Essendon will welcome back former captain Jobe Watson and his successor Dyson Heppell for tonight’s pre-season opener against Collingwood.
Up to seven Bombers who served doping bans last season could line up at Etihad Stadium alongside a new generation led by No.1 draft pick Andrew McGrath.
AFL great Wayne Carey is among those who have questioned how the players returning from the doping bans will handle the intensity that awaits them. But Bombers defender Michael Hurley is confident his body can handle the rigours of the competition after more than 12 months out of the game.
“I think the way that we’ve been able to do some match play training during the weeks for the last month or so … we’ve been able to build those loads up that way,” he said yesterday.
“Obviously the intensity goes up during match play so I think we’ll be monitored slightly with our loads come game-day (and) our minutes will progress through the series.”
Hurley was one of 34 past and present Bombers to serve a 12-month doping ban last season and has not played since September 2015.
The 26-year-old sent a scare through the Essendon camp earlier in the month when he rolled his ankle during an intra-club match but has recovered well.
All but three of the 10 remaining Bombers who served doping bans last year have been named in the squad for tonight’s game, with former captain Jobe Watson set to line up alongside his successor Dyson Heppell.
Cale Hooker (hamstring), Brent Stanton (groin) and Tom Bellchambers (knee) have been left out of the 29-man squad, which will be trimmed to 26.
Former North Melbourne great Carey, who struggled with soft-tissue injuries after spending a year out of the game late in his career, believes the returning players will struggle to handle the intensity of the AFL.
“It’s going to be very telling how they cope with the crash and bash part of the game,” Carey told Fairfax Media.
“I learnt a valuable lesson during that time and it’s however hard you push yourself, there are special things about our game you can’t replicate at the park building up miles in your legs.”
The Magpies, meanwhile, have a comeback story of their own.
Exciting forward Jamie Elliott will play for the first time since suffering a serious back injury which had threatened to derail his career, while teammates Jackson Ramsay and Matthew Scharenberg are set to return from knee reconstructions.
However, nothing is likely to top the emotion of Roughead’s AFL return when the Hawks face Geelong tomorrow night in Tasmania.
The four-time premiership winner had a melanoma removed from his lip in 2015 then suffered a recurrence in 2016, a setback that had serious implications for his life, let alone playing career.
But the 29-year-old was given the all-clear in December by doctors and replaced Luke Hodge in January as the Hawks’ captain.
Roughead will lead a Hawks side bolstered by gun recruit Jaeger O’Meara, who is set to make his first appearance since late 2014 after a horror stretch of injuries.
It’s likely the comebacks will bring some excitement to the pre-season competition after a build-up largely overshadowed by the inaugural AFL Women’s season.
Since 2014, the often-maligned pre-season tournament has consisted of practice matches with little at stake beyond preparation for the season proper.
With most clubs including high-intensity match simulations at training, Western Bulldogs captain Bob Murphy said he wouldn’t mind if the AFL did away with the pre-season cup.
“I’d be okay with that,” Murphy told SEN radio.
“The way clubs train now (with) the match simulations … it is so intense.
“I think we’re getting closer. I think it would have been knocked on the head a few years ago but now I think players would adapt fine.”
Retiring Wesfarmers boss Richard Goyder will take over as AFL chairman on April 4 from Mike Fitzpatrick, who’s resigned after a 10-year stint.
Fitzpatrick says the sport’s six-year $2.5 billion broadcast deal signed last year has been the biggest achievement of his tenure, while expansion of the league has been the defining issue of his decade at the top, pointing to the success of the recently-established Greater Western Sydney team.
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