Tag: season preview

2021 NAB League team preview: Northern Knights

NORTHERN Knights coach Leigh Clarke is encouraging his players to identify their “superpowers” as they prepare to return to competitive action on Friday afternoon. After over 550 days away, the Knights will take on Western Jets at Highgate Recreation Reserve and Clarke says most players have turned the time off into a major positive.

“The boys have presented in the best condition I’ve ever seen in terms of their running capabilities,” Clarke said. “Having a kick or a run with one mate was all they could do there for two or three months, but a high-90s percentage of them took the opportunity and have come back in really good condition.

“Being able to clock off 2km time trials that are pushing draft combine sort of levels, it’s a big, big credit to them to be able to back themselves away from the bright lights of pathway training, doing it in the dark and out on their own, so all credit to them.”

As for the superpower theme, it means the Knights will be a side sure of their greatest strengths.

“We’re talking a lot about superpowers at the moment,” Clarke said. “To understand, be clear and direct, be able to look people in the eyes and say ‘my superpower is x’. Have one and that’s it, there’s no debating, you know what your superpower is and you stand on your own two feet and can put that out in the open.

“We’ve got some time to work on all the stuff that’s at the back of the shop, but right now we want to focus on the things they do really well that we want to display that at the front.”

Allowing players to showcase their draftable qualities will also seep through the Knights’ style of play. Clarke says there is “no Da Vinci code” to how teams will look to move the ball, but that there will be similar styles with unique spins on them throughout the competition.

“We always stick to the fundamentals but the (players) have been able to pick up things pretty quickly in terms of how we want to move the ball,” he said. “We’re all following a similar path, we’ve just got various ways of teaching it. Our boys want to play a really exciting brand of footy that should display their draftable talent, so that’s a great starting point for us to be in.”

The region has also taken the approach of backing “character first” in 2021 as the NAB League top age moves up to 19. While like all regions, there are more 19th-year prospects on the list than usual, Northern is also looking forward to welcoming its Under 17 talent to the level once their carnival is completed.

Looking at the Knights’ most outstanding draft eligible talents, Ewan Macpherson is a top-ager with plenty to prove in 2021. The Western Bulldogs father-son prospect missed out on being drafted last year, but spent time with the Bulldogs pushing for a final list spot. The inside midfielder/defender has clean skills and should also feature in the VFL this year.

Tall utility Liam Kolar is another who went close to being picked up as an 18-year-old, but returns to the NAB League to get some more experience under his belt. Having come from a soccer and athletics background, Kolar is a likely type who combines speed and endurance as a key forward or even up on a wing.

He is currently being nursed back to full health though, having rolled an ankle while running out in a Carlton VFL practice match. Carlton NGA talent Regan Uwandu looms as another cog from the starting squad who is being managed back and will likely miss out for Round 1 with a foot injury.

Jackson Bowne is a livewire who will likely catch the eye too, while Ben De Bolfo is an emerging player who is relatively new to the program. The latter has taken up vice-captaincy behind Joel Trudgeon, a fellow 19th-year player who Clarke says is held in high regard by both his coaches and teammates. He is the brother of Carlton AFLW forward, Paige.

Rounding out the leadership trio is Joel Fitzgerald, an exciting 2003-born talent. Among the other 18-year-olds to watch are Josh Ward, Jack Rossimel, and Ben Long, who should feature prominently in the navy, black and white. There are some father-son prospects to keep AFL fans occupied too, with Macpherson, Jackson Archer (son of Glenn), and Mackenzie Hogg (son of Matthew) all rising the ranks.

Northern and Western are up second in Friday’s all-Metro double-header at Craigieburn, which should prove a good tested given the Jets already have a win on the board in 2021. While there may be plenty of cobwebs to be blown out, watch for the Knights’ superpowers to come to the fore this season.

2021 NAB League team preview: Murray Bushrangers

MURRAY Bushrangers are primed for their first NAB League outing since August 2019, when they take on the Bendigo Pioneers for an all-country Easter Sunday clash in Shepparton. Regional talent operations lead, Mick Wilson says the Bushies have worked hard in the face of a raft of competition changes and the condensed offseason, with plenty of prospects developing well ahead of season proper.

“We’ve had obviously a different preseason but we really think that the players have adapted really well,” Wilson said. “We ideally by now would have had a lot more touch points with the players, but that’s absolutely understandable given the new Covid world. We’re really excited about the fact that we’re going into a game of footy.

“The last time we saw a lot of these kids was over a year ago and it’s amazing how much development there is from 16 to 17, from 17 to 18, and for some of the players from 18 to 19. It’s been really pleasing, we’ve seen some players come up and exceed our expectations with regards to where we thought they were at.”

The lifting of the competition’s top age has seen differing reactions from each region with regards to the age profile of their squads. 19-year-old talents will be prioritised for the first three rounds, with opportunities to present for 18th-year and even under-age prospects to feature thereafter.

Wilson says the Bushrangers have essentially brought back their whole 2020 list in a “reward for effort” having kept with the program throughout a lost season. The move will see around 50 per cent of the initial list split between 18 and 19-year-old players, before Under 17s enter the fray competition-wide.

