HUGH McCluggage endured a restless night after learning of his senior football debut.
A late call-up did little to settle his nerves.
South Warrnambool coach Matthew Monk rung the McCluggages to ask if he could play the smooth-moving teenager against North Warrnambool Eagles the following day.
Dad Sam, himself a former Rooster, was keen to watch his son take the next step at Hampden league level.
Mum Christine, on the other hand, was worried about her “skinny little 16-year-old” playing against men.
“It was pretty nerve-racking. I was emergency I think and then I got a call on the Friday night at about 8 o’clock,” McCluggage said of the 2014 fixture at Friendly Societies’ Park.
“Then Mum and Dad had to call them back and talk. I didn’t really know until about 11.30pm (that I would be playing) and I didn’t really get much sleep.
“It is still the most nervous I have been for a game, for sure, just playing against people you grew up watching and just against bigger bodies for the first time.”
McCluggage started on Eagle utility Matt Brophy – one of his cricket teammates at Warrnambool and District club Allansford – on a wing and “just floated around a bit by myself and tried not to get hit”.
“I got to play against Warrnambool the next week which was a bit of a shock. They were impressive,” he recalled on Monday, just over a fortnight out from the 2016 AFL draft where he is expected to go in the top three.
“I played the last nine or 10 games. It was probably pretty big for my footy as well.”
Those matches for South Warrnambool – when he was still eligible for under 16s – provided the ideal launching pad for McCluggage.
He cobbled together 10 matches for TAC Cup club North Ballarat Rebels as a bottom-age prospect the following year, showing enough glimpses of his goalkicking nous and poise in traffic to pique the interest of the AFL Academy.
From there he skyrocketed into draft estimations. A standout 2016 season for the Rebels and Vic Country at the under 18 national championships entrenched him as a potential number one pick.
“I wanted to have a good crack at the year and I’d been given a good opportunity through the academy and it’s taken off really and caught me by surprise a little bit,” McCluggage said.
“It’s been a massive year and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”
Football has played a major role in McCluggage’s upbringing.
The former Warrnambool College student is always outside at his family’s Allansford dairy farm with brother Myles, 13, and friends working on his skills when he is home from school commitments at Ballarat Clarendon College.
“(We play a bit) of footy golf, over at the dairy, just kicking the footy with a few mates into bins and between trees,” he said.
“I have a couple of trees as goal posts, (and am) just hitting things and constantly kicking the footy, I guess.”
McCluggage started at Warrnambool and District league club Allansford and “made a few grand finals but we kept losing to South Rovers”.
He switched to South Warrnambool and won a premiership at under 16 level against an equally-powerful junior juggernaut in Cobden.
Another sport captured McCluggage’s attention from an early age too.
A talented right-hand batsman, he rose through cricket representative ranks, playing for Western Waves at state championship level three times.
But it’s an innings for Allansford, which his mum has labelled “the famous 99”, which stands out from his time on the pitch.
McCluggage was 15, playing division one alongside his uncle Gault, when he fell short of a maiden century on a February day two years ago.
“I went out. I had a ball that was a bit too full and nicked it,” he said.
“It was a bit disappointing. I didn’t know what I was on and got back to the sheds and they were like ‘couldn’t you get one more?’
“That’s cricket – when you have a good patch, everything goes right and you can have a bad patch and you can’t do a thing. It’s pretty frustrating that way.
“At that time I was having a pretty good run, so I had to make the most of it.”
That run continued in the Gators’ second innings against East Warrnambool-YCW, with the emerging teenager contributing another 48 runs.
McCluggage misses cricket – a sport which enabled him to play with his father – but is hopeful of donning the whites again, once his football career is over.
“Cricket was probably number one in the summer and footy in the winter, so it kind of just kept switching,” he said.
“I didn’t really have to make a decision to choose one or the other until I was about 17 and footy probably just took off a bit faster and there were big pre-seasons through footy and the body couldn’t really handle it (playing both) well.”
McCluggage, who also has a younger sister, Bella, 16, is making the most of his time at home before the draft.
His brother Myles, who was 11 when McCluggage moved away, is making the most of it too.
“When he gets home, his brother is very excited so they spend the whole time doing some sort of sport,” Christine said.
“He struggled when Hughy went away. They both missed each other. There is always an endless game of something going on.”