Tasmanian Ryley Sanders has put together a superb year on the field, but it’s been a product of many years of hard work and sacrifice.
Sanders made the move to Melbourne Grammar at the start of 2022 after former footy director Rhy Gieschen got in contact with his parents the year before.
“My parents left it up to me, they didn’t put any pressure on me either way,” said Sanders.
“They said ‘you’ve got to really want to be over there, because if you go over there and you don’t really want to be there you won’t get the best out of yourself’.
“We went over and checked out the school, we really liked it. The opportunity to play with Sandy, I remember playing them that year and thinking it would be cool to play there and then to go to a school like Melbourne Grammar was also huge.”
Sanders had an opportunity to move to Adelaide in year nine, but the move didn’t feel right at the time.
“It was a tough decision [leaving home], but I was always planning on going I think,” he said.
“I’ve got such an amazing family that supports me, lots of good mates and North Launceston is a really good club.”
Sanders admits that he did struggle living away from home at first, but eventually found his way in Victoria.
“It was a struggle initially, there aren’t too many people I know who move to a boarding school and are good straight away. Most boys struggle, whether it’s for a few weeks or a bit longer.
“I was pretty good for the first week or two but then when I realised I was over here for good I did struggle a little bit.”
He credits the Sandringham Dragons coaching staff for making his transition so smooth.
“I’m forever grateful for Sandy, the way that ‘Peacock’ [Ben Meredith] and ‘Crippa’ [Wayne Cripps] and ‘Wheels’ [Mark Wheeler], ‘Cookey’ [Mark Cooke] and ‘Nishy’ [Scott Nish] went out of their way and above and beyond to make me feel welcome and valued, they really made me feel like they wanted me there.
“As soon as we started playing practice games and footy came around, I settled in pretty quickly.”
Sanders has flourished in the boarding house at Melbourne Grammar, becoming a role model for younger students who are going through the same worries and concerns he once had.
“It’s hard to explain the camaraderie in the boarding house unless you’ve actually experienced it.
“There is so many different types of people, regardless of who you are or what you’re interested in, you come into the boarding house, and you’ve got people who are interested in the same stuff as you.
“A lot of my best mates have come from there, the ability to have friends all around the world is pretty cool.
“I really enjoyed being a good role model for the younger boys this year, a lot of them saw me as a role model so I really tried to have a good impact on them and help them out.”
Sanders vividly remembers his first training session at the Sandringham Dragons.
“It was a bit of a shambles, I was meant to get a lift with my uncle to the Aths Track, but something happened and he had to get me an Uber out, I got there about five minutes before training, Wheels forgot my training top so I trained in an ING t-shirt,” laughs Sanders.
“I was pretty lucky, Rhy Gieschen worded up a few of the boys so a couple of them took me under their wing and made me feel welcome.
“It was very hot, it was a really hard session, I thought ‘geez it’s hard over here’.”
Sanders was one of five Dragons to have played in the back-to-back flags, yet he admits there were times where he had to deal with frustration in his underage year.
“Last year ‘Crippa’ was great, he kind of knew at times I was getting a little bit frustrated because I wasn’t getting as much opportunity as I would’ve liked.
“He said ‘next year will be your time to shine’, I’m glad that it’s come true, and I’ve been able to be a leader in the team this year.”
“Last year was really cool but this year felt a bit more special because I had a bit more of a presence in the team.
Sanders says that it’s the Dragons culture that has played a key role in their on-field success in recent history.
“The coaching staff are such caring people; they care about you as a footballer but more about the person you are. That’s why we have been able to win premierships the last couple of years, we’ve got a really talented list but it’s full of great people.
“Mum and Dad have been very impressed by some of the people in our team that they’ve never met. Everyone’s always been humble and said hello to my parents and stuff, which I think is a sign of really good culture.
“There’s a lot of professional players who have really high ambitions, pretty much everyone on the list wants to get drafted and it takes a lot of effort and courage to put in the work to put yourself in that position.
“Everyone wants to get the best out of themselves, I’ve been really impressed with the team-first attitude, people are happy to do their role for the team.
“I don’t think I’ve got a bad word to say about anyone who’s involved with the Dragons.”
Sandringham Dragons head coach Rob Harding saw Sanders’ development firsthand this year and couldn’t have been more complimentary of his season.
“He started the year really strongly in terms of his ability to find the ball and what he added through the year was an ability to be more damaging with ball in hand,” said Harding.
“His contest work is excellent, he’s a beautiful kick.
