Second-year rookie Francis Watson is hoping to play in his first game for the West Coast Eagles this season after an ankle injury curtailed a promising start to his AFL career.
The 22-year-old halfback was averaging nearly 27 disposals a game for the Eagles’ WAFL affiliate East Perth last year when he tore two ligaments after round 4.
Stuck in a moon boot and looking down the barrel of 10 weeks without football, he was granted leave to go home to the remote Kimberley community of Balgo, 256km from Halls Creek, which he left in 2009 to pursue football.
Watson said it was a grounding experience which allowed him to start over and “have a fresh start in footy again”.
“It’s all good now, normal, I’m going well and training really well,” he said.
Watson said the year before he was drafted, he snapped the tibia and fibula in his other ankle but now he was injury-free.
“I feel like I’m much stronger and fitter than I was previous years and feel a lot healthier,” he said.
“I think we’ve got a new era, a whole new team, we have a very young side and there’s going to be much more opportunity for younger players to come up and play AFL.”
The defender has had plenty of support and time to work on his body at the Eagles, where players train non-stop.
At his old club, Claremont, Watson had to juggle a diesel mechanic apprenticeship with training.
“The biggest difference (between AFL and WAFL) is the training and meetings — it’s like a full-time job, you’re in almost every single day,” he said.
“Thursdays are your days off but you still come in to do extras.”
Watson has been putting in the extra yards ahead of this AFL season as he looks to recapture some of the electric form he displayed early last year as a rebounding halfback. Alongside ruck Nic Naitanui and several other young players, he started pre-season early in November and has been full-time since early January.
The new season also brings a new look for Watson, besides the updated Eagles logos, with a change in playing number from 47 to the 26 worn by retired premiership player Sam Butler. “I was approached by one of the coaches — because I’m 26 at East Perth, they said ‘would you like to be 26 at the Eagles as well?’ and I told them I’d love to,” Watson said. “So I had a chat with Buttsy to see if I was worthy enough to fill in some of the biggest shoes at the club.”
The blessing was given, which was no small gesture for Watson, who grew up barracking for the team he now plays for.
“When I came as a first-year I couldn’t believe I was amongst AFL players, next to Nic Naitanui, Luke Shuey and Shannon Hurn,” Watson said.
“Once I got to know them they’re just a normal bunch of blokes, you know. All really good blokes, welcoming and kind.”
Now an inspiration to the young men and women playing football in the Kimberley, Watson said after his career he’d like to get more talented players down to Perth, get them working and into football.
For the moment, his focus is on the upcoming matches.
The Eagles take on Port Adelaide at Leederville Oval on February 25 in their first game of the pre-season.