Draper ups the ante in round-one push; ‘We need to be competitive’, says West Coast coach Simpson


“[I’m] looking at training tomorrow with the group, which is quite exciting.”

The Dons play St Kilda on Friday week in match simulation before taking on Geelong on March 1 in an official practice match.

“I’m definitely aiming to play some of those practice games, not sure what that looks like if it’s AFL or VFL,” Draper said.

Should Draper not be ready, Goldstein will start the season in the ruck after impressing since arriving from the Kangaroos, where he played 315 games.

The question for coach Brad Scott is whether the Dons can play both Draper and Goldstein in the same team. Melbourne could not fit both Max Gawn and Brodie Grundy last year but the Dons had success with Draper and the now-retired Andrew Phillips.

For Essendon’s specialist ruck pairing to work, it would most likely require Draper, the more accomplished forward, to spend more time around goal.

“I think we can definitely be a good partnership together,” Draper said. “I think the last couple of years I’ve learnt my craft in the forward line and feel really comfortable playing forward.

“We haven’t trained together yet. It’s a bit hard to say if we will be. But yeah, definitely, I think we can work well together.”

The Bombers enter Scott’s second season at the Hangar cautiously optimistic. Publicly berated by Scott at the end of last year for their modest professional standards, Essendon’s players took more of a lead in the pre-season, with many training overseas during their holidays.

The arrivals of Goldstein, Xavier Duursma, Jade Gresham and Ben McKay – all likely starters in round one – should help in their bid to win their first final since 2004, but their defensive frailties, evident late in the year, still need remedying.

“I think we improved from 18th to 15th, which doesn’t seem like a big deal, but I think we’re able to slow teams down a lot more, but they were still able to get through us and score when they went forward,” Bombers captain Zach Merrett said.

“It doesn’t mean we need to be No.1, but we certainly need to bring that gap down, to balance our full game plan around that.

“I hope fans can come and watch and know what they’re gonna get.

Essendon skipper Zach Merrett.

Essendon skipper Zach Merrett.Credit: AAP

“I know we’re not there yet, but 2024 hopefully gets us closer to that.”

Merrett said he was well aware of the Bombers’ finals drought.

“It’s going to be talked about until we win one,” Merrett said. “I wouldn’t say it hangs over our head, we know it’s there, it’s real, it’s not going away.

“We’re just focused on trying to keep building a program and an ability to play a style of footy that will hold up consistently. And hopefully that number will be back to zero sooner rather than later.

“It’s realistic and we’ll have to embrace and enjoy that process, I think.”

The new West Coast embraces what is ahead

Peter Ryan and Jake Niall

Improvement and the fundamentals such as spirit and being fierce in the contest are West Coast’s priorities rather than a specific win tally in 2024.

Eagles coach Adam Simpson is not nominating a wins and losses tally, but he is clear about the steps needed to develop an identity that returns West Coast to finals and premiership contention.

“We haven’t put a finger on wins or losses. We need to be competitive and that is a goal for us,” Simpson told The Age.

West Coast coach Adam Simpson is fresh and ready to embrace the challenge.

West Coast coach Adam Simpson is fresh and ready to embrace the challenge.Credit: Getty Images

“We want to play with spirit, [focus on] the contest, pressure and [keeping] the ball in the front half. That’s the starting point and then the players express what the rest of it looks like, but we can’t take that second step until we take the first one.”

After a dismal two years spent at the bottom of the ladder where key players were often injured, out of form or asked to play unsuitable roles, Simpson said it was crucial senior players were available to support talented youngsters embarking on their career.

Having quickly gone from being one of the most experienced lists in 2022 to sitting alongside Hawthorn and North Melbourne as the third-youngest list – based on average age – in 2024, the challenge is obvious.

“The locker room is changing with the kids coming through … the older guys are really enjoying that too,” Simpson said.

The arrival of No.1 pick Harley Reid has created constant headlines with Simpson impressed with how the 18-year-old has handled the attention while the appointment of new co-captains Liam Duggan and Oscar Allen is another indicator of generational change.

West Coast’s Harley Reid has faced more attention before his first game than anyone in the game’s history.

West Coast’s Harley Reid has faced more attention before his first game than anyone in the game’s history.Credit: Justin McManus

But ensuring senior players such as Elliot Yeo, Jeremy McGovern, Jamie Cripps, Jack Darling and Andrew Gaff are on the park and playing to the best of their ability remains critical to their competitiveness as it allows the team’s youngsters to develop their craft as their form ebbs and flows.

Simpson said he has been impressed with those senior players’ pre-seasons and their hunger and the club has also found renewed energy under the leadership of new CEO Don Pyke and a revamped program under former Western Bulldogs’ fitness boss Mathew Innes.

Simpson said it has also been an ideal time for Duggan and Allen to become co-captains as the club re-directs its energy and becomes more outward looking.

Oscar Allen was a shining light for the Eagles in 2023

Oscar Allen was a shining light for the Eagles in 2023Credit: Getty Images

“They are values-based leaders who lead by example who are club first all the time. They are ready to go,” Simpson said.

The premiership coach who was under pressure to retain his job last season is fresh and grateful for the opportunity to transition the club that won the flag under him in 2018 with a style that built the ball up slowly by foot from the backline.