“Effectively what we did was we brought all of the players who made our final (2020) squad back in for the preseason and we didn’t actually bring any new players in,” he said. “The split is around 50-50 between 18 and 19-year-olds but the program is going to be dramatically different with regards to how we give the players exposure. In the first three games we’ll focus on the top-age players, and after Round 3 we’ll start to transition more of our Under 18 and 17 players into key roles as part of their development.”

Murray boasts one AFL Academy talent in its squad, Caulfield Grammar boarder Josh Rachele. Wilson sees him as a “readymade AFL player” in the mould of GWS star Toby Greene, with his explosive attributes and high footy IQ among the traits which have him currently poised as a top 10 prospect.

“Josh is an extremely explosive player,” Wilson said. “He’s been involved in elite junior soccer academies before, but his football skillset is extremely high. We see him as being a really strong half-forward player that can transition through the midfield and we’re pretty excited to see Josh play as much NAB League footy as he can outside of his commitment to Caulfield Grammar.”

Wilson highlighted a number of other players who have impressed throughout preseason, with a bunch of players having made good of their time away to get fitter and come back in peak condition. A pair of AFL train-on players, who were unlucky not to be drafted, are also in the squad, but will likely feature heavily in the VFL.

Charlie’s Byrne‘s going to be heavily involved with the Essendon VFL program and Zavier Maher is heavily involved in the Carlton VFL program, so we don’t expect to see too much of those boys,” Wilson said. “Unfortunately ‘Zav’ is going to miss the first couple of games because he’s just had some knee surgery to fix a minor meniscal problem. But we’ll hopefully see a couple of games, hopefully Round 4 or 5 from him. Both those players have lots of draftable traits and they can keep improving on the areas they need to.

Tom Brown has been outstanding. When he played in the Vic Country Under 16s, one of the areas he probably needed to work on was his endurance. He came back into the program this year and has developed amazingly in that area. He had a 21-plus yo-yo at the preseason testing combine, he’s much stronger and has developed physically. He’s really impressed everyone with regards to his application to training, he’s going to probably play half-back to start with but can play half-forward or wing. He’s 186cm so he’s grown, he just looks like a real athlete.

“One player that really stands out for us that has developed over Covid is Fletcher Hart. Fletcher’s about 199cm tall, a key forward who kicks the ball really nicely and has a lot of similar traits to Joe Daniher with regards to the way he moves around the ground and has a long, rangy left-foot kick. He’s very competitive in the air and good below his knees… so he’s definitely on the watch list.

Jhett Cooper from Shepparton made our squad last year but he needed a lot of work to do on his endurance and his repeat speed efforts. He’s had a massive Covid period with his training, his work rate has been outstanding and he’s come back as one of our best performers in the yo-yo at the preseason testing combine.”

Brown is one of many names among the squad with ties to an AFL club, as the son of former Geelong player, Paul. He will not be eligible as a father-son for the Cats, but Noah Bradshaw (son of Daniel) will be for Brisbane. He is not quite as tall as his goalkicking father, but has a terrific athletic profile and is a powerful inside midfielder with good physicality.

Jake Cresswell (son of Daryn) is another who will filter through the program, along with Toby Murray (brother of Sam and Nick), Jett Smith (brother of Eli) and Charlie Crisp (cousin of Jack). Richmond fans will have a Next Generation Academy (NGA) talent to get excited about too, with athletic half-back Achaung Agog rising the ranks.

Despite not having completed any formal practice matches during preseason, there is a lot of promise surrounding Murray’s group, which Wilson expects to be “competitive” against Bendigo in Round 1. He sought to thank the parents of players for their continued support across a challenging year, which will shortly be put behind these budding prospects as they make their long-awaited return to the field.

Image Credit: Quinn Rooney/AFL Photos

2021 NAB League team preview: Dandenong Stingrays

DANDENONG Stingrays head coach, Nick Cox says his side has come back in “really good physical condition” after a year away from competitive action, as its NAB League return edges closer. The Stingrays will take on Gippsland Power in Round 1 of the 2021 season, with the two country regions set to lock horns at Morwell Football Ground on Saturday afternoon. They should know each other well, having trained together and enjoyed a scratch match during preseason.

“I got together with (Gippsland coach) Rhett McLennan and we had a bit of a training session, then played a praccy match or four-quarter match-sim,” Cox said. “Expectations are like usual, we’re a little bit unknown in what we’re going to roll out but hopefully like usual our boys will give themselves every opportunity when they play the first three weeks and hopefully start creating some interest from there.

“Obviously the NAB League season has changed a little bit from previous years, but it’s a credit to our boys and I think it’s across the board, that 95 per cent of them have come back in really good physical condition. “That’s also credit to our strength and conditioning coach Ben Benson with the program he put out before they came back into training.

“We’ve come back in obviously not the same amount of time than in past seasons, but the intrinsic motivation by themselves has been fantastic and I can’t commend them enough at this stage with the physical condition. Whether they’re going to be up to speed fundamentally… we’ll wait and see against Gippsland on Saturday, it’ll will be exciting to see what they roll out.”

As the top age jumps up to 19 in the NAB League, Cox says those returning talents know where they stand and will largely rely on the first three weeks of the season to determine where they go next. Apart from nearly doubling the number of 19-year-olds listed, he maintains it will be “same-same” going forward in terms of how the program incorporates 17 and 18-year-old prospects.

