The Anzac Day match marked a small but significant penny drop moment in Draper’s game.
In the early rounds he felt he was rucking well but not necessarily playing well. He was concentrating on his rucking and his opponent without thinking about his influence on his team and the game.
Before going up against Grundy and Collingwood, Draper changed focus. He realised what the team needs from him is what they call his “contagious energy”. He admits to being naturally a boisterous, “bit weird”, excitable character and his teammates feed off his aggression.
“That week was a turning point of my focus. I had watched four Anzac Days from the stands and never played in one, so I was jealous of the boys and pretty amped up for that,” he said.
″Me playing with a bit of aggression is good for the team and good for my game as well, so my mindset was different for that game than when I have played better rucks in the past.
“Sometimes I have tried to just stop them instead of playing my own game, and I’ve realised that is not how I want to play and how the team wants me to play so that one was a good one for my mindset of thinking it doesn’t matter who I am playing, I am going to bring that aggressive mindset and play my own game.”
Draper was a footballer before he was a ruckman. He played soccer. His parents are English – his mum was pregnant with him on the plane to Australia and Sam was born in Australia.
The family returned to England to live when he was three and Sam spent his childhood in Brede, East Sussex, where most of his extended family still lives. His parents returned to Australia with Sam and his brothers and sisters when Sam was nine. He played soccer in Adelaide until he got too big to play as a central defender and in year 11 lost some passion for the game. He realised he was built for Australian rules.
“My two main idols growing up were Wayne Rooney, he was quite aggressive for a striker, and then Nemanja Vidic; the centre-back for Man United was my all-time favourite. He played with a bit of aggression and a bit of a fearless mentality,” Draper said.
“The thing I loved most playing soccer was a perfectly timed slide tackle when I can get the player as well as the ball, but also get in trouble a bit and get a yellow card. When I switched to footy, I was loving it. You can be aggressive and throw your weight around.”
On Anzac Day, with his team under siege and playing terribly, he wanted to be the big man who made the big statement for his team.
He ran through Pat Lipinski in one fair, body-rattling bump that had the dual effect of bringing cheers from Essendon fans and silencing those who say the bump is dead.
On another occasion, he ran 100 metres to the wing to clatter into a pack and spoil the ball over the boundary line. So excited by it, Bombers captain Dyson Heppell ran to Draper not to pat his back but to give him a full rom-com hug.
Draper was good for three quarters but Grundy, after being injured in the third quarter, was consequential in the last term. Regardless, the change in Draper and Essendon was appreciable.
In the final quarter against Hawthorn last week, as the Bombers started to gather momentum and rein in the Hawks’ 25-point lead, Draper took matters in his own hands at the centre bounce.
“I thought we weren’t getting the bang for our buck with the clearances and getting the ball forward, especially in the centre, so I saw the second ruck come in and I thought, ‘screw it, I will try and get it forward,’ ” Draper said.
When the ball went up, Draper, channelling former Brisbane ruckman Clark Keating, abandoned deft palm work and belted it as hard and far as he could. He hit it almost out of the centre square to half-forward, where Darcy Parish was worded up to run onto it.
″I told Parish before the bounce I was going to do it and it almost worked out to be the perfect play, but he messed the kick up. That last quarter especially turned into a real territory game and yeah, I was proud of that one.
“Yeah, I did it off my own back. I hadn’t got it ticked off, ” he said, a little sheepishly.
Coach Ben Rutten later applauded Draper’s approach, pleased that he had sensed what the moment needed, and that Essendon’s momentum was coming from territory and surging, not from possession.
“If I take the game on and make a mistake I won’t be too worried about it and the boys won’t be too worried either, because they know that’s one of my strengths, when I take it on and play with flair.
“I did want to stand up as a leader. I am figuring out the type of player I want to be and the type of player my teammates love me to be.“
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