By the time Ross Lyon called on November 22, Riley Bonner had just taken his two border collies for their fourth walk of the day. It was that kind of day. Then with two hours to go before the Pre-Season Draft started, the St Kilda coach was on the other end of the phone offering an AFL lifeline. 

The 27-year-old had sat down with Lyon and Saints list boss Stephen Silvagni inside RSEA Park the previous week. He underwent a medical and met assistant coaches Robert Harvey, Corey Enright and Brendon Goddard, before heading back to Adelaide to wait by the phone. 

Bonner was becoming used to waiting at that point. After playing 93 games across eight seasons at Port Adelaide, the Power opted against offering him another contract for 2024. His time at Alberton was over. 

David Trotter, from Hemisphere Management Group, worked the phones after his client was delisted in September, but there weren't any interested clubs until after the Trade Period. When St Kilda reached out, the initial offer was to audition during the pre-season supplemental selection period (SSP). That changed. Other clubs were sniffing around. 


St Kilda didn't have a pick in the Rookie Draft, so they pulled off one of the surprises of day-three of the draft period, nabbing the South Australian with the third and final pick of the Pre-Season Draft, after Hawthorn and Gold Coast re-listed Chad Wingard and Sam Day. 

Now Bonner has risen from a short stint in the AFL wilderness to book his spot in round one at his new club, following a dazzling first summer in Moorabbin. 

"It started as an SSP invite, but I was hoping with the medical it was going to be something else. I thought if I got that invite, I would work my backside off and give myself a good shot of getting a spot," Bonner told ahead of his first appearance for the Saints on Saturday night. 

"But then a few other clubs had a sniff late. I got a phone call with two hours to go before the draft. They were going to take me. I was over the moon to get a second chance. I still think I've got a fair bit of footy in me. I've played nearly 100 games, but I still think I'm pretty young in footy terms and have a fair bit of footy left."


When Bonner learned his fate last September during his exit meeting with Port Adelaide coach Ken Hinkley, GM Chris Davies and list manager Jason Cripps, he hoped the dream wasn't over. State league, suburban and country clubs from across Australia reached out. He met with his SANFL club West Adelaide and would have played for the Bloods if he stayed in South Australia. Country club Echunga tried to convince him to play with his best mate in the Hills Football League.  

"I probably didn't think it was over (at the exit meeting)," Bonner said. "I thought I'd be told to look around and we'll keep you around as a depth player. I didn't have the greatest pre-season last year coming off injuries. Knowing that I could come in and have a full pre-season before pre-season (actually started), knowing I could knock on the door if that was at Port. 

"It's obviously not nice you're not going to be at the club anymore. I was flat knowing I wouldn't get to see so many of my good mates every day anymore. There is no bad blood, it's footy, I know what the workplace is."

Bonner went to Bali to let the dust settle and then returned on a mission to land a second chance. He trained with All-Australian Power trio Dan Houston, Ollie Wines and Darcy Byrne-Jones when he got back to Adelaide. Then he relocated to Melbourne with his partner, Georgia Wright, moved in with former teammate Karl Amon and put his head down. 

"I was training as if I was playing AFL footy still," he said. "The aim was to get picked up SSP and, if not, look at (getting picked up) this year. There are injuries in footy. I was going to be living in Melbourne no matter what. That was the plan. It's daunting and I didn't like the feeling, especially when all the Port boys went back to training.

I realised I was by myself now. Lucky that's when things happened here (at St Kilda). I started with the one-to-four-year boys and tried to put my best foot forward.

- Riley Bonner

Bonner didn't have to wait for the SSP to open. Instead of saving a spot to see if luckless wingman Daniel McKenzie could get his body right over the pre-season, the Saints opted to pick Bonner. He has repaid the faith over the summer to the point where his match simulation form and standout performance in the AAMI Community Series demanded a spot for Saturday night's trip down the highway to GMHBA Stadium. 

"I knew it was a second chance," he said. "Being a new player at 26, I felt like I had to show I'm at that level straight away. Knowing that they needed a bit more ball use and run and carry, that is a strength of my game. I was in pretty good nick coming in. It has been my best pre-season to date in terms of how fit I am. I had some good practice matches which hopefully leads into a good round one. I feel like I'm ready for a good year."


With Jimmy Webster suspended for the first seven rounds, Ben Paton recovering from a pectoral tear and reigning Trevor Barker Award winner Jack Sinclair sidelined with a calf injury, Bonner has the chance to secure a permanent spot at half-back in St Kilda's best 23, just like Liam Stocker did last year after being signed via the SSP. 

"Personally, I feel like I do (have lots of AFL footy left)," he said. "I haven’t had too many soft tissues, touch wood, it's all been broken cheekbone or other bones, but I feel like they happened at the worst times for me at Port. I feel here, I know where I stand, how to play that role for the Saints. I'd like to think I have a fair bit of footy left and definitely think my best footy is still to come."