In terms of the Stingrays’ style and strengths across the board, a focus on role specifics and giving players extended runs to shine has been evident, with an “exciting” brand of football what Cox and his troops will look to bring to the table in 2021.

“The big thing this year is getting players to understand role specifics and settling them there,” he said. “Not just for one or two games, but giving them an opportunity for a certain amount of weeks and if they can’t play that role, they’re good enough to move on somewhere else.

“Our style will be an exciting one, I reckon we’ll make a few mistakes along the way but the big thing in the NAB League is being able to showcase and execute talent, and most NAB League players are there because of that. We don’t want to take that away, we’re probably five per cent structure and 95 per cent go out and play.”

Looking at the standouts across Dandenong’s squad, skipper Bayleigh Welsh remains among the top-agers looking to impress, while vice-captain Connor Macdonald is one of the region’s most promising 18th-year talents. Cox highlighted a number of names which should pop up throughout the season as key figures in the side, with the potential to feature at VFL level.

“There have been a lot of standouts,” he said. “We talk about moments a fair bit at training and in gamedays and I reckon a lot of our kids have had those moments, and some more than others.

Judson Clarke, coming back from a knee has been outstanding at training, as have Connor Macdonald and Miller Bergman. They’re three top-end 18-year-olds that have done well at training. Will Bravo has come back after three weeks at Hawthorn bigger and better, and Bayleigh Welsh has been outstanding all preseason.

Clayton Gay and Bryce Milford have gone away and done a little bit of preseason at Casey and played a couple of practice matches there, so it’s clearly evident that they’ve come back stronger. There’s always going to be someone that bobs up out of the ground and produces something from nowhere and at the moment, we could have half a dozen kids doing that. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

Welsh and Macdonald will lead a five-man leadership group, which is a touch different to what Dandenong has implemented in the past. Clarke and Bergman will also be in that mix, along with Daniel Didomenicantonio to ensure that four of the five players included are of that 2003-born group. Macdonald will lead the side out on Saturday, with Welsh unavailable for selection.

Cox was also high on some of the Next Generation Academy (NGA) talent rolling through the Dandenong region, with Josiah Kyle (St Kilda) joining Melbourne NGA prospects Mac Andrew and Kobi George in the final squad.

Having already coached through eight rounds with the girls side, Cox gave a glowing review of how the club as a whole has come together, with some serious momentum being gathered. He also sought to thank Dandenong’s strong coaching core for the vast development the region has overseen this year.

“I’m really happy that the club is really coming together as one,” he said. “The way the girls have played and the style they play, we’ll probably try and emulate it in the boys. They’ve created a winning culture and we’ve got girls in Vic Country so I think the boys will make sure they’re doing the same thing. It’s been exciting so far and having the overlap has been good for the NAB League, it’s been really exciting to see how all that’s worked.

“We’ve got a really close, strong coaching panel and I’d like to acknowledge the amount of work they’ve done… the amount of development we got into (the players) through really good coaching is credit to our region and what we’ve been able to do. It’s credit to our local football leagues as well, so things are going quite well in our region and the NAB League is obviously elite, but there’s a lot of work done by a lot of people who go unrecognised and hopefully we can continue to produce players going forward.”

2021 NAB League team preview: Bendigo Pioneers

BENDIGO Pioneers head coach Danny O’Bree says his troops have worked “incredibly hard” throughout preseason to get back up to speed ahead of their opening NAB League fixture for 2021. The Pios will take on fellow country region, Murray Bushrangers in Round 1 for a standalone Easter Sunday clash at Deakin Reserve, Shepparton.

While the elite talent region has only managed a couple of intraclub hitouts ahead of season proper, O’Bree says the Under 19 squad is in good shape and has shown some positive signs in the way of ball movement, while also keeping a clean slate on the injury front. Look for the Bendigo prospects to help each other show their key strengths this season.

“In regards to game style it’s not that we’re going to do something in particular, we want to really highlight the attribute of the individual,” O’Bree said. “Hopefully we’re super competitive and we want to do the simple things really well, but we still want to get our attributes of each individual to the recruiters and showcase their skill and abilities.

“I think we’re a pretty even team, we’re pretty evenly balanced. I don’t think there’s anyone in particular that stands out way ahead of the pack, which is a positive. “We’re going to go with the fact that we want each team member to assist the other and to assist everyone else, we want to have the mindset that we want to be able to develop others, and it’s not just about the individual, it’s about them being a good team member and helping support their mates.”

With the NAB League top age shifted up to 19, each region has taken on board an added number of 2002-born talent in hopes of granting them the opportunities missed during 2020. The first three rounds of this season will be key for many of those prospects in deciding what lies ahead, and O’Bree says they will get every chance to show their worth.

“Initially we’re going to be giving our 19-year-olds an opportunity,” he said. “Obviously missing 12 months of footy last year, we just want to give them the opportunity first and foremost. Obviously our 18-year-olds, there’s a couple of them that will get an opportunity early, but 19-year-olds will get a real focus for the first three weeks.

“After that we’ll look to potentially move a few of them to VFL, we might keep a few. Then we’re actually quite keen to get our 17-year-olds onto our list as well. We’re looking to put in 10-12 of our 17-year-olds after their carnival and from Round 4 onwards, play a fair few of them.”

