CONNOR Byrne will become the youngest player in almost 20 years to play in an Ovens and Murray final when the AFL hopeful lines up for Lavington on Saturday.
The Wagga youngster, 16, will join elite company when the Panthers take on Yarra- wonga in the qualifying final at W.J. Findlay Oval.
North Melbourne star Jack Ziebell, the last 16-year-old to play in a senior O and M final, set the league alight in 2007 as his club, Wodonga, surged to the preliminary final.
Byrne is more than three months’ younger than Ziebell was at the time.
Daniel Daly was 15 when he played for Wodonga Raiders in the 1997 grand final.
Byrne, who was in the Panthers’ best in Saturday’s 28-point win over Corowa- Rutherglen, said he had learnt a lot this season through the likes of Matt Pendergast, Kade Stevens and Luke Garland.
“I’ve learnt a lot about the defensive side of the game, which Lavi is so good at,” Byrne said.
“Hopefully, I can keep playing a role and the team can have a really good month.”
Byrne, a member of Greater Western Sydney’s academy, captained NSW at the national titles this year.
“It’s a lot more professional here than back home,” the Mater Dei Catholic College student said.
“Guys like ‘Garlo’, you learn just by the stuff he does before training and away from the club — you improve by picking up good habits.”
Byrne’s connection with the Panthers comes through family friend Gavin McMahon, who played for Lavington in the late 1990s.
Byrne makes the trek to Albury from Wagga with his dad, Pat, for training on Tuesdays, Thursdays and on game day.
“It’s not too bad — it takes about an hour and 20 minutes,” Byrne said.
“You get used to it. I try to do homework on the way.”
Lavington coach James Saker couldn’t have been more glowing in his praise for the tyro midfielder.
“He’s one of those talented kids who just gets it,” Saker said.
“He trains really hard and always wants to improve.
“He’s really diligent with what he does and when you’re like that, you earn respect straight away.
“He’s got a terrific tank — he won all of our pre-season running (time trials).
“With a young fella, you’re always that little bit unsure how he’d handle the heat, but he’s been as in and under as anyone for us. He’s improved every game.”