Scaling the heights: Dean Towers (with ball) shows his style for the Swans in an intra-club practice match.

Scaling the heights: Dean Towers (with ball) shows his style for the Swans in an intra-club practice match. Photo: Getty Images

MAIA Westrupp, a talented volleyballer, rugby and tennis player from Whakatane on New Zealand's north island, hadn't touched a Sherrin until day one of a recent testing camp. Nobody even thought of the ''T'' word when Melbourne signed him a week later.

Greater Western Sydney fleshed out its international rookie stocks by adding a midfielder from the Danish Vikings named Aksel Bang to its speculative global stocks, a punt that's already prompted a ''Sheedy Sheedy Bang Bang'' headline. Last week, Tadhg Kennelly was back home overseeing a Dublin training camp, searching for the next, well, Tadhg Kennelly.

These are now commonplace fields for the farming of shoots that may one day grow into AFL footballers. Another crop is also surfacing, of young men who, like Westrupp and Bang, not so long ago wouldn't have contemplated a career in football in their wildest dreams. The difference is, they've been right under our noses the whole time.

In Blacktown on Sunday, Dean Towers - a wing-heeled 22-year-old the Swans hope will launch rebounding attacks off half-back in the manner of a certain jigging Irishman - will debut in red and white. Melbourne's Dom Barry, Collingwood giant Brodie Grundy and second-year star on the rise Jeremy Cameron are other recent fast-forward footballers.

Sickeningly talented kids have long excelled at multiple sports before throwing their lot in with footy, but to come to the game late and find yourself on an AFL list in a few short years is some progress. It's hard to imagine an English kid taking up soccer at 15 and being signed by Arsenal while still a teenager.

The AFL's talent identification guru, Kevin Sheehan, cautions that the vast majority of draftees still tread the traditional path, through under-age ranks and into the TAC Cup. But like the mature-aged wave of recent years, the late-starters are growing in number.

Sheehan says football's many scouts are ''continually looking for those little gems we might not know are there, in our own backyard''. It's tricky finding them if they're not playing.

Grundy played just seven games at under-16 level with Sturt, yet arrived at Collingwood a dual under-18 All-Australian. Intelligent, inquisitive and competitive, the star junior basketballer has taken to football with a striking verve.

Barry came to Melbourne from Alice Springs on an Evonne Goolagong tennis scholarship, and joined brother Ben in the indigenous program at St Pat's in Ballarat when things didn't work out. Early indications are that Melbourne fans will be thankful that North Ballarat's regional manager, Phil Partington, hounded Barry - who hadn't played football since under-11s - for three years before finally getting him in a Rebels jumper.

Cameron didn't play his first full season of football until he was 16, having hitherto preferred swinging a golf club around Dartmoor's nine-hole course or fishing the Glenelg River with his grandfather. In the blink of an eye he has been ordained the AFL's next great power forward.

Towers started in the Otway Districts under-14s, but it was hard to see him for the Manna Gums. A classic late-bloomer, the 22-year-old was looking no further up footy's tree four years ago than the Colac and District league. Now, he is the premiership team's No. 1 draft pick.

''Perhaps when someone comes from outside the system it's very noteworthy, because it is so different, it jumps out at us,'' says North Ballarat coach Gerard FitzGerald, who coached Towers and another bolter, Hawk Isaac Smith, and saw Cameron and Barry at close range in the club's under-18s, as well as another basketball convert, Tiger Matt Dea. He believes the common denominators here are attitude and generic sporting ability (rather than something in the water at North Ballarat's Eureka Stadium). ''Obviously they're not going to come through unless they've got ability, but if they've learnt to really dedicate themselves to their other sport, that's also going to transfer if they make that decision that they want to go into footy,'' FitzGerald says.

''Invariably the kid who makes it from outside the prescribed background is a kid who's got a very, very powerful attitude. They've discovered footy a bit later, or they've changed direction beyond their 18th year. They have to display significant strength of attitude to get there.''

Drawing on the traditional Australian kid's adeptness at both summer and winter ball games, FitzGerald wonders how an AFL draftee whose career lasts the brutally brief average of three or four years would fare if they then went the other way.

''At the moment we tend to see them choose footy, because of the pathway and opportunities, and then drop back to VFL or local footy. What if they said, 'OK, I'm going to really tear into my cricket now?','' he says.

Sheehan isn't enamoured with the buzz term ''first-choice athlete'', preferring ''sportsman'' to encapsulate the blessed who are elite in hand-eye co-ordination and athletic ability, and in many cases develop later physically than their peers. He gives credit to two groups: the myriad people, many of them volunteers, at the sub-levels who find these gems in the first place; and then the growing numbers of coaches at AFL clubs who earn their bucks by quickly getting them up to speed.

It no doubt helps that, having arrived as if transported by the Tardis, learning fast is something they're used to.