At the forefront of Bendigo’s squad is AFL Academy member Cooper Hamilton, who boards at Caulfield Grammar with twin brother and fellow Pioneer Hugh, while top-ager Jack Evans will captain the side ahead of a four-man leadership group. Among the players highlighted by O’Bree, there is a good mix in styles and a couple of father-sons to look out for.

“Cooper Hamilton has been down at Caulfield, we won’t see him a lot in the NAB League this year and obviously he’s going to have some engagements through the (AFL) Academy so that’s quite exciting for him,” he said. “He’s worked incredibly hard, he’s got a great engine and no doubt it’ll give him some more opportunities with his footy the more contests he can get to.

“We’ve got Bode Stevens, the nephew of Anthony. He’s going to be an exciting watch for us, he’s an extremely aggressive, hard-working and tough customer. That probably epitomises what Anthony was all about as well so obviously it runs through the family and we’ll have quite a few people excited about what he comes up with.

Jed Brereton is a developing bigman, close to 200cm. “We’ll be able to see him through the ruck but also up forward. He’s got a good skillset so it’s quite exciting for him. “Ricky Monti is another 18-year-old who is a very exciting player, has a very high footy IQ and is really well skilled. If he keeps developing physically he could also be one that people are talking about.

“We’ve got two father-sons in our 18-year-olds with Louis Thompson (son of Nathan) and Nyawi Moore (son of Nathan Lovett-Murray, also Richmond NGA). Louis is still developing physically and still growing, being a late developer who has a bit of x-factor so he’ll be exciting. Nyawi Moore again is quite exciting when he gets going so it’ll be interesting to see where they end up at the end of the year.”

Stevens will be among that four-man leadership group behind Evans, alongside top-agers Sam Conforti and Cooper Smith, and 18th-year prospect Lincoln White. Having enjoyed some hard-fought close encounters with the Murray Bushrangers in recent years, they will be key to the Pioneers making a strong start to their new campaign on Sunday afternoon.

2021 NAB League team preview: Gippsland Power

GIPPSLAND Power talent pathways coach Rhett McLennan says his Under 19 boys side is back up to speed after over 550 days away from competitive action, ahead of their Round 1 NAB League meeting with Dandenong Stingrays on Saturday afternoon. Having created a spark though strong preseason performances and the girls’ first win for 2021 last week, the Power have some good momentum heading into this weekend’s clash.

“We were really impressed with the way the boys have turned out athletically given there’s been very little structured training,” McLennan said. “For us to test really well in regards to speed, agility and endurance was really pleasing. It shows that our boys athletically have a really good mix this year and if we can translate that to footy ability then we’ll be really exciting.

“We had a couple of boys there watching (the girls’ win) and it was like a grand final for the girls. For them to win their first game in two and a half seasons and still remain positive over that period of time, it’s just really good to be part of it because those girls have taken any little victory they can along the way and continued to improve.”

The Power have already met their weekend adversaries this year, having competed in a preseason scratch match in blustery conditions at Garfield. McLennan says it was difficult to get a proper reading on either side, but has taken some good learnings away from the game. Given the profile of Gippsland’s list, expect some hard work on the inside to be complemented by good speed on the outer in 2021.

“It was very difficult to get a gauge on either sides’ strengths and weaknesses but Dandenong were very impressive in the speed that they used the ball, and also their talls were quite dominant,” he said. “We’ve been looking to try and negate that in some sort of way whilst trying to create some speed ourselves with fast movement of the ball and carrying it with our smalls.

“The Gippsland way has usually been a team that’s hard to play against, so you can expect that physicality again. But also looking at our list style and attributes, we’re looking to actually play with speed that some of our players have got and hopefully some crumbing play up forward where we can have some of our smalls go to work as well.”

There are a couple of familiar names set to light up Gippsland’s list, with Will Papley (brother of Tom) and Jai Serong (brother of Caleb) among the most promising draft eligible prospects at the Power’s disposal. Both are set to play key roles during the upcoming campaign, and McLennan is certainly a good wrap for them.

“Will Papley has got his body right after a long run of hip and groin soreness, so it looks like he’s going to have a really good early start to the season if he can string some early games together, then I think that he gives the mid-season draft a shake. “Jai Serong has been nothing but impressive in 2020 but even more so in 2021. He tested extremely well in regards to his speed and agility, and at 192cm is a perfect mix for versatility given he’s got really good mid craft, goal sense and the flexibility to play tall or small.”

One of the Power’s eight 19th-year players, Luis D’Angelo will captain the team in 2021 having shown outstanding leadership qualities and elite inside skills. He is yet to play in the NAB League, but is one to look for through the midfield and has already impressed at senior level with Box Hill in their practice matches.

The Power will also have an over-ager running around, as 20-year-old Billy Bundle returns to the region. A player with the heralded basketball background, Bundle has played country football and showed plenty of promise. As he overcomes some preseason injury niggles, expect him to roll out for the Power and make an impact.

Speaking of, 2003-birth Jobe Somerville went down with a knee injury during the Power’s preseason hitout, but McLennan says he will just about have a full list to choose from for Round 1 as a few others make their returns shortly. There will be plenty of excitement nonetheless as Gippsland’s season bounces down at 1:00pm at Morwell Recreation Reserve on Saturday.

