Paul Puopolo shows a wise head comes with age.
HE'S been likened to a pint-sized Campbell Brown with his stocky frame and ferocious tackling, but Hawthorn's Paul Puopolo knows that building versatility in his game will bring more rewards.
After 14 consecutive games for the Hawks since his round seven debut, Puopolo has impressed his coaching staff and teammates and enhanced the growing trend of giving mature-age recruits a shot on the big stage.
Tomorrow night against Carlton, the 23-year-old will come up against former Norwood teammate and fellow South Australian Nick Duigan, 26, who was also a fourth-round pick in last year's national draft.
Both players have stepped into senior roles with aplomb this season and shown their years of SANFL experience prepared them for not only competing, but also thriving at AFL level.
Puopolo, a former construction worker and part-time student, was steadily building his part-time footy career as a forward and occasional midfielder with the Norwood Redlegs until a trial match a couple of seasons ago.
Former Norwood coach Trevor Hill threw the 174-centimetre Puopolo into a back pocket when one of his teammates became unavailable and he's spent most of his time attacking from the back half of the ground ever since.
''I've always had the tackling ability and a bit of speed,'' Puopolo said, adding ''anyone that's running with the ball, I tackle [and] just try to make an impact.''
His season-high nine tackles against the Saints in round eight has lifted him to sixth overall at the club for tackles and he ranks equal first for loose-ball gets. He averages 18 disposals from his 14 games and his disposal efficiency sits at 85 per cent, which places him in the elite category.
Former Adelaide player Nathan Bassett coached Puopolo at Norwood last year and said he was usually the first one at training - sometimes taking a quick nap in his car after a long day at work.
''He'd turn up in his orange [construction] vest. He had this idea that he still wanted to play, he wanted an opportunity in the AFL,'' Bassett told The Age.
''If you miss out [in the AFL draft] at 18, that can sometimes be the end of the road, but people mature at different times in their life and different times as footballers.
''He was a very good player for us last year, he had to get fitter, but he lost weight and began running to a level where he could play a full game at high intensity and get to more contests.''
Almost half of Puopolo's disposals this year have come from contested possessions, which Bassett suggested was largely due to his strength and high work rate.
''He's got that Jarryd Blair-type shape and he tackles well, but he's also explosive; he can take a good catch and he can play a role at both ends.
''Paul probably won't be in your [club's] top 10, but [in] that next group that play nearly all the time and they're really good people for your club.''
Bassett said it was rewarding to see Puopolo and Duigan having an impact in their first AFL seasons.
Duigan, who missed a couple of games through injury, has played 18 this season averaging 16 disposals from defence.
After battling injury through his junior days, he played 87 games for the Redlegs, was vice-captain last year and finished 10th in that season's Magarey Medal. voting.
He was taken by the Blues with pick 70 in the draft, four spots after the Hawks swooped on Puopolo.
''Nick brings a different mentality, he's got a different stance on life and challenges the bubble that some players live in when they come into [the AFL system] at a reasonably young age,'' he said.
''There's a few guys who have come in as mature-age recruits and done well.
''If you've got a guy who can play straight away, who's a bit older and can help build a strong culture, then it certainly helps build a good footy club - plus you don't have to spend as much on development.''
Puopolo said he was looking forward to playing against Duigan for the first time, but more importantly he's enjoying playing alongside the likes of AFL stars Cyril Rioli and Lance Franklin.
''You'd rather be on their team than against them - they're both great talents and can turn a game,'' he said.
''There would be guys now in the VFL, the WAFL or SANFL saying 'Well, I'm 20 years old, I've got no chance [of joining the AFL], I've missed the boat,' but that's changing with the new teams coming in. I knuckled down, lost five to six kilos so I could run a bit harder and pretty much did whatever I could … at least now when I come home I can actually relax.''