The making of Jai Culley

Work over off-season primed Ray Jai Culley for a big 2022. Picture: SUPPLIED.

By Jonty Ralphsmith

It was the offseason that made Dandenong Stingrays midfielder Jai Culley.

The 19-year-old, now seen as a likely prospect for the mid-season draft on Wednesday 1 June, knew speed was a limiting factor of his game in 2021.

His nine NAB League games yielded nine goals as he showed glimpses of his talent inside 50 for the Stingrays, but he wanted to produce more than flash-in-the-pan moments in games.

So after the season, he reached out to Rays Strength and Conditioning coach Ben Benson to increase his speed and improve his technique.

Benson runs his own coaching service, Southeast Speed, where he has worked with AFL players including Zak Butters, Buku Khamis and Josh Honey.

At Linen House Oval in Seaford every Wednesday morning during late September and October, Benson and Culley would come together for sprint coaching to plug Culley’s weakness and improve his pace off the mark.

Rather than have Culley completing repeat sprints, Benson had him doing different exercise that mimicked in-game scenarios such as changing direction, running through traffic and running with a ball in hand.

Culley thinks it has rounded his game off.

“From where I came from last year, it’s quite a drastic change I think,” Culley said.

“Obviously I’m not going to win the 100 metre sprint but I’m not slow around the stoppage and in my spread from contest to contest – that was probably the biggest knock on me last year.”

Benson was impressed by Culley’s self-starter approach and drive.

Away from the weekly sessions, Culley meticulously followed exercises he was prescribed to improve leg-strength.

In the training block, his maximum velocity improved from 8.01 to 8.6 metres per second – a 7 per cent improvement in five weeks.

Players who reach nine metres per second can consider their running a weapon, according to Benson, and with Culley viewing his running as a key weakness prior to the training block, it was an enormous stride in the right direction.

“Given how much he has improved in such a short space of time, I’m very confident he’ll go on with that,” Benson said.

“It was about helping him become a more efficient runner as well as increasing that top speed, which carried really well across to his in-game work rate.

“He can cover the ground really well compared to what he did beforehand which makes conditioning sessions easier.”

Culley also noted the improvement that came in his 20 metre sprint times: 3.3 seconds in 2021 compared to 3.1 seconds in 2022.

Benson said he was technically already a very good runner, with the key to their training being capitalising on those strengths while making small changes.

That has translated on to the footy field in 2022 through his enhanced ability to explode, accelerate through traffic and change direction aggressively.

In his two NAB League games he is averaging 24.5 disposals and two goals.

His cleanliness and strength impressed in the Colgate Young Guns v Vic Metro game on Saturday 7 May at Avalon Airport Oval.

Culley is next in action on Sunday 15 May at 1.30pm at Ikon Park.