Image Credit: Graham Denholm/AFL Photos

2021 NAB League team preview: Sandringham Dragons

POWERHOUSE NAB League region, Sandringham Dragons produced a handful of AFL draftees in 2020, but looks set to build on that strong crop through its formidable 2021 squad. The Dragons have essentially retained their full 19th-year list, only adding to some of the nation’s most exciting 18th-year talents at their disposal.

There are three AFL Academy members in the Sandringham squad, along with a ridiculous amount of depth and some previously unheralded names who will look to rise onto the draft radar. The Dragons could well end up producing a trio of top 10 selections as those academy prospects – Josh Sinn, Campbell Chesser, and Blake Howes – have all already built on their strong reputations in preseason.

Sinn, who recently began his studies at Monash University, is a line-breaking half-back with elite decision making and execution by foot. A versatile type, expect to also see him roll up to a wing and even get on the inside as he continues to learn his best position. He will co-captain the side with top-ager Darby Hipwell, a strong inside midfielder who will also ply his trade for the Sandringham Zebras VFL team.

During a preseason intraclub scrap, Sinn lined up against Chesser on the wing and the two were arguably the best players afield for either team. Chesser is a similar type, able to play off half-back or through midfield with a strong athletic profile and plenty of explosiveness. His running capacity and balance between contested and uncontested ball winning is outstanding.

Howes, the third AFL Academy talent, impressed in that same intraclub match and has massive upside as an athletic forward with sticky hands and elite speed. He will likely share the forwardline with Lachlan Benton, another dangerous type, while St Kilda Next Generation Academy (NGA) and Scotch College prospect Angus McLennan proves his aerial worth at half-back. The defender has terrific footy IQ and reads the play well from behind the ball.

Saints fans will likely also have their eye on fellow NGA product Jack Peris, the son of Olympic champion Nova Peris. He hails from a national athletics background and along with his famous mother, has been mentored by the likes of Ben Long as he grew up alongside a host of famous footballing families in the Northern Territory. Relatively new to the Dragons’ program, Peris will look to provide run-and-carry and tackling pressure along the wing.

In terms of other 18th-year prospects to watch, the Dragons will likely be book-ended by Dante Visentini and Caleb Lewis, while there are strong wraps on the likes of Lachlan Brooks and Finn Callaghan in midfield. Luke Nankervis is another to watch, with the forward already garnering some attention ahead of season proper.

Looking at the 19th-year returnees, 2020 National Draft Combine invitees Luke Cleary (defender), Max Heath (ruck), and Lachlan Carrigan (half-back/wing) are all listed, with the latter currently spending some time on the sidelines. Heath should have some solid competition for his ruck spot, with Jacob Edwards emerging as a top talent of late. Both players provide a physical presence and strong follow-up work at the contest.

In midfield, Claremont junior Logan Young has made the move from Western Australia and already looks at home in Sandringham’s engine room. The big-bodied 19-year-old is the son of player agent, Colin Young. He will likely play plenty of minutes on the inside along with Charlie McKay, a Carlton father-son prospect who competes fiercely and has been touted as one to watch by his teammates.

There are also some over-agers eligible for the squad, with 2001-births Felix Flockart and Jesse Castan set to be available should Sandringham VFL duties not come knocking. The former is a raw ruckman who flourished during the 2019 APS Football season, while the latter is a strong, but athletic tall defender with good upside.

Sandringham’s first assignment in the new NAB League season comes against Oakleigh Chargers, the Dragons’ closest rival and the competition’s reigning premiers. That game bounces down at 2:00pm at RSEA Park on Monday April 5, bringing a massive number of high-level draftable talent to the one place. It looms as a must-watch.

Image Credit: Quinn Rooney/AFL Photos

2021 NAB League team preview: Geelong Falcons

GEELONG has long been a strong breeding ground for footballing talent, and that trend is likely to continue in 2021 as the NAB League talent region boasts a promising Under 19 squad. Headed by new coach Paul Corrigan, who has also been overseeing the girl’s and Vic Country programs, the Falcons will look to build exponentially on their three-win 2019 campaign and produce another batch of exciting draftees.

Speaking at the 2021 NAB League season launch, Corrigan acknowledged the challenges of a restructured season and getting back to usual programming after over a year away from competitive football, but gave a glowing review of how his troops returned during preseason. He says the group is “really excited” ahead of its Round 1 fixture against Greater Western Victoria on Thursday.

“There’s going to be excitement in the air and I reckon there’s going to be a few nerves for the boys, but we’re looking forward to hitting that Round 1 mark,” Corrigan said. “The boys have obviously been training for a little bit now, we had a camp with the Falcons boys on Friday and even just speaking to a lot of them on Saturday, a lot of these boys haven’t played a real game of footy for 18 months, so it’s such a long time when you think about it.

“I haven’t been surprised but a lot of our boys and girls have come back in great shape and they’ve had balls in hands through that (lockdown) period as well. “We haven’t found too much where we’ve had to have weeks of just slow end-on training, we’ve been able to get back into training and just monitor across both programs and they’ve been handling it really well. We think they’ll be fine, we think they’ll be up to speed and ready to go for Round 1.”

Looking at the revamped season schedule, the top age has been lifted to 19 and those mature prospects have already been afforded the opportunity to train with Victorian Football League (VFL) sides. The first three rounds loom as important fixtures for all involved, with top-agers using it as preparation for VFL action, while others who are still in school will break off to compete in those competitions before returning to the NAB League.

