.
Brown is now one of Watts' coaches. "I think our attitude at Collingwood at the time was just to be aggressive to everyone, whether it was Jack Watts who was a schoolboy or a player from any club," Brown said.
''I don't think we swarmed him because it was Jack Watts, it was just the way it fell, and it gave a fair bit of impact. To come in from the school system and play AFL was a pretty big shock, I think. It was a pretty solid tackle and I think it does send a message when you gang tackle someone like that … I am sure Jack would have felt that at the time.
"The thing about Jack I have learnt is he does not take a backward step, whether that is someone confronting him physically or the media commenting on him or constructive criticism from the coaches.''
Which is what occurred when he approached Mick Malthouse to talk after the former Collingwood coach had criticised his game. Watts went to him to learn.
Which is what occurred when he was dropped this year for poor form. He went to Casey, played well and earned his spot back. Yesterday he confronted it with a smile and acknowledgement that he needed to be dropped.
"I think it was the best thing for me … go down [to the VFL] and get a bit of confidence and get the footy in your hands and feel like you can have an impact on a game again,'' he said.
"To be honest, it is tough, and that sometimes comes into your mind [the doubt]. Going down to the VFL and realising actually I can do this was a good thing for me. I don't think I doubted my ability, it is more the frustration of not playing well.''
Brown said that while the Casey game helped Watts find his form, he had realised sooner than that that he needed to lift his work habits.
"I think the penny dropped, but I think the penny dropped before he got dropped, but being dropped made it real for him," he said.
Watts is understood to have responded with additional sessions at the club and harder work in the gym and with coaches understanding better what is required for him to be the type of player he needs to be.
It has been a process of education all year. Against St Kilda in round five, Watts was put on Sam Fisher and the game was an eye-opener to where he was at and where he needed to be.
Fisher is an elite endurance runner and he ran Watts to exhaustion within a quarter. Trying to put an arm across him to hold him up didn't work because Fisher ran through it like crepe paper. Similarly, when he was put into the midfield he grasped how much more work he needed to do. He played well in the first half but flagged badly in the second. In all of this he is not unique as a 21-year-old footballer - these are the lessons all players learn.
"Those experiences, whether it is playing on Fisher or in the midfield or on a wing and pairing that up with going to the footy and watching games and watching individual players and how they play and how they read the footy and how hard they work, that's been really important,'' Watts said. ''I think the ability to go to the footy and watch a game live is something we take for granted, but it is really important."
The education has also led to him shifting behind the ball into defence, where he has now played three good games. "I am certainly enjoying it down back … I find the ball coming towards me is helping me; I can read the play a bit better.''