'Fire Starters' is a series of in-depth feature articles on some of our top prospects in 2022, exploring their performance in 2022, their preparation for the draft, and their aspirations for the future, written by Nathan Sepe, Dylan Bolch, and Jonty Ralphsmith.
He’s the prospect that has been almost entirely absent from wider discussions about the 2022 talent pool, but this time next week, Gus McLennan could be on an AFL list.
The intercepting defender is on AFL clubs’ radars after an excellent finish to the season, which saw him named as Sandringham's player-of-the-finals series and piqued the interest of recruiters.
After having his top-age draft year ruined by an early-season shoulder injury, McLennan returned to the Dragons as an overager this season.
Adversity has plagued McLennan’s time in a Dragons jumper, but the maturity he has attained from the setbacks has been on show since he returned.
In the final game of the year against Oakleigh, he was willing to play deeper in defence for the team, at the expense of his own development.
Backline coach Cam Feild praised his composure the following week against Murray, when Jedd Longmire got on top of him late, causing a reshuffle, yet he remained relevant in keeping the Bushies at bay.
He put together his most consistent three weeks of the season thereafter, as a thorn in defence who read the play early and played above his 187-centimetre frame to get in the way of the long ball, and beat his man one-on-one.
“We challenged him through the year to know when to go for his marks and when to spoil, and he just got that right,” Feild said.
“That was the biggest improvement throughout the year that I saw from him; he seemed to make better decisions around the footy and put himself in better positions as well.”
McLennan played 10 of 13 games for the Dragons after returning in round seven from a shoulder injury he sustained the previous year, plus four games against bigger bodies for Sandy Zebras in the VFL.
After setting up Tarkyn O’Leary for the Dragons’ opening goal in his first game back, he finished with two himself as he was played forward to diversify his positioning, before playing as a defender thereafter.
If the St Kilda Next Generation Academy prospect played a full season, there were plans for him to spend more time inside 50 and even have spurts in the midfield.
But 2021 senior coach Jackson Kornberg, who also coached McLennan in under-16s, believes he’s a natural defender.
“He reads the ball as well as anyone I’ve seen in last five years at Dragons, he just had a knack to know where it is and roll off and intercept,” said Kornberg, who was involved at the club for a decade.
“I remember watching St Kilda’s training from my office and even at that level, he knew when he wasn’t relevant, so he can come across and impact.”
A rowing background at Scotch College saw McLennan selected for nationals in Penrith as a 16-year-old, where he was forced to make a decision between sports sooner than most due to the hectic training schedule of rowing.
His footy preference was born out of a wholesome love for the game, one which predated his discovery of rowing.
It is a decision that would no doubt have pleased many at the club given the aptitude he showed while juggling both sports.
McLennan was a standout in defence at under-16s level for Sandy – getting named best-on-ground against Oakleigh - and Vic Metro, a time he was getting down to only a small handful of sessions across several months prior to selection.
“After the first practice game, he was in,” Kornberg said.
“He took six or seven marks, got a heap of the ball and made sound decisions.
"At that age, he’s the best mark I’ve ever seen, and still to this day I think that he has got the best pair of hands I have seen, outside the King twins - but Gus is obviously a different type (of player).
“We put him back, forward, midfield, played him everywhere and then we got to three quarter time and I said 'we can rest him, he’ll make the 30, he’ll play the two games'.”
The naivety of youth bit the then-17-year-old, though, entering his top-age year when the external expectation weighed heavily as the effort required dawned on him.
The camaraderie and enjoyment on the field which he associated with footy when making his choice between sports became a utopia, rather than a reality.
It caused him to have a slow start to the season, which was the last time recruiters ended up seeing him on the field prior to the AFL draft.
While he remained highly rated internally, and even created a highlights package to send to AFL recruiters, he had only five early season chats with clubs.
When St Kilda said it would not be picking him in the draft about three weeks out from the event, the writing was on the wall.
“Personally, I don’t think I was ready coming into preseason but I am fortunate with the position I am in now that I went through that year of not playing footy," McLennan said.
"It gave me the realisation of what was involved in footy and the amount of work to put into something you do love so having that year behind me gave me clarity to push for this year.”
McLennan took a two-week footy recess late last year to assess his options.
He spent Christmas escaping the hurly-burly city stresses at his Grandad’s house in Barwon Heads.
Having just seen close mates including number one pick Sam Darcy drafted, he needed to unlock the hunger which put him in a strong position in the first place.
“I was able to reflect on what footy would look like for me and was able to find that clarity when I was taking that time off that I love footy and it is something I want to make a living out of,” McLennan said.
“Having time to reflect on what it has done for me until this date and what it could do for me in the future made me realise I need to put in the work and what that work is so it pushed me to this year.
“In the summer you would see everyone grinding away and you realise it is something you want to do and that is when it really changed.
“Just going to the park and kicking the footy with mates, playing jack in the pack, was something I took myself away and drifted away from in that draft year, where I was so focussed on impressing rather than loving footy for what I fell in love with footy for in the beginning.
“Year 10 (2019) is when I really enjoyed footy a lot, and then having the outside noise of people saying you’re in a good position at the moment made me nervous every time I ran out on the footy field which I didn’t know how to deal with back then.
“But now I know it is common and that is what footy is and what it is going to be if I take it to the next level.
“I keep footy in footy and life separate from that.
“This year, a big thing for me was controlling who you listen to. Rather than having six or seven voices telling me what I should do if someone approaches me, having just my parents and ‘Jacko' .”
The break provided the impetus for McLennan to approach his footy with a work ethic necessary to thrive at NAB League level in 2022.
A knee complaint hindered his pre- and early season but a freer mindset meant that when he returned, he was well positioned to show off his weapons and play with confidence.
He combined his prudent recovery with Sandy rehabilitation lead Adriana Tselepis and physiotherapist Pete Thomas, and a strong off-field commitment to propel him from game one.
“I took four months off going out, drinking and everything (from January), and was eating right to make sure I was fit when I was ready to play some footy,” he revealed.
“I reached out to the St Kilda dietician and got some set meals to get leaner and lose a few kilos.
“With the knee situation, shedding some kilos definitely helped.”
Having overcome the adversity and experienced a year out of school, he also has the life perspective which those who advocate for an increase in draft age ubiquitously reference.
McLennan spent several months working at Royal Melbourne Golf Club, before a white-collar role selling government grants to businesses.
With a grown commitment and perspective to the pressures of life and footy, Kornberg, who has maintained regular dialogue with McLennan, thinks he is the more complete package than 12 months ago.
“When a kid misses out on a draft, it changes them and it changes how they look at footy, how they look at life in general and with Gus I have seen that change from afar,” Kornberg said.
“As an 18 year-old, some players can come in and think it is a fait accompli that I’m going to get drafted and then when it doesn’t happen, they don’t know what to do.
“It gives you a good consideration for how hard this game is and how lucky we are to even be in consideration to work or play, and that has built into Gus’ character now, he’s more resilient than what he was 12 months ago off the back of injury setbacks, not being drafted, potentially not a lot of people talking about him.
“He’s had to deal with a lot of knocks because of that. He’s driven, resilient and he’ll do anything to get the opportunity but 12 months ago he maybe wouldn’t have had that outlook.
“I think now he has an inner drive not just with footy but everything he does to be the best he can be off the back of his experiences.”