Corrigan says while the top age has been lifted, he is happy for the draft age to remain at 18. He also maintains that Victorian talents will not be disadvantaged by the year off, but will instead “blossom” from the fresh opportunities which come their way.

“You’ve got to put a positive spin on it and we’re running all these programs with the girls and boys and I think the way it’s being handled at the moment, I’ve been really pleased with how it’s been going,” he said. “I’m looking forward to seeing how the boys start in those first three rounds and I think it’s a great thing that they’re able to have a bit of a recess period, go back to their school footy, go back to their local clubs… I’m really looking forward to seeing how it works.

“Obviously it’s been really good to get them back into sport again but we also realise too that having that year off, it’s a long time and when you take away something that both the boys and girls love doing, it’s had its challenges. Even going forward too, it’s still a bit of an unknown what the season will look like at times, the frustrations that they might have with how much footy they’ve missed. So we’re sort of just training them at the moment and making sure they’ve still got a really balanced lifestyle out of footy as well.”

In terms of the Falcons’ top prospects in 2021, top-agers Gennaro Bove (captain) and Charlie Brauer (vice-captain) are set to lead the side, and while no players feature in the condensed AFL Academy, a bunch should be in contention for Vic Country duties. Below is a short list of some draft-eligible Geelong products to watch this season.

Gennaro Bove – set to again take on a leadership position in 2021, Bove is a self-motivated character. He has been training with Werribee’s VFL side and is looking to build his endurance base to suit the promise of added midfield minutes. His clean hands, skills, and agility are standout traits, which he hopes to weaponise throughout four quarters rolling forward from midfield.

Euriah Hollard – originally from the New South Wales region of Albury-Wodonga, Hollard is boarding at Geelong College. His is a small forward with terrific work ethic and a team-first mindset, which bodes well for high-level tackling pressure and scoreboard impact. He says he simply wants to be the best footballer he can in 2021.

Noah Gribble – coming off rehab for a torn ACL, Gribble returned to full training over the last couple of months and looks incredibly fit having earned a personal best in his first 2km time trial back. He hopes to continue his knack of finding plenty of the football, most likely starting on the wing or at half-back before moving to the inside.

Charlie Ham – the brother of Essendon’s Brayden, Ham garnered plenty of attention last year and says it kept him motivated over the break. Having cut his teeth off half-back he has been focussing more on strength rather than fitness to gain greater midfield minutes. Currently working two jobs and will hopefully get his first taste of senior footy this year through Geelong’s VFL team.

Indiana Parish – another ‘brother-of’, Parish continues the legacy of his family name at the Geelong Falcons. He is a versatile midfielder who hopes to simply get the nod for Round 1 with a few centre bounce vacancies opening up, but will likely also roll through the forwardline. Says he is keen, as everyone is, just to get back out there.

Toby Conway – the Under 16 All Australian ruck will continue those duties for the Falcons, looking to benefit from a clean slate this preseason after missing all of last year’s through knee surgery. His ruck craft is a strength, but Conway is looking to develop his forward craft while gaining the fitness levels required to provide more contests down the line, and a marking target inside 50. Another Geelong College student.

Charlie Brauer – the Falcons’ vice-captain bases his game off competitiveness and says his best position is down back, but hopes to play a bit of everywhere in 2021. He is improving his skills and will look to simply play a full season of consistent football with the Falcons and Cats’ VFL team. Out of Year 12 now and is working at Bunnings.

Image Credit: Solstice Digital

2021 NAB League team preview: Western Jets

WESTERN Jets will hold up one end of the 2021 NAB League season opener, when they take on the Calder Cannons at Highgate Recreation Reserve on Saturday afternoon. After an unforeseen year away from competitive action, each talent region will return to a revamped structure and plenty of unknowns at the end of a condensed preseason.

The top age has been lifted to 19, allowing for a raft prospects who missed out on being drafted last year the opportunity to prove their worth over a full season. Draft eligible talents will also get the chance to ply their trade with Victorian Football League (VFL) sides after three rounds of NAB League, aiding the potential step up to senior football.

Among the challenges Western have faced amid the accelerated lead up to season proper, the Under 19 side has been training once a week as multiple squads roll through the program. The girl’s season is about to commence its eighth round, while the Under 17 team is also preparing to get back to action in April.

Leading all of the above is new coach Robbie Chancellor, aided by ever-reliable regional talent operations lead, Luke Williams. The pair have some promising talent at their disposal, with a good bunch of 19th-year players returning to the fold alongside a few 18-year-olds hoping to stake their draft claims.

Top-agers Billy Cootee and Nash Reynolds are set to lead the Jets as co-captains in 2021, having already gained experience at the level in 2019. Cootee remains one of the region’s top prospects and is poised to suit Western’s new and exciting brand of football by breaking the lines through midfield and off half-back.

Cootee is also a high-level cricketer having represented Victoria at Under 17 level, but is focussing on football this year and has worked on reading the play from a defensive aspect. He is also looking forward to playing alongside good mate Massimo D’Ambrosio this season, who is one of Western’s most promising 2003-births.

Cody Raak is another of the notable top-agers in the Jets’ squad, and is working on turning the disappointment of being overlooked in last year’s draft into motivation for the upcoming campaign. Having been tied to the Western Bulldogs as a Next Generation Academy product, the key defender trained with the Dogs’ VFL side and participated in match simulation with their AFL team. Raak has worked hard on his endurance and will look to exploit more attacking assets as he shifts commitments throughout the year.