“I think it is hard for a coach to change the way they want to play the game but I identified a few years ago that we needed to and we haven’t seen it just yet,” Simpson said.

He is looking forward to combining premiership experience with fresh-faced recruits with the coach saying the No.1 pick would be managed carefully to set his career up.

So far, Reid has played a mix of on-ball and across halfback with the Eagles helping him make the jump from junior to full-time footballer.

“If I just let him go on the ball I think he’ll do a pretty good job but is he ready as an 18-year-old just to confront 22 games,” Simpson said.

His battles with Yeo at training have already made an impression with the Eagles coaching staff.

“If they can play together I think we can see some pretty combative stuff on game day. [Harley] just wants to win and he wants to play with his mates,” Simpson said.

The Eagles, who are expected to recruit a new list manager soon, understand the position they are in as they begin to haul themselves back up the ladder and back into premiership contention.

“How long that takes … that is the interesting part,” Simpson said.

Weitering eyes a return to the field in round three

Jon Pierik

Carlton vice-captain Jacob Weitering has resumed running and is eying a return to the senior line up by round three.

Weitering suffered a high-grade calf strain at training in January, derailing his summer program.
The two-time best and fairest revealed on Tuesday he will miss the opening two rounds against Brisbane at the Gabba (opening round) and Richmond at the MCG (round one), with the Blues having a bye in round two. He then hopes to return against North Melbourne at Marvel Stadium.

“Slowly transition in the next few weeks to some more on ground stuff. I guess the timeline is six to eight weeks,” Weitering told Seven at the Blues pre-season camp in Bendigo.

Blues coach Michael Voss said last week it was “unlikely” Weitering would return for round one.

Carlton gun Jacob Weitering.

Carlton gun Jacob Weitering.Credit: Getty Images

Larkey ready to be a ‘superstar’

Jon Pierik

North Melbourne great David King has branded Nick Larkey a “superstar”, declaring he also has full faith in Alastair Clarkson to deliver success through a patient rebuild.

Larkey had a breakout 2023 season, earning his maiden All-Australian blazer after finishing third in the Coleman Medal with 71 goals in 23 games. His efforts were particularly impressive, as the Kangaroos struggled and finished second bottom, while he had managed 38 and 42 goals in the previous two seasons respectively.

A strong, athletic tall, Larkey, 25, has had an impressive pre-season physically and as a leader, and will have a key role to play this season, as the Kangaroos look to build on their three wins of last year.

Kicking goals: Nick Larkey is on the verge of superstardom, says Kangaroos great David King.

Kicking goals: Nick Larkey is on the verge of superstardom, says Kangaroos great David King.Credit: Getty Images

“Larkey is a superstar – I think he is still under-appreciated in the AFL world. He is a super player. He was able to get some reward last year but, hopefully, over the next couple of years, he will get more quality ball,” King, a Kangaroos’ 1996 and ’99 premiership player, told this masthead.

“I think he is right up there at the pointy end of the competition. If they [North] can get 55 inside-50s a week and some of them are high quality, he is a Coleman medallist in the waiting.”

To realise King’s hopes, the Kangaroos need to average another 10 inside-50s per game this season. They averaged only 46.8 per game last season, ranked 17th, and were -11.6 in game differential, also ranked 17th.

Larkey, however, has full confidence the Kangaroos will improve overall, having signed a five-year contract extension last year, despite his current deal not expiring until the end of this season.

For Larkey to again be dominant, he will need Harry Sheezel, whose stunning debut season was capped by edging his star forward teammate to win the Syd Barker Medal, and fellow emerging gun George Wardlaw to be influential.

“Wardlaw, he is going to send some players off with the blood rule, that fella, that is going to be unbelievable,” King said of the midfield bull.

Midfielder Colby McKercher, the No.2 overall selection in last year’s national draft, and the high-leaping Zane Duursma, the No.4 overall pick – each described as “special” by assistant coach Xavier Clarke – are ready to log senior games.

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“They are building a really exciting midfield. Outside of that, there are going to be some concerns down back, and some concerns up forward. But you have got to start somewhere,” King said.

“Clearly, the midfield has been a focus for a few years. They have just got this group of six or eight players that are going to give North fans some excitement.”

After a year where Clarkson needed to take personal leave, King, now a prominent commentator, insists the four-time Hawthorn premiership coach is the right man to lift a club which has finished bottom two on the ladder for the past four seasons.

“I think coaches always have something to prove, whether they haven’t won one, or they have won four, they are just trying to make their name,” King said.

“Clarko is a proud man, a very proud man. It’s not about money or longevity for Clarko, it’s about success. He wouldn’t have chosen to go to the Kangaroos at this stage, bottom of the absolute rebuild, if he didn’t think he could do something with it. Kangaroos fans’ are itching to sing the song more than three or four times a year.”

While that may be the case this season, King still expects the Kangaroos to finish in the bottom four.

“There is no desperate rush. A calculated build, a measured build, don’t try and run before you can walk. Just take the normal time frames associated [with a rebuild]. We have ducked and dived the previous decade – just gather ourselves in real time,” he said.

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