AFL hopefuls: Mabior Chol, Gach Nyuon and Duom Dawam.

AFL hopefuls: Mabior Chol, Gach Nyuon and Duom Dawam. Photo: Pat Scala

Duom Dawam felt like his heart had been broken when he missed out on making the Vic Metro squad for this year’s under-18 championships. But he was already thinking about how he wanted to finish off the season when he was drafted into the Northern Territory side so that recruiters could see him play at a higher level and he could find out what that higher level felt like. ''It’s been fast and hard but really good,'' he said. ''When I trained with them for the first time I didn't know how my teammates played, and they didn't know I played. But I'm picking things up all the time and taking it all as a big positive.''

''Big D'' has done it that way since he was first shown a football in the schoolyard five years ago. At the Western Jets, in the under-16 world team and as part of the AIS-AFL Academy he has tried to listen, learn and practice everything hundreds of times over; should he miss out on being drafted at the end of the year, the young ruckman will keep trying to get better. ''No matter what happens, I’m going to stay on the rollercoaster ride,'' he said. ''I won’t give up. I’m going to keep going and going.''

For me learning how to play footy was harder than learning how to speak English 

That said, he is doing his best to make things happen now. And as one of three Sudanese boys playing in the championships, Dawam is not alone in trying to reach the highest level of a sport he had never heard of while growing up and that he only started playing when a friend handed him a ball in the schoolyard one day and showed him how to kick, handball and take marks. ''For me learning how to play footy was harder than learning how to speak English,'' he said.

Mabior Chol was eight when he arrived in Brisbane, after fleeing the civil war with his family and spending time in an Egyptian refugee camp, ''which wasn't a good place to live. Most of the people there were racist towards black people, and to experience that for the first time was quite tough''. Like Dawam, he didn't find Australian rules football so much as have it forced on him when a friend insisted he join their school side. The team won and he got to play on the Gabba. ''In my first game I was lost,'' he said. ''It was hard to understand but I liked all the challenges: the marking, the running and the tackling.''

Dawam also spent a few years in Egypt, feeling frightened each time his mother sent him to the shops down the road, ''running really fast to get there and then running all the way home to get inside and out of the dark,'' while Gach Nyuon, Vic Country’s 17-year-old ruckman, lived in camps in Ethiopia and Kenya before moving to Melbourne’s south-eastern suburbs as a seven-year-old.

He has a fascinating story to tell: William Nyuon Bany, his mother’s husband and the man Gach identifies as his father, was a politician and army major in southern Sudan who helped set up the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, was second-in-command of a 210,000 soldier guerilla movement and was assassinated in 1996, months before Gach was born. Bany had 12 wives and Gach has 71 siblings living in countries all over the world, most of whom he has never met. His mother didn't want him to play football when his friends talked him down to the Narre North Foxes two years ago, because she thought it too physical, but she has come around. ''She didn't like it at first,'' he said, ''but now she's a big Collingwood fan.''

Neither Chol nor Gach Nyuon are old enough for this year’s draft, and Dawam is jealous: he wishes he had more time to get bigger, stronger and to learn even more. But both have enjoyed their chance to find out what they’ll need to be doing this time next year and to test themselves against kids who have been doing it a whole lot longer. ''It’s been pretty fast and pretty intense,'' said Nyuon, ''but it’s a privilege to pull on the Big V jumper every single game and it’s shown me all the things I have to keep getting better at.''