The Jets also lay claim to a few more exciting 18th-year talents, with Tom Rowland and Paul Curtis among them. The former is a skilful, marking half-back who can also roll up to the wing, while the latter is a midfielder-forward who makes smart decisions on the ball. Rowland has already graduated from high school and is setting no ceiling on his goals for 2021, as Curtis aims to improve his endurance and will likely start his campaign inside attacking 50.

Among the fresh faces in Round 1 is Geelong Cats Category B rookie, Paul Tsapatolis, the 202cm former basketballer who has recently committed to Australian football. Named as Western’s primary ruck, ‘The Greek Freak’ will continue his development at Under 19s level – akin to when Richmond’s Ivan Soldo played for Northern Knights while listed at the Tigers. He is a graduate of Maribyrnong College and hails from Point Cook, hence the connection to Western.

The Jets’ new campaign officially bounces down at 1:00pm on Saturday, after the girl’s Round 8 clash, with the full NAB League fixture set to be released shortly. Tune into the game via the NAB League app, as commentary will be provided by a couple of Draft Central‘s very own analysts.

Check out Western’s Round 1 squad below:

2021 VFLW season preview: Hawthorn

FOR the first time since 2018, Bec Goddard is set to take the senior coaching reigns during competitive action, when she leads Hawthorn’s VFLW side into battle for Round 1 of the new season. Heading a historic all-female coaching staff, Goddard says she is “excited” to be part of the Hawks’ initiative to provide greater opportunities for women in football – not just on the field.

“For me, and when I talk to the players about it, it was always about the best coach for the job and they happen to be women,” Goddard said. “I’ve got some great teachers on coaching staff that support me, have got a lot of similar values and they just hadn’t had an opportunity at the next level. This is their opportunity.

“It’s one of those things where in five years time when Hawthorn is in the AFLW competition, we could look back and go ‘well, what do we do to get more women in these positions at the club?’ and start from that point, or we could start now. It’s brave and overt leadership by the club to say that we want to change the industry and give opportunities to women, not just in playing but all elements of the football department.”

Goddard will have familiar faces at her disposal in 2021, leaning on some legendary names in the women’s footballing sphere while also attempting to get the most out of some promising young talent. 39-year-old utility Meg Hutchins is among the experienced members of Hawthorn’s revamped squad, described by Goddard as akin to “the timeless piece of furniture in an expensive house.”

“She’s got so much football experience and will bookend our team this year,” Goddard said. “Meg and I often talk about how the end of football is going to wrap up for both of us and I keep saying to Meg ‘well, you’re a long time retired so while you can keep playing, why don’t you?’.

“That’s where she’s at so it’s great to have her playing, and she’s fully fit. In fact, I look at Meg and I think she’s the fittest I’ve ever seen her across her years of women’s football. It’s exciting, hopefully she has a great season and you might see her in some different positions.”

With such vast experience in the women’s coaching ranks comes a handy list of contacts, which has played a part in Hawthorn’s recruitment of players like Abbey Holmes and new skipper Jess Trend. Both have been AFLW-listed players and the latter is a “surprise package” of sorts according to Goddard, hardly missing a beat since deciding to join the brown and gold. She was one of the many signings identified as key members of the side by her new head coach.

“‘I had a couple of texts with (Trend) and then she came down to training and she hasn’t missed a session,” Goddard said. “I think coming out of a global pandemic, we’re looking for a carrier of a good disease and Jess Trend is just that. She’s infectious with her attitude, her happiness to be around football and bringing good elite habits to the group.

“In the middle of the field we’ve brought in some experience in Abbey Holmes. Abbey and I obviously worked together at Adelaide for the inaugural premiership year. She’s got a wealth of football IQ that she brings and shares with the younger players in the group, as well as some great physical attributes for football. She’s tough at the contest, so it’s exciting to see Abbey contribute at Hawthorn.

Olivia Flanagan will play an important role this year. She’s coming back from a little bit of sickness in the last couple of weeks so she’s named as an emergency this week, but I expect ‘Liv’ to play a lot of football. She’ll make an impact up forward and on the ball this year to make her a bit more diverse in what she does.

“We’ve got young Territorian Dominique Carbone coming in from Darwin this weekend to play her first season in the VFLW, she’s a really exciting young talent with a basketball background. She plays low to the ground, looks like an athlete, is an athlete, behaves like an athlete, and she’s ready to take her football to the next level.”

Goddard is also excited to have full access to the next generation of prospects swarming through the elite talent pathways. Through a competition restructure, the NAB League Girls season now runs concurrently with that of the VFLW, allowing Under 18 and 19 players to also ply their trade in the state league system.

Their impressive skill and scope for improvement has impressed many a VFLW coach, no less Goddard who suggested tongue-in-cheek that she is “really looking forward to the (NAB League) byes” in order to gain access to said talent as much as possible.

“They’re such great footballers,” Goddard said. “Their skills are so impressive and they’re just growing in terms of their football IQ each week, understanding how we want to play football. It’s just great to have them there and contributing to a really high standard of training.