“The move away from home really showed his dedication towards forging an AFL career, no doubt there were challenges for him initially but this year he really became a leader amongst our group.
“He was one of the key players who drove our standards, he displayed AFL leadership traits that I have no doubt we’ll see down the track as he progresses at the next level.”
A member of the AFL Academy, Sanders shone as the captain of the Allies in the National Championships.
“I was really happy and proud to be a part of that Allies side,” said Sanders.
“We were pretty confident internally, we thought we had the list to go a fair way in the Champs.
“We took a lot of confidence out of the first game, we started to believe we could really dominate the Champs.
“Last year in the Allies there wasn’t that connection, it felt like it was just a team to showcase players who wanted to be drafted, whereas this year, [head coach] Mark McVeigh did a great job of creating a winning environment, he wanted us all to buy in and it really benefitted everyone.
“We all bought into that team spirit that Mark wanted to create.”
Sanders hopes that the success of this year’s Allies side helps to pave the way for the next generation of young stars.
“Speaking to younger kids in Tassie, it’s given them a lot of confidence that they can perform against these bigger states.
“Hopefully we can give a bit of confidence to future Allies teams that they can dominate the Champs rather than just make up the numbers.”
Sanders captained the Allies and was also a member of the Dragons’ leadership group in 2023.
“Leadership comes pretty naturally to me; I like to lead by example through training and the way I play and the standards I have of myself.
“I was really proud to captain the Allies, it was a pretty cool thing to be a part of.”
Sanders was awarded the Larke Medal as the best and fairest player of the National Championships campaign, following in the footsteps of previous winners Sam Walsh, Christian Petracca and former teammate Will Ashcroft.
“You definitely want to be known for playing well in the big games.”
Sanders averaged 35.5 disposals to lead the Allies to a historic Championships win, also booting four goals in four games.
Sanders says he has been “really lucky” to have grown up in a footy family and owes a lot of his success to his extensive support network.
His father, Adam, coached North Launceston and was also in charge of the Tasmania Mariners (now Devils) back in the day.
“Being around him and my Pop who also played, I’ve always just been around footy clubs. I couldn’t wait to play when I was about nine, ever since then I’ve absolutely loved it.
“Dad has given me lots of insight into what it takes to be drafted.
“I can’t really put into words the impact he’s had on my footy, from teaching me how to kick a footy to now, I’ve been really lucky to have him.”
Sanders grew up as a Gold Coast Suns fan, idolising Gary Ablett Jnr who he describes as “just unreal”, but nowadays watches a lot of Tom Green, Lachie Neale and Clayton Oliver.
“That was largely because Dad coached Jesse Lonergan and Kade Kolodjasnij in Tassie. I was always hanging around with Dad at Mariners training, so I got to know them pretty well.
“They’d come back over Christmas and give me heaps of gear.”
Sanders has long been touted as one of the most promising players of this year’s draft crop and as a result, has had to deal with a lot of outside noise, both positive and negative.
It led him to enforce his own social media ban, Sanders saying that all the external pressure can certainly take its toll.
“It can be challenging at times.
“It’s hard when your mates are sending you stuff, you try not to look for it.
Former Sandringham Dragons midfield coach Paul Griffiths gave Sanders some words of wisdom at the start of the season.
“Griff said ‘we don’t care who’s getting all the outside noise and attention, just worry about playing your role for the team and the rest will take care of itself’.
“I tried to control what I could control by training hard and doing all the extras.
“It can be really stressful and draining when everything you see is rankings and mock drafts.
“The pressure from the media just increases, then you’ve got all the fans who message you, both good and bad.”
Like many young boys and girls, it has been a dream of Sanders’ to make it to the big stage since he can remember.
“It would mean a lot to be drafted, it’s so surreal, I’m getting a little bit nervous now, I was feeling pretty good, but the nerves are starting to kick in every time I think about it.
“To be able to reach a dream I’ve always had since I can remember, to make all the people who have believed in me proud is something I love doing.
“All my parents, grandparents and mates who ride the ups and downs with me, it will be pretty special to have them all there at Marvel to hopefully hear my name called out.”
As for next season, Sanders just wants to put his head down over pre-season and put in the hard yards.
“I’ve learned this year to try and control the things I can control. I just want to work as hard as I possibly can to get the most out of myself with all my training.
“Regardless of where I go there will be plenty of players to learn from, to try and pick their brains and improve.
“If a team’s going to use a high pick on me, I just want to repay their faith.
Wherever Sanders lands next season, it won’t be long until he makes his mark in a big way.