THE 2021 NAB League season has been “a little bit of a rollercoaster” for the Bendigo Pioneers, according to head coach Danny O’Bree, but the country region is buoyant about the opportunities being afforded to its brightest prospects. Whether it be at local level, in the VFL, or Vic Country squads, the Pios have been well represented this season.
“We’ve been very excited about a lot of opportunities out kids have been getting,” O’Bree said. “We’ve had good representation across all areas and even blooded a lot of young debutants, so we’ve had a look at quite a few players.”
Currently boasting a 6-5 record, Bendigo is the second-ranked country team and has shown some real promise despite battling for consistency. O’Bree says the program is working hard on his group engaged, while a core group of draft-eligible squad members help transfer learnings to their developing bottom-age teammates.
“Generally we’ve been competitive and obviously when the group’s together a lot more is when we’ve been more consistent,” he said. “It’s been when we’ve added a few to that core group where we’ve probably struggled with that consistency. We’re working really hard to engage those people that can’t be with our core group in training and whatever else, so we’re still looking for ways that we can be more consistent.
“Looking at the younger crew, those guys with a bit of x-factor are the ones we’re actually looking to when the whips are cracking. It’s pretty exciting that our 19-year-olds are doing a wonderful job at developing our younger crew and it’s been a bit of a focus for us from the start of the year – what can those older boys do for our younger ones to make them better?
“There’s (Under 19s) like Sam Conforti and Jack Hickman being VFL-listed, they’ve contributed not only at our level but also in the VFL. Then you’ve got the likes of Jack Evans, Cobi Maxted, Ryan O’Keefe, Aiden Hare, Cooper Smith, Harvey Gallagher, and Xavier Mitchell, so that’s pretty exciting for those guys.”
“I think we’ve got some really good draftable players. They’ve shown not only great versatility but they’ve got those draftable qualities and also those AFL qualities that they can go on with and contribute significantly to an AFL list.”
While the Bendigo catchment area stretches far and wide as the largest in the competition, the Pioneers have managed to avoid state-based lockdown casualties in their Under 19 group. Instead, there have been a few absentees among those who attend private schools in Melbourne, including twins Cooper and Hugh Hamilton.
In an odd quirk, Hugh returned to action last week while Cooper remained in lockdown having stayed back for a few more days, but will enjoy his first session back with the group on Thursday and is set to be available for selection on Saturday.
Having notched up wins against Murray, Geelong, Gippsland and Northern thus far, the Pioneers take on arguably their toughest test to date this weekend. Top ranked country side, Greater Western Victoria (GWV) awaits in Ballarat, a challenge which O’Bree “can’t wait” to tackle.
“I think they’ve been the number one country team all year, you look through their list and what a sensational list it is,” he said. “We certainly can’t wait to get over there and take on the best. The more times we take on the best, we can learn from them to see what it takes to be the best.
“We can’t wait for the opportunity, we’re really pumped for that chance to see how we come up against them… with the majority of the group available, this is where we want to test ourselves and not only see where we are as a team, but also individually.
“We’ll make some really critical match-ups, they’ve got some potential high draftees so we want to base some of these kids against them to give them an opportunity to be noticed as well.”
The league’s remaining schedule is still a week-by-week operation, but the opportunity to compete against the best may translate to a rare finals appearance this year for Bendigo – reward for effort, and fitting for such an evenly balanced group with emerging talent.