IT is not often that an Under 18s club can train at AFL facilities, but for the Sandringham Dragons, that is exactly the opportunity that has come about with the bayside team working out of Moorabbin’s RSEA Park. Dragons Talent Manager, Mark Wheeler said whilst getting out on the ground at times had been a challenge, the players had taken full advantage of the state-of-the-art gymnasium within the facility that St Kilda’s AFL and AFL Women’s sides use.
“Yeah we’ve been pretty good training out at RSEA Park we’ve been lucky enough to have a facility like that and have full access to it,” he said. “So probably you can see on the boys they’ve got a little bit more size on them we’ve had full access to a gym, been a little bit limited by the ground usage. “We’re probably a fraction underdone but we’ve probably got good size that we didn’t have in the past.”
With another successful year on and off the field in the NAB League, Sandringham looks ahead to 2020 with optimism following nine Dragons finding homes in the AFL through the 2019 AFL National and Rookie drafts. Wheeler said the game plan would not be a great deal different to past years, with the focus on fundamentals and speed.
“The game plan is the game plan we’ve probably only done in the last three weeks where we actually introduced the game plan so it’s all be about craft and a fair bit about skill,” he said. “There’s been a fair bit about running that has all built up towards today. So you know the game plan will be the same as you saw last year, we won’t hide from that. “We think we are better in the inside, we are definitely an inside mid team this year and we think we are pretty quick on the outside. “So the ball is going to move pretty quick up and down the ground.”
While the Dragons reached another preliminary final, Sandringham was missing a number of key prospects heading into the penultimate week with eventual pick six, Fischer McAsey, and top 30 picks Josh Worrell and Jack Mahony, as well as Jack Bell all injured. Wheeler said it was a “tough” year in terms of juggling the talent and managing work load, and while he was “really happy” with the outcome of nine players drafted, like any development program believed there were a few more that missed out who could have moved up to the elite level.
“Yeah you definitely do (have to manage playing multiple levels of football) but you’re trying to bring them back in and because its an in and out program because we are high in the APS system and private school system, including the independent schools you’re trying to get a bit of gelling back into the group. “You probably could have rested one or two more at the end of the year we had five players unavailable so that kind of hurt us a little bit. Those five players definitely made a difference to our team in the prelim but the better team won on the day.”
Looking ahead to this season, Wheeler said the team would be “competitive” again, and had a great practice match with Oakleigh Chargers a couple of weekends ago, though the side was under no illusions that the Chargers were missing a number of players. With the depth of talent on the list, Wheeler said the club would look to utilise as much potential as possible throughout the season to attempt to increase the number of draftees even further.
“Yeah we think we will be competitive.” he said. “We had a hitout against Oakleigh last week and the scoreline was flattering to us, Oakleigh had a fair few out I think we are still in that top four side, we are up around that mark there. “We are going to have a lot of in and out and we’re going to definitely be playing a lot of 17-year-olds going back to your earlier question ‘are we going to do something different this year?’. “Yes we are going to rest some 18s and 17s at times. “We are going to have a look at our full list.”
The APS and AGV football competitions often take a heavy toll on the selection committee for the Dragons, with so many players unavailable throughout the season. In some cases, as many as 20 players could come in to replace those missing through school football, as witnessed following the return of the competitions early in the season. To try and make the most of their list with the absences, Wheeler said the club “did something different this year”.
“We worked with head office and made sure we sat down with the school draws and our draws and when the byes were on and asked for the byes to be when we probably didn’t have access to all our players,” he said. “So instead of having a really thin list to have a look at and getting games we got a thin list and took the byes then. “I think that’s helped us a little bit. “I think there’s two rounds where we will be what we call a little bit thin with talent, but that’s a good opportunity to play some 17s and even if we don’t have that we might even look at some 16s to bring them up. “So we might look at that 16-year-olds list this year.”
While the Dragons have an impressive eight players in the Victorian Academy Hubs (seven in Metro and one in Country), Wheeler is keen to push the team aspect with so many players outside that group who have impressed. He did highlight Jake Bowey and Archie Perkins as a couple to watch who had really stepped up last season and developed well under the Dragons program.
“I think the Academy players are definitely there and they’ve been identified for a reason so I won’t go into too many specifics on players,” he said. “All you want to do is get your 17-year-olds to develop better than they did the year before, so I think Jake Bowey has definitely taken that next step and Archie Perkins, they are the two standouts in the Academy. “Our bottom-age group is really good and really deep so we think we have another three that should be added to that by the time the year’s out. “But I think what else has happened is that Darby Hipwell who’s missed out on it has been a drive which has been good. “Ryan Byrnes last year and Finn Maginness missing out I think those boys have learnt those lessons from Finn a little bit. “We’ve probably got about six blokes that have taken that story and are definitely going to improve. “We still reckon that we have six to eight that are still in the draft that are going to be talked about a fair bit.”
Naturally the Dragons also have a few players who Wheeler has noted as potential surprise packets, who due to different reasons have not played full seasons in the NAB League system before, but have earned a place on the 2020 list.
“We’ve got a couple (of top-age newcomers this year),” Wheeler said. “Max Holmes is probably one that you know probably only had a six-month program last year with his footy because prior to that he was concentrated on his athletics. “So I think Max has probably taken that next step and shown that he is fully concentrated on one program and that he has that and probably a Will Vesely that wasn’t in the program last year. “You know he got cut after doing a pre-season just to say he wasn’t quite at that mark so they’ve probably been the ones that no one really knows about that have been good standouts.”
Whilst the talk about the Dragons’ ability to get players drafted will always be loud in draft circles, Wheeler said the club was keen to do its own thing and was excited about entering the 2020 season in less than two weeks time.
“Just trying to stay under the radar is probably the biggest thing,” Wheeler said. “Really enjoying being at an AFL facility and I think that’s what the players are starting to show on the footy field, how good we are because accessing an AFL venue everyday and walking past AFL players all the time so it’s great for these players to look at that.”