Caleb Poulter was in Bali last October when the call he knew was coming finally arrived. His time at Collingwood was over after just two years at the AIA Centre. The Trade Period came and went. So did the delisted free agency window and the drafts. He was back to square one.
Rather than returning to South Australia and searching for a pulse in the SANFL, the 20-year-old chose to remain in Melbourne and signed with Footscray, hoping the club's track record of promoting players from its VFL program to the Western Bulldogs would provide a lifeline.
After eight months out of the system, Poulter is back inside an AFL club after being one of only two recycled players – Quinton Narkle was the other – to land a second chance in Wednesday night's Mid-Season Rookie Draft.
"I was obviously pretty devastated when I got delisted. I found out when I was in Bali over the phone. I went through all my exit meetings and didn't get told for sure, so I found out over there and was pretty devastated," Poulter told AFL.com.au after being picked.
"It probably took me a couple of weeks to get over it. Actually, it probably took me a couple of months. I got back into pre-season and put in the work. I was definitely shattered but I wanted to use that as a driving motivator to get drafted again."
After being selected at No.30 in the 2020 AFL Draft, Poulter played 11 games in his debut season and looked destined for another contract and a more regular spot in the Magpies' best team.
But the transition from Nathan Buckley to Craig McRae and the emergence of Josh Daicos on one wing and the return to form of Steele Sidebottom on the other, restricted him to just one appearance in 2022 and led to his departure at the end of last season.
The Mid-Season Rookie Draft was the aim when he signed with Footscray. Ryan Gardner resurrected his AFL career there and Billy Gowers landed a second chance out of the Whitten Oval. Will Hayes, Anthony Scott, Jordan Boyd, Robbie McComb, Cody Raak, Mitch Hannan and Kyle Dunkley were all recruited from the Dogs' VFL program. It made sense.
But it was far from a forgone conclusion. Poulter produced a handful of strong displays across eight games under Stewart Edge, moments on the outside that fill a need at the Western Bulldogs. But it wasn't until national recruiting manager Dom Milesi subtly reminded Poulter to nominate ahead of the deadline last week that the prospect of returning to the AFL felt possible.
"I was never too sure, to be honest," he said. "I thought if I put in the work in the first half of the year with the Mid-Season Draft coming, I would be a sniff. I went to Footscray because I knew the Western Bulldogs had a list spot open. Luckily it has worked out for me. I knew it would pay off if I did the work. I spoke to Sam a couple of weeks ago, but they didn't let on much. It was a nervous wait that's for sure."
Wednesday couldn't have taken any longer if it tried. By the time Poulter and his partner sat down to watch the coverage on AFL.com.au, the Woodville-West Torrens product was exhausted. But the wait was worth it for someone who has now lived the draft experience twice.
"It has been one of the longest days of my life," he said. "Dom rang me about 15 minutes before the pick and told me they were going to take me. I was still trying to get my head around that. it was an unreal feeling. It was probably better than the first time I was drafted I reckon. All the emotions came out. It was an amazing feeling."
The Bulldogs have won seven of their past nine games heading into the mid-season bye rounds after recovering from a winless first fortnight of 2023.
Luke Beveridge hasn't made too many selection changes of late, but with Norm Smith medallist Jason Johannisen sidelined for another couple of months with a serious hamstring strain, there is a spot available at half-back. The selection of James O'Donnell in the past month is the latest example of a coach who is prepared to think outside the box.
Poulter has signed a six-month contract at the Bulldogs and is ready to fight for a spot in a side on track for September action, but with spots available on the outside.
"I fully back myself in," he said. "I've put in the work and want to reap the rewards. I think if I can get to the club as soon as possible, get to work and earn the respect of my teammates, I know I can go a long way."
Poulter will start with the AFL program full-time on Friday morning. Not much has changed since he was last at the Whitten Oval, but so much has changed at the same time. His decision to stay in Melbourne and join an aligned VFL club has paid dividends.