CALDER Cannons head into the 2018 season with a strong core of top-end prospects, as well as some impressive 19 year-olds who were unlucky not to be drafted last season. The Cannons had just the one 2017 draftee – Noah Balta – and missed the finals after scraping into the eight in 2016. There are never any guarantees, but they should make the finals this season based on the amount of bottom-age talent last season that will come through and represent the Cannons at TAC Cup level.
The classy Curtis Taylor and inside bull Jack Bytel are sure to cause opposition teams plenty of headaches throughout the season, while Western Bulldogs father-son Rhylee West has always been touted as a top prospect from when he impressed in the 2016 National Under 16 Championships. Last season West played five games and will be hoping to build on that, as will Bytel (10) and Taylor (nine) when not on Vic Metro duties.
Mitchell Podhajski seems a perfect fit for a 19 year-old spot – a player who was really unlucky last season and showed his versatility down back and up forward. He was one of the best rebounders in the TAC Cup in 2017, so there will be a great interest watching on to see how he progresses this year. We saw a number of overagers drafted in last year’s National AFL Draft, so the hope is still there should he put in a good season. Other overagers who were a touch unlucky not to be drafted after having some interest from clubs is the agile Dylan Landt – who tested well at the State Combine – and Jake Riccardi who was a consistent performer in 2017. Tall timber Daniel Hanna is another 19 year-old who is likely to straighten the Cannons up and present as an option up forward or through the ruck.
West is not the only father-son eligible player on the Cannons’ list, with Mason Fletcher – son of Dustin – a potential Bombers father-son recruit. Fletcher is a rebounding defender much like his father, and expect to see his spoiling ability, agility and long kicking to come to the fore in 2018. He played 10 games last season, but was one of the best kicks, also looking for long options out of the defensive 50 and more often than not, finding them. They might not be top-age prospects, but Oliver Liberatore will be another Western Bulldogs potential father-son, while Jesse Taylor narrowly missed out on being a potential Collingwood father-son, with his father Brian playing 97 games for the Magpies before crossing to Richmond for a further 43 matches.
Other Cannons who really got a taste of TAC Cup action last season and impressed include Jack Evans (18 games – the only returning Cannon to play every game last season) who will be one to watch, as will endurance beast Lachlan Sholl (14), Tye Browning (16), Lucas Cavallaro (11), the speedy Jake Firebrace (10) and Shane Skidmore (10). Many of them will help form the nucleus through the midfield and attempt to go to another level in 2018.
Last season the Cannons got off to a slow start and were behind the eight-ball, losing the first six games and taking a while to gel. When they did, the improvement was clear as they stormed home with a mid-season purple patch, before just being outclassed near the end as players returned to clubs following National Under 18 Championships and the end of APS football. The Cannons broke the drought against Gippsland Power in Round 7, before recording four wins in the next eight games to break even over that period, and eventually dropping two of their final three games to finish ninth on six wins, six points adrift of the eighth placed Northern Knights. Their turnaround mid-season was profound, but the slow start ultimately cost them.
Calder kicks off their season in the TAC Cup opener on Friday, March 23 when the Cannons welcome the Western Jets to RAMS Arena. In the same game under lights last year, the Cannons were blown away early by a Jaidyn Stephenson-inspired Eastern Ranges. This year the Cannons should have a competitive hit-out against the Jets, who also missed finals last year. In round two the Cannons face Eastern, but with less firepower this year in terms of AFL Academy members, Calder will back itself in that game. With seven of its first 11 games at home, Calder could turn RAMS Arena into a fortress in 2018 with good performances in front of the local fans.