It is 6:30 am.
It is cold.
The city of Ballarat is quiet in preparation of the day ahead, while the clouds above have promised to hold off a little longer before their ritual interruption begins.
Athletes are not supposed to be up at this time. For them, this is a time of rest from the exhaustive, excruciating and lonely hours of physical repetition they put themselves through to hone their skills.
And if they are up at this time, it is to do that very thing – train.
But 21-year-old Nick Rippon is no ordinary athlete. He does not have that luxury.
A second year apprentice plumber and a prominent VFL footballer with the North Ballarat Roosters, Rippon is required to fulfil a similar number of hours training and in recovery as many of the AFL players he competes against, yet with the added task of squeezing them in during a 45-hour work week.
‘It was a bit different my first year. Full-time working and playing football was a bit draining at times, but I think you sort of get used to it after a while,’ Rippon said.
His apprenticeship has been “a bit of a learning curve” but is enjoying it.
“It keeps me out of trouble,” he said with a laugh.
Standing at 176 centimetres tall, Rippon has nonetheless been able to become one of the VFL’s leading midfielders, through his ability to extract the ball and give to teammates from the inside of contests, and his capacity to use the ball equally well while in space. In 2014, Rippon had a breakout season, finishing third in the Roosters’ best and fairest, and being named in the VFL team of the year.
This year he improved again, adding the Liston Trophy for the VFL’s best and fairest to his list of achievements.
Yet he continues to be ignored.
Rippon first caught the attention of North Ballarat Rebels senior coach David Loader and talent manager Phil Partington while playing local junior football as a 15 year-old.
Once offered a chance to be part of the Rebels TAC Cup squad, Rippon was quick to take it with both hands.
“I reckon people misjudged Nick a little bit early on, that he wasn’t going to be tall enough, he wasn’t going to be able to do this and that, but his ability to play was just so real,” Loader said.
Rippon featured in 13 Rebels games as an underage player in his first season. Playing as a small defender, locking down opponents and providing run from his team’s back 50, he was named among the best players a total of eight times.
Not one to grow complacent, Rippon soon backed up his strong first year at the Rebels with an even more impressive draft year as a midfielder.
Partington believes Rippon’s core strength and ability over his head for his size, allowed him to become a prominent inside midfielder who thrived at the contest.
“That year he was probably one of the premier onballers of the TAC Cup,” Partington says.
Loader remembers him similarly.
“He was so competitive,” he said. “He had genuine speed, he had a great vertical leap, he had real strength and power and he was an elite kick of the ball. Even though he wasn’t a tall guy he was an extremely good player.’
One game in particularly remains etched in Loader’s mind that symbolises Nick’s ability as a footballer.
The Rebels played an away game against the Calder Cannons. With that year’s eventual number two draft pick Jonathon O’Rourke, the Cannons were supposed to prove too strong, too fast and too talented for the Rebels.
Rippon was given the task of going head to head with O’Rourke.
Rippon won the ball regularly, kicked two goals, finished second best on ground and managed to keep O’Rourke quiet. The Rebels won comfortably.
‘It was just a real testament to how good Nick actually was,’ Loader said.
It is difficult to neglect Rippon’s draft year achievements, as he finished the season as the Rebels’ best and fairest, was awarded a spot in the TAC Cup team of the year, and achieved second place in the Morrish medal for the league’s best-and-fairest, narrowly missing out on top spot by one vote to now Carlton player Nick Graham.
Despite his prolific year, Rippon was nonetheless overlooked at the 2012 national and rookie drafts.
AFL Victoria’s VFL academy coach, Darren Flanigan, who had watched Rippon from afar during 2012, said Rippon was a victim of circumstance.
“It’s a needs basis with AFL clubs. If they want some midfielders who can play as a small defender they would look at him but if they’ve already got those players on their list, then they won’t look at him,” Flanigan said.
As the league is seeing the benefits of bigger-bodied, taller midfielders with the success of Essendon’s Jobe Watson and Fremantle’s Nathan Fyfe, Flanigan believes it is becoming important for midfielders 185 centimetres or below to possess a standout trait to get drafted.
TAC Cup and AFL.com.au draft reporter Callum Twomey remembered Rippon as in many ways being unfortunate not to get drafted.
“It was a tough year for him to probably get drafted because it was a pretty good draft that year and every year there’s a few unlucky types,” Twomey said.
But Twomey does not believe that Rippon’s height was what necessarily held him back.
“I think speaking to AFL recruiters – not specifically about Nick but just overall – they always look for guys with a trick, maybe an AFL quality that sort of separates them from the pack,” he said.
“But that’s not to say you cannot develop that.”
The day after the draft, Rippon found himself in a difficult situation. For most graduating year 12 students, their Valedictory dinner is an exciting prospect. It represents a chance to be seen – hopefully for the first time – as a peer by one’s teachers. A chance, depending on the school they are from, for a student to maybe even have a beer with a teacher they got along with. In more extreme cases, it may even be an opportunity for a student to finally tell that teacher of theirs where to go.
But for Rippon, valedictory dinner was something very different.
Graduating from St Patrick’s College, a notoriously strong football school, meant that as Rippon was meeting a sizeable roadblock in his path toward his dream.
Fellow students Martin Gleeson, Jake Neade, Dom Barry, Michael Close and Tanner Smith were being directed through to theirs, having been drafted the day before.
‘It was a good occasion to finish your Year 12 year off, but it was pretty hard on me, everyone was congratulating those guys and commiserating with myself, and it was pretty hard to deal with at the time,’ Rippon said.
True to his personality though, he credits the experience as being pivotal to helping him become the person he is now.
“That was probably a point when I become a bit of a stronger sort of person and player in that sense as well,” Rippon said.
Rather than wallow in self-pity, Rippon signed with North Ballarat’s VFL side in 2013, managing to fight his way through to the senior team and finish the year as a strong contributor for the Roosters. Having been one of the TAC Cup’s standout players, Rippon was also invited to join AFL Victoria’s 18-man VFL academy, an initiative started in 2012 to help improve the draft chances of a select group of VFL prospects.
Roosters midfield coach Paul Jennings says Rippon’s willingness to learn has helped him continually improve.
“Nick’s a really driven person, he definitely likes to get the best out of himself,” Jennings said.
Flanigan agrees, and believes Rippon will only continue to develop.
‘He’s definitely developed as a player across his whole career,’ Flanigan said.
“He’s gone from a back flank to a midfield [spot] at the TAC Cup level, he’s gone from a small defender outside to an inside mid at VFL level, and just continued to progress exponentially every year.”
Flanigan says there are plenty of examples of players initially ignored who went on to have successful careers, such as Sam Mitchell, who was overlooked for the 2000 draft, before going on to become a premiership captain at Hawthorn.
He believes Rippon could become yet another example.
“It’s just a matter of someone falling in love with him and giving him a go and I think he’ll be okay,” Flanigan said.
With the coming national and rookie drafts this week, Rippon may just finally get a chance to prove Flanigan right.
But until then, Rippon will continue to get up at 6:30 am, an AFL-ready footballer, in a VFL footballer’s world.