By Hayley Wildes
When you think of the quintessential Dandenong Stingray player, Ned Cahill immediately comes to mind.
He’s skilful, tough, thrives on contested footy, brings immense pressure, and most importantly, possesses a team-first mindset.
It’s these qualities, plus many more, that has seen Cahill take his game to a new level in NAB League season 2019.
After a terrific end to the 2018 season, which saw him play a key role in Dandenong’s maiden TAC Cup premiership as a bottom-age player, Cahill looked set to explode into 2019. An interrupted pre-season held him back slightly at the start of the year, but he’s fit and firing right now.
“I think as that bottom-ager and having a relatively good finals campaign really helped leading into this season with confidence,” Cahill said.
“[My pre-season focus] was trying to be just as consistent as possible; getting to a level of fitness where I could play a good four quarters was the main goal that I really wanted to bring into this year.”
Playing a good four quarters of football has been no issue for Cahill. His manic pressure – which is exquisitely combined with incredible poise – is a joy to watch. He competes all day and when the ball is in dispute, you’d be a fool to bet against Cahill coming away with it.
“When you’re not really in the game, what I like to do to get myself back in the game is just bring my pressure and tackling as much as I can,” he said.
“I try to have that kind of impact and then everything just kind of follows on from there.”
Seeing so many teammates and friends realise their AFL dreams last year, Cahill talked about the excitement surrounding that experience and how it gave him even more self-belief heading into 2019.
“We were all a really tight bunch of boys last year, we were all really close and seeing your mates get drafted is awesome – that’s the boys’ dreams,” he said.
“As you get older, more of your mates start to get drafted and you know people in the system; it does give you that bit more motivation and self-belief.”
After playing much of 2018 as a small forward, Cahill has moved more into the midfield this season and the move is reaping rewards for Dandenong.
“When I played juniors for Mt Eliza I was always a midfielder, but then last year because we had such a strong midfield I couldn’t really break into that, so I think the only way I could play was to play forward,” he said.
“At the start it was a bit different, but I really enjoyed it and I really like playing forward.
“This year being a top-ager, having that versatility and being able to play both roles has really helped.”
Since Round 3, Cahill is averaging over 23 disposals, to go along with four tackles and two goals per game. His ability to impact games, be it as a forward or midfielder, has been key to the Rays standing unbeaten after nine rounds.
Having won it all last season and seeing half a dozen players get drafted, there was a general consensus that Dandenong wouldn’t be the same juggernaut in 2019. That couldn’t be further from the case, and even Cahill admits he’s been pleasantly surprised by Dandenong’s flying start to 2019.
“I think most people did expect that drop-off – I’m not going to lie, I did expect it a little bit because that was a really strong team last year and so many boys got drafted or are playing VFL now,” he said.
“In Round 1 I think we had about 13 debutants. From there, all the bottom-agers have really stepped up and the top-agers and 19 year olds have really taken on that leadership role.
“We’ve become a very strong team, but we’re also really close as well – we’ve all got that respect and friendship.”
Cahill’s form was rewarded recently when he was selected to the Vic Country squad for the 2019 AFL Under-18 Championships and last weekend he stepped onto the hallowed MCG turf and put on a show against fierce rivals Vic Metro.
Vic Country headed into the game as underdogs, but they claimed a memorable 13-point win with Cahill playing a vital role. He finished with 16 disposals, two classy goals and plenty of pressure acts.
“That was surreal; I was so excited, I’m not going to lie,” he said of playing on the MCG.
“To experience it for myself, but also with close friends that you make through the Vic Country program and the friends that I have at the Stingrays – Bigoa Nyuon, Cody Weightman, Sam De Koning and Hayden Young – that was awesome.
“We were the underdogs, but what we have is that real strong bond and we have that Vic Country fight.
“We played to our strengths; contested hard football and selflessness. To get that win over the Metro boys, we were stoked.”
Cahill has done plenty of winning over the past 12 months and with AFL recruiters surely keeping a close eye on him, his draft stock continues to rise as 2019 progresses.
Dandenong returns to action tomorrow, 8 June, at Shepley Oval against the Northern Knights from 10:30am. The Rays will be without their Vic Country representatives, including Cahill, who will be in Tasmania to battle the Allies on Sunday 9 June.