When Kevin Sheedy first saw Zac Williams train, there were two traits he noticed immediately. One he could see from the sidelines – the way he ran, avoided tackles and his willingness to take the game on.
“He had a touch of Gavin Wanganeen about him,” Sheedy says, referring to the former Essendon and Port Adelaide champion. “That’s a big call, I don’t want to put that on him but he had some very good cutting skills.”
The other required more intuition and, some would say, provided a better gauge on Williams’ prospects. “You only have to look into their eyes, they just want to make it, they’re hungry.”
Sheedy’s coaching history is littered with players who rewarded their coach for his patience. Think Roger Merrett, Kevin Walsh and Dean Wallis to name a few. Williams is now showing he too was worth the effort.
The 21-year-old has been one of the reasons the Giants have made the massive leap from an also-ran to genuine contender this year. A former No.55 pick in a rookie draft, Williams has defied his humble draft position to be one of the most exciting running defenders in the competition.
“My natural game is pretty offensive and attacking,” Williams says. “Heath Shaw, Phil Davis, they really encourage me to play that aggressive role to help the team out.
“I’ve been doing it ever since I’ve played – just to take the game on as soon as I get the ball. It’s like Nathan Wilson as well – we’ve got the same mindset.”
Williams was one of Sheedy’s favourites during his time at the Giants. He particularly admired Williams’ courage to move from the bush to Sydney to pursue his dream. Like Sheedy, Williams’ father also passed away when he was young.
“I’ve been in that predicament myself and you like to give those sorts of kids extra belief you’ll get there if you train hard, have a great attitude and hang in tight when you’re not in the seniors,” Sheedy says.
“He was strong for a kid his age,” Sheedy, a pioneer for Indigenous talent in the game, says.
“Coming down and living in Sydney is big for an Indigenous kid with only a mother. He took that journey on.”
The feeling is mutual. “Sheeds is one of the best blokes I’ve ever met,” Williams says. “I think he played a big part in drafting me. As soon as i got there he kept giving me advice on what I needed to and put in the hard work to play senior footy.”
His partnership with Nathan Wilson has become a major weapon for the Giants. Both players love running with the ball, and feed off each other’s on-field fearlessness. Wilson caught the eye last week for his audacity to take on Lance Franklin and run away from the superstar forward.
“After the games we have a bit of a joke around. “Did you see me do this’?” Williams jokes. “If I see him make a really good run, carry the ball or take someone on, that gives me confidence to do it.”
Their play reminds Sheedy of former Norm Smith Medallists Andrew McLeod and Byron Pickett.
“They can run and kick the ball well, too,” Sheedy says.
It has been a slow burn for Williams, until this year. Unlike some of his bigger name teammates, Williams’ output did not drop when the Giants hit a flat spot this month. The tougher the opposition, the better Williams has played. So well is Williams playing it seems hard to believe he started the year in the reserves.
“He’s settled into the side because he’s been left in the side – it’s his breakout year,” says Sheedy, who is back at Essendon in an off-field role.
“He knows how hard it is to make it. The kids know they got early games pretty cheap, we told them that.
“It’s good to see him fight back and get into the side, he’s a terrific young boy. Every time I see him I get a smile.”