Essendon Bombers rookie Ben McNiece and his Indian connection
Ben McNiece hasn't been to India. He was hoping to visit his mum Christine's homeland for the first time next month. She will go, but his travel plans have been put on the backburner. It's because of Christine's origin that McNiece can't go on the trip. He has no complaints, though. Christine grew up in the mining town of Kolar Gold Fields in Karnataka State, moving to Australia when she was nine. Her background wasn't a huge part of his upbringing in Melbourne. From a family of Anglo-Indians, Christine and her parents spoke what McNiece describes as "the Queen's English", so there was no hint of a foreign language at home. Cuisine was the main element of the culture that permeated into Ben's life.
"Chicken curry or the meatball curry. They're two of my favourites," he said. "And a lot of the Indian sweets which were always good before we started pre-season."
Ben McNiece in action for Essendon last year in the VFL. Photo: Scott Barbour/AFL Media
Still, India was far from a dominant theme. But the country got a whole lot more important for McNiece in August last year. It was then he was made aware he might be eligible to be picked up as a Category B rookie as part of the AFL's recently introduced Next Generation academies for players of multicultural backgrounds.
At 24, McNiece had established himself as a regular and emerging leader in Essendon's VFL team, and this loomed as an opening to reach an AFL list.
"I had to wait for a little bit. I had to hear back from the AFL whether I was eligible or not," he said. The cards fell the right way and McNiece became an Essendon AFL-listed player late last year. It was a remarkable rise for the small defender, who had only been with the Bombers VFL team for two seasons, having previously played local football at Northcote Park – where his father Dennis and uncle Peter are club stalwarts – after being restricted to just three top-age TAC Cup games for the Northern Knights.
The Parade College graduate had retained hope of making it to the AFL, but his professional life had advanced elsewhere. Having studied construction management at RMIT – which included a six-month exchange stint at the University of Florida – he was working until recently as a project manager at an organisation called Eltrax.
McNiece says it was only at the prompting of former local league opponent and 2000 Essendon premiership player Gary Moorcroft that he was given an opportunity with the Dons' VFL team. Showings against AFL forwards Lindsay Thomas and Robin Nahas helped fuel McNiece's belief that he could match it with elite opposition, but perhaps more inspiring was the success of one-time Essendon VFL teammate Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti, the cult figure dasher who became a near-automatic selection in Essendon's AFL side last year having been drafted as a rookie in late 2015.
"Watching what he's done ... he only got it through three hard years in the VFL. The effort that he's shown has been immense," McNiece said.
"The way he's taken his opportunity, if I can do half of that I'll be really happy."
And so there is a chance the pair could share the defensive 50 in the AFL this year. For now, McNiece is targeting the Dons' pre-season opener against Collingwood. Should he make it, familiarity won't be a concern.
"Most of the boys I know previously, so it's taken a lot of the stress out of starting a program. It'll all be about staying fit, getting through the pre-season," he said.
Before such goals can materialise McNiece had to put the rest of his life on hold. There's that India sojourn, which he says is still an ambition for another time. And then there was work. "I was lucky enough that my boss took it pretty well when I handed in my resignation," he said. "It was a bit surreal. You always think about growing up how good it would be to play football as a career."