It seems strange to think Joe Maishman has only managed three VFL games with Werribee so far this season.
The former Geelong Falcon and one-time AFL draft prospect had been a regular fixture in the club’s senior side since arriving at Avalon Airport Oval in 2015, managing 26 games across his opening two seasons and playing an important outside role within the Tigers’ midfield.
But the current scene at Werribee is very different to the one Maishman walked into in his debut year.
For one thing, the playing list is looking healthier than it has in a long time, the Tigers’ having experienced a horror run with injury over 2015 and 2016 that allowed Maishman to fast-track his career.
For another, the club’s full alignment with North Melbourne has made competition for spots fierce, Maishman now having to contend with the likes of fellow speedsters Josh Williams, Will Fordham, and Declan Mountford to hold down a run-and-carry role.
It’s the sort of setback that could easily make a young player drop their head, but the 21-year-old has instead embraced his extended time in the development team as an opportunity to improve his game.
“We had plenty of blokes in form, so I just needed to go back to the twos and perform myself and earn that call-up, just continue to work and develop my skills and then work my way back in through good form,” he says.
As part of that process, Maishman has also had the chance to further hone his craft as a member of the development squad for the VFL State Team.
A new initiative for 2017, the 13-man squad of up-and-coming talent was given the opportunity to train alongside the 42 players in selection contention for the state team.
It was an experience Maishman relished and one that provided him with great insight into the work ethic required to take his game to the next level.
“It was really good,” he says. “[The VFL team] was packed full of some ripper footballers, like Michael Sodomaco and Matty Hanson, so it was good to watch and listen from a few of the more experienced fellas.
“[What stood out was] just the professionalism some blokes have, especially those who have actually been in the AFL system – not just on the training track but also during the day to day and through their leadership.”
The experience seems to have rubbed off on Maishman, who has since earned his senior recall and appears to be making the most of his opportunity.
In his return to the VFL level against the Northern Blues in round nine - his first senior game since round two - he pushed forward to hit the scoreboard with three goals, while last week’s match against Footscray saw him collect 14 disposals and provide plenty of his trademark run through the middle.
The two contrasting performances have allowed him to show off different sides of his game, and he believes having the flexibility to play a number of roles is crucial for a player in his position.
“You definitely need to be versatile, whether that’s pushing forward and trying to impact on the scoreboard and with your defensive pressure or whether that’s going through the wing and the midfield and just using your speed to run and carry the footy,” he says.
After a slow start, Maishman's 2017 campaign now seems to be gaining momentum, with Sunday's clash with Sandringham set to mark his third straight VFL appearance.
He is hopeful of maintaining his place in the side across the second half of the season, though he acknowledges there are still areas of his game that need work.
“They’ve been good and poor in some areas,” he says of his two most recent performances. “There’s a little bit to work on just to be a bit more consistent and have a bit more impact.”
But regardless of where he finds himself for the remainder of the year, he is looking forward to the prospect of a more stable week-to-week playing group when the club goes standalone in 2018.
“It’ll be awesome once we get a good core group in – 23 Werribee boys all on the same page,” he says.
“It’ll be really positive, and I think we’re all really looking forward to it. It’ll be good for both groups, North Melbourne and Werribee.”
Maishman and the rest of the Werribee VFL team kick off against Sandringham at 2pm on Sunday at Trevor Barker Oval and will follow the development match at 11am.