Speaking of training, the Hawks returned in “better than expected” shape after a year on the sidelines, though plenty of craft sessions and a heavy incorporation of match simulation into training has lifted their touch back up to scratch. A single scratch match, against Geelong provided even more insight into how the brown and gold are shaping up ahead of Round 1, with 29 players trialled and a bunch of magnets locked in on Goddard’s whiteboard.

Players returning from injury will also have a say on the side’s shape during the season, with a few players who earned high praise from Goddard expected to make a splash once fully fit. The new 12-day concussion mandate has also been a factor in availabilities across the competition.

“We’ve got a couple of players to come back still,” Goddard said. “We’ve got Tayah Kelly who obviously is a fairly damaging midfielder, she’s still out with a bit of an issue with her hip, so I think we’re at least three weeks away with her.

Chloe Bain, who I think is probably going to be one of the most exciting centre half-forwards in the competition – new to the game and she’s an extraordinary athlete with a rowing background, very long levers – is out this week with concussion. But when she’s fully fit and firing she will take the competition by storm, I’ve got no doubt.

Hawthorn’s first point of call in 2021 will be a clash against the Western Bulldogs at Whitten Oval on Sunday morning. Goddard says she is taking a “simple” approach when it comes to expectations, but is excited to be able to get back into action.

“I think we’re going to keep it really simple and we want to enjoy our first game together as a group, that’ll be the most important thing,” she said. “Also just being in the contest and making a real fist of Round 1 and getting to feel what it’s like to be with the team to achieve a common goal.”

Image Credit: Hawthorn Media

2021 VFLW season preview: Casey Demons

CASEY Demons VFLW head coach Peter Mercoulia expects a “contested” game in Round 1, as the new-look red and blue outfit prepares to return to competitive action after a year away. He says the club is “pretty pleased” with how his troops are tracking ahead of season proper, with the alignment to Melbourne Football Club also aiding players’ development.

“I think the first quarter will be quite contested with players wanting to really crack,” Mercoulia said. “From our point of view, the level of excitement from the group this week in training has been amazing, just to see how much they love the game and now that they have the game back, I think there’ll be a high level of excitement and physicality in the first minutes that’s for sure.

“We’re pretty fortunate obviously with the alignment with the Melbourne Football Club, we’ve been able to integrate both programs. The AFLW and the VFLW have come together really well and we’ve had the ability to combine staff, so our strength and conditioning programs have aligned and our players are looking really fit and strong. It’s pretty exciting to see what lies ahead.”

While Mercoulia and his Dees are “excited” to get back to true competitive football, they managed to squeeze in two useful practice matches during preseason. With such a high turnover of players and the loss of 2020, the incoming coach says it was most pleasing to simply see players get back out on the park against Collingwood and Port Melbourne.

“First and foremost, the best part of it was to see the girls back out and playing, that was the really exciting part for everyone after a pretty difficult year off the field,” he said. “Just seeing the girls go and do what they love was probably the highlight from the practice matches.

“From a football point of view, our list has turned over by about 80 to 90 per cent from two years ago, which was the last time we played as a team. Trying to get some connection is something that will probably take some time and I think we improved in that area. It’ll be something we also look to improve on throughout the season as well to be honest.”

The Demons will also look to adopt a style similar to that of their AFLW side, which has turned into a scoring powerhouse early in 2021. Mercoulia says his side will look to play fast and score quickly with a brand of football which is easy on the eye.

“To be realistic, we just want to score,” he said. “We want to try and have some nice, open ball movement to showcase the skill level of the players, and hopefully that allows for a high-scoring gamestyle. We kicked 2.7 on the weekend (against Port Melbourne) so we’re having shots on goal, but we’ve just got to make sure we finish our work, which was very similar to the AFLW team actually.”

In terms of key players around the squad, AFLW and VFLW list manager Todd Patterson has done a wealth of work to regenerate talent as many aligned clubs hit the reset button on their VFLW programs. Melbourne has hardly been different in its links with Casey, able to bring in some experienced heads and cross-code athletes with high upside.

We were fortunate enough to get Samantha Johnson who’s obviously from St Kilda (AFLW) and is now captaining the club,” Mercoulia said. “She was someone that Todd was targeting and we’re obviously really happy to have on board. Kelly Thompson as well, a former St Kilda VFLW player has come across, Imogen Milford, and a couple of others have also signed.

Eliza West, who was a basketballer, is going to play this year for us and combine that with her basketball, which is something really exciting as well. We seem to have gotten some cross-code talent from other sports which I think is really important as well, they bring a level of experience in other sports and a level of professionalism. Steph Topp was an Australian volleyballer, so that also lifts the professionalism within our club.”

With a reasonably clean slate in regards to injuries, the Demons have close to a full list to choose from in Round 1, with just a few players held back by the mandated 12-day concussion protocols. Around a handful of AFLW-listed players who miss out on senior selection will rotate through the VFLW squad each week, while all clubs will also have access to NAB League talent as each concurrent season progresses.

A midfield coach in the AFLW setup, Mercoulia sought to thank Melbourne and the AFL for the “humbling” support he has received in his new role, while also touching on the great work the AFL, media, coaches, players, and fans have done to promote the women’s game.

With resources aplenty and good team spirit driving a strong preseason, Casey is now on the verge of cracking into its VFLW campaign – which begins on Saturday afternoon as the Demons take on Carlton at Princes Park.

Image Credit: Melbourne Media