‘Closest I’ve seen to a Judd-type’: Inside the meeting that created a Kangaroos star

Key points

  • Luke Davies-Uniacke leads the AFL Coaches’ Association’s champion player of the year award.
  • The Roo had a forthright meeting with ex-Demon Nathan Jones during his formative years.
  • Matthew Lloyd and Gavin Brown weigh in with their theories on why Davies-Uniacke took time.

Luke Davies-Uniacke, Nathan Jones and Gerard Healy were seated at a table in a Black Rock cafe.

The catch-up came during a period when Healy – the former champion Demon and Swan who has become one of the AFL media’s most respected voices – was mentoring the young Kangaroo, at the club’s request.

Luke Davies-Uniacke leads the AFLCA champion player of the year voting.Credit: AFL Photos

Davies-Uniacke, the No.4 pick in the 2017 AFL draft, looked great with the Sherrin in hand. His old Haileybury College coach Matthew Lloyd even called him the best junior footballer he had seen, such was his explosiveness, power, and clearance expertise.

But the problem was it didn’t happen enough. Davies-Uniacke protested that it was because he wasn’t getting enough midfield minutes.

“You’re not fit enough to get them,” Healy told him, matter-of-factly.

They spent roughly a year chatting about football, and surfing together at Bells Beach, but Healy felt Jones, as a then-AFL captain, would have more success getting through to Davies-Uniacke.

Jones spelled out his pre-season routine, in particular what he did above and beyond what the club asked of him, including gruelling cycling and boxing sessions.

“There was basically a three-to-one deficit on Luke’s end,” Healy recalled to The Age this week.

“When the ball was in his hands; there was not a lot I could advise him on. He was a natural, in that way. But he didn’t get the ball often. He didn’t have the fitness base to do it and had no real concept of working between possessions, or a full understanding of how to get to the level he’s at now.”

Nathan Jones gave Davies-Uniacke insights into his preparation.Credit: Getty Images

There are no concerns anymore, but Davies-Uniacke’s progress, or lack thereof, back then was a talking point at Arden Street.

Shoulder and groin injuries – from over-training, of all things – hampered him significantly, while he suffered through a difficult period after his father, Peter, lost a three-year cancer battle in early 2021.

Lloyd never doubted Davies-Uniacke. Former senior coach Brad Scott warned early days that Davies-Uniacke would be a slow burn.

Davies-Uniacke has had a scintillating start to this season. The 23-year-old shares the lead in the AFL Coaches’ Association’s champion player of the year award, with Collingwood’s Jordan De Goey, despite missing last week’s match with a corked calf.

The switch appears to have been flicked about midway through last year, even if the building blocks were already in place.

There was a 38-disposal eruption in late 2021, but his torrid run truly started from round 13 last year, with 33 touches, a goal, six clearances and six inside 50s against the Giants.

There were another 36 a fortnight later versus Geelong, then 33 against Collingwood, to go with video-game numbers of 14 inside 50s, 12 clearances and 11 tackles.

Davies-Uniacke amassed at least 30 disposals in eight of his past 12 matches, after doing it once in his first 61 games. The Kangaroos’ head of development, Gavin Brown, watched it all unfold.

“He was slow to develop, then all of a sudden, it was really quick, if that makes sense?” Brown said.

“I remember talking to him after a game last year, and it almost felt like the penny had dropped for him. The way he was talking with confidence; I just thought, ‘He’s got it now’.”

To Brown, the star midfielder, whose development rate he compares with Christian Petracca, was a bit immature in body and mind when he entered the AFL, but argues his early struggles with the game plan were not unusual.

Luke Davies-Uniacke.Credit: Twitter

Lloyd thinks Davies-Uniacke’s introvertedness might have seen him pay “too much” respect to the likes of Ben Cunnington and Jack Ziebell, compared to, say, a Joel Selwood, who was more “kamikaze” from the get-go.

“Luke is a different personality, and took time to find his feet at the level, but there is an element of having a body in good-enough shape after four or five pre-seasons to get to that point,” Lloyd said.

“He’s now at the stage where he believes, ‘This is my time now’. Kevin Sheedy always said to me, and us, ‘You believe you belong at 50 games’, and I think that’s right for Luke.

“He’s the closest thing I’ve seen to a Judd-type, but he just wasn’t using that dynamic nature he has — and that was probably the missing piece.”

Clarification — A previous version of this story stated that former North Melbourne CEO Ben Amarfio had doubts about Davies-Uniacke’s progress. Amarfio, who was not approached for comment, denies this was the case. The Age retracts that claim.

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