An unconventional recruit: From TV contestant to AFL debutant

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Matt Eagles of the Lions runs with the ball in last week’s AFL match against the Bulldogs.

By NATHAN JOHN,
sports editor

With two games under his belt, reality TV contestant turned AFL defender Matt Eagles is settling into life at the elite level.

Drafted to the Brisbane Lions in 2016 after winning Fox Footy program The Recruit, Eagles was named to debut against Collingwood in Round 7 after biding his time in the reserves, and maintained his place in the team for the Lions’ trip to Melbourne on the weekend.

Lions assistant coach Murray Davis said Eagles had won the trust and respect of teammates after an unconventional beginning to his career.

“Matty’s aware that he’s come through a different pathway yet he walks into the club like any other player that’s on our list,” he said.

“He’s getting an opportunity on the back of his hard work and dedication, and now the next challenge for him is learning from his experience of playing senior footy.”

Eagles began his senior career as a ruckman but eventually settled in defence, recording a competition-high 17 intercepts in last year’s NEAFL Grand Final, earning a new contract on the back of his strong form.

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Eagles working hard in the pre-season to get in shape.

“It was part of his development to trial him in different positions, and we felt he showed in the NEAFL that he had the attributes of a defender,” Davis said.

“His performance in the grand final was really the icing on the cake in regards to the back end of his season.”

Eagles returned in top shape for the preseason, focusing on time trials and repeat running, and overcame soreness at the end of summer to be named among the best afield in three consecutive weeks leading up to his debut.

Davis said his form became too hard to ignore, and Eagles was named for his debut to the delight of Lions players.

“Any player that debuts has a lot of nervous energy and Matty, despite his age, was going to be no different. We felt that as the game wore on he looked more and more comfortable,” Davis said.

“Players and the ball move quicker [at AFL level]. He experienced that and we felt he showed a really good trait in that he was learning almost on the go.”

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Eagles took an unconventional route to the AFL.

Eagles overcame a nervous start to collect 11 disposals and four marks, providing enough physicality and rebound from the defensive arc to retain his place for the Lions’ following game against the Western Bulldogs in Melbourne.

He struggled against Dogs stand-in skipper Marcus Bontempelli, who booted four goals in his return from a hip complaint, but Davis backed Eagles to continue to learn and develop his defensive craft.

“He’ll regularly come in and go through his tape to find ways in which he can improve, he’s really taking control of his career.”

As for how Eagles can hold his place in the team, Lions coaches are keeping the message simple.

“The expectation is for him to keep building on that competitive nature that he’s got and keep giving us a contest, and keep working within our unit down there among the other defenders,” Davis said.

“It may be somewhat unconventional, but he’s gotten an opportunity and he hasn’t wasted it and at this stage he’s [two] game[s] into an AFL career.”