Grass grows in new Turf

Koby Grass presented with his Sydney Swans VFL jumper by two-time premiership-winning Swan, Lewis Roberts-Thompson. Picture: SYDNEY SWANS

By Marcus Uhe

Koby Grass told the Pakenham Gazette back in 2013 that he wanted to be an AFL footballer when he grew up. The Pakenham junior had sights set on the biggest stage, and is pulling out all the stops to reach it, having landed a VFL contract with the Sydney Swans. How it all came about, however, is a brilliant tale of courage, confidence and betting on himself.

“I don’t know the circumstances of how he materialised on our football track.”

Kevin Dyson was bemused to see a new face at training for his UTS Bats midway through last year, but with a tall, athletic build and exceptional ball-handling ability, he liked what he saw.

The former Sydney Swan and Melbourne Demon knows what it takes to reach the highest levels and this mysterious sudden addition to his squad instantly made an impression in the space of just a couple of hours.

“In Sydney footy, the skill standards are not the same as they are in Melbourne, South Australia, and so on,” Dyson said.

“So when someone hits the track and they just stand out, you think ‘who’s that bloke?’.

“I would know about a high quality player coming down to train, and this kid materialised out of thin air.”

The two were introduced and a connection was made, but before Dyson could pick him the following weekend for the Bats, the player would be on a plane back to Melbourne.

After all, Pakenham was making a run for a finals spot in Outer East Football Netball, and he was enjoying a new lease on life off the half-back line.

The player in question was Koby Grass, who simply wanted a kick while on a mid-season getaway with his partner to the harbour city.

A Gippsland Power graduate, the defender was splitting his time between the Lions and as a train-on player at the Casey Demons in 2023, still fostering ambitions to further his football career.

“It’s weird how it came about,” Grass said of his move to Sydney.

“The oval across the road, there was a team training.

“It was in-season, so I missed out on local training, and I went down to this local Sydney team, which was UTS Bats.

“I met the head coach, Kevin Dyson, who’s a former Swan from the 1996 grand final.

“We got talking about coming up next year and I explained how I still want to play VFL next year, that’s why I would move up.”

Eager to spread his wings in a new environment, and with a change in lifestyle appealing to his desire for personal growth, Grass played out the 2023 season at Pakenham, helping the Lions fall just short of a preliminary final spot against Woori Yallock, but the seed had been sown about life in Sydney.

The UTS Bats play in the highest standard of club football in Sydney, Sydney AFL, which is pitched as a breeding ground for footballers looking to make the leap from suburban level to higher honours.

In Dyson’s capacity as Bats coach, he’s in regular communication with officials at both Sydney and the GWS Giants’ VFL and academy programs, providing feedback on the talent on display at local level, and while not a Bat at the time, Grass’ name was one that he simply couldn’t shake.

Grass maintained contact with Dyson in the following months post his serendipitous visit, and in November, having been invited to train with the Swans’ VFL team with no guarantee of a spot on their list, the 19-year-old packed his bags and moved interstate, leaving the comforts of family and friends in Pakenham for a shot at something huge.

He committed to the Bats, and before long Dyson was assured that what he had seen on that fleeting afternoon a few months earlier was no figment of his imagination.

“We had started training even before the Swans, so we were, sort of, underway when he started training with us, and he was elite.

“The work that he had done between the end of last season and rocking up to us, he was in peak condition compared to anyone else on the track.

“We did a three kilometre time trial and he ran just about 10 (minutes) flat.

“He was highly skilled, best engine at the club by a mile and (had) fantastic attitude, and then he started training with the Swans.

“We’ve had players go down to Victoria, South Australia and so-on, and you want the players to play at the highest level that they’re capable of.

“We talked a lot about that and we talked about the Bats with Koby and I said to him ‘my goal is to help you get a contract with the Swans, go and play there for the full season and, if you can, get drafted.’

“That’s ultimately the conversations that we were having.”

In Grass, Dyson saw parallels between himself and his young prodigy, both dream chasers with nothing standing in their way.

With a direct line to Swans VFL coach Damian Truslove, Dyson began to make Grass’ case, a ringing endorsement from someone who knew his journey better than anyone to that point in his Sydney sojourn.

Highly sought-after VFL places are hard to come by, and the Swans had a vast talent pool to choose from, with Grass another fish in the abundant sea of prospects.

But at every checkpoint, Grass was ticking the necessary boxes and making an irrepressible case, validating Dyson’s advocacy.

“I started to have those conversations about Koby and at that point, (Truslove) was very non-committal about who they give contracts to because they had a lot of players they were looking at.

“I continued my dialogue with Damian, he’s seeing him on the training track with the Swans and I’m starting to press Damian a little bit, saying ’you don’t want to miss out on this kid, he’s high quality, he’s got an amazing attitude, he’s got a drive to get drafted and he wants to be on an AFL list.’

“My strong recommendation from Damian was to give him a contract and work with someone like this.”

By the time Grass came back to Melbourne to spend Christmas with his family, he’d secured a spot on the VFL list, materialising the belief of Dyson, but primarily, himself.

Moving to Sydney, a Rugby town where opportunities are fewer and further between, was a risk, but one that has paid off in spades.

For Grass, the opportunity fits perfectly into his vision; moving away from home and receiving a life education, and playing a high standard of football to go with it.

Life in Sydney has been “unreal” for the Pakenham product so far.

He’s living close to the beach, he’s landed an internship with Red Bull’s marketing department, and he continues to turn the right heads in the football world.

“I’ve always wanted to move away whether that was for footy or not, just for the life experience,” he said.

“I’m treating this the same – I’m moving out for life experience rather than moving for footy.

“It just makes it a bit easier to juggle – there’s not as much pressure if I said that I’m moving out for footy.

“It’s been good having that responsibility to look after myself, I’ve definitely learned a lot in the last few months already.”

Selection in VFL practice games for the Swans has him firmly in the mix to feature heavily in the red and white throughout the season, rubbing shoulders with AFL-listed and academy players along the way.

Having been earmarked for a role on the wing, Grass has been paying close attention to Swan, Errol Gulden, who finished fourth in the 2023 Brownlow Medal and won All-Australian selection in just his third season at the top level.

“I try to watch a fair bit of his vision,” Grass said.

“Seeing him in the flesh is really good to see where I need to get to.

“Obviously I’ll never get to his level but it’s good to see how he goes about it in game.”

A left-footer with exquisite foot skills and a football brain calculating equations quicker and sharper than nearly all his contemporaries, it’s a lofty comparison, but Dyson, who saw what Gulden was and could become during his previous coaching tenure at UNSW Football Club, can see glimmers of the Swans star in Grass.

“His ability to play a role at the top level and make an impact, win ball and then spread and give an option out wide, is top quality, and that’s what the Swans are seeing,” Dyson said of Grass.

“Errol and Koby have got a lot in common in terms of running capacity, left-footers, they’re very skilled, defensively very good.

“The thing that makes (Gulden) so special is his decision making, it’s elite.

“There’s comparisons but when it comes to that level of capability, there is a difference between the two, and Koby would be the first to recognise that.

“Does that mean that he can’t develop his ability to the elite level? I think he can.”

It’s that hard work and resilience that has Grass firmly in the mix to play a key role in the Swans’ VFL campaign this year.

In round one against Coburg, Grass marked his senior debut with eight disposals and two tackles.

While the desire still burns in the back of his mind to crack the highest level, there’s a sense of satisfaction having spread his wings and ticked the ‘change of scenery’ box, growing and maturing without the comforts and security blankets of home life to fall back on.

His football goals are straight-forward, aware of the possibilities but not losing focus on what’s at stake in the here and now, and grateful for where he finds himself.

“I hope to keep improving, put my best foot forward, play as many games as I can and contribute in those games,” Grass said.

“I just want to be a bit more consistent than what I was last year and mainly just keep getting better and hopefully contribute to the team this year.

“I think for most people in the pathway system, (playing AFL) is still the goal and I think, at the Swans, I’ll be able to keep developing.

“It’s still a goal, but it’s a long way off.

“Even though it’s a goal, it’s not at the front of my mind.

“I just want to show up to every session and get something out of it, be more consistent on the weekend, that’s all I can really control at the moment.”

For Dyson, who reached the summit himself, the goal that Grass set for himself ‘on the record in the under nines’ is within reach, should he continue to make the right moves in 2024.

“Koby’s a pretty special unit,” he said.

“I know from just getting to know him and how he thinks and how much he cares about this, what he’s done and how he’s prepared himself, it’s elite standard stuff.

“He’s got stuff to work on, absolutely, but he’s got the determination and the drive, absolutely, to succeed.

“This could be an incredible story, and it already is for him, but you never know what’s at the other end for this and if he keeps working hard, gets a little bit of luck, you never know what could happen.”