The first organised game of men’s football between two AFL sides was welcomed by a healthy crowd at the Hangar on Wednesday afternoon.
The Dons ran out 81 to 74 winners on the day after some terrific individual performances from veterans and youngsters alike, ending with Nick Martin and Tex Wanganeen deservedly being added to the club’s list.
It was a magnificent display for McGrath, who spent the majority of his time back in the position that won him his Rising Star. His spacial awareness and quick thinking out of the back 50 was a joy to watch all day, and his closing speed lends himself to being an effective defender as well. McGrath could have a career year as a small defender and become a vital player in the Bombers’ 2022 season.
Draper’s follow-up ability as a ruckman at ground level is what could separate himself from the others in the league this year. Nic Naitanui is the best contested ball ruck, and is someone Draper can emulate with his aggression and mobility. He got the better of Stef Martin and Tim English and spent all four quarters on the park.
Parish won’t stop collecting the football at will in 2022. He was one of the league’s most improved players last season, and continued his prolific ways through the middle of the ground. His clean hands through traffic and ability to find little pockets of space continually stood out, and he was one of the best players on the ground all day until his final quarter spell on the bench.
Looking comfortable on the wing, with some short bursts inside or up forward, Langford’s running capacity has come on in leaps and bounds in recent years. He was classy and clean on the outside of stoppages, and covered the ground beautifully. He finished up with a nice set shot from 50 metres out in the last quarter.
Smith put on the most pressure of any Dons small forward in a sign of things to come this year. He has struggled to find his form in recent years, but was a standout with his creativity and hard work forward of centre on Wednesday. One to watch is his relationship with umpires after the crackdown on abuse – he gave away one free kick for it today.
Caldwell spent the first half as a forward at centre bounces before pushing up to the ball. It could be a sign of things to come with Jake Stringer likely to start in centre bounces before pushing forward. He got his midfield opportunities in the second half and covered the ground well while showing off his trademark quick hands in congestion.
As classy as always through the middle of the park was Merrett. He looks set to benefit from more ball-winners in the engine room, with his class on the outside continually shining through. Merrett is important for the Dons’ ball movement, and had several pin-point passes through the middle of the ground to set up scoring shots.
Hobbs got his opportunity in the final quarter, and spent the time in the midfield winning the first stoppage he attended. His ball use was a bit rushed and he got caught on the offensive side of stoppages a couple of times, but he showed he can mix it with the bigger bodies and looks set to feature at the top level at some point in the year.
Was given lots of opportunities in the middle but struggled to make an impact. Shiel has just come back from a minor quad complaint and couldn’t find too much of the ball in open space. He still looks slightly down on confidence, but has had a big pre-season and the coaching staff will back him in to be a big contributor this season.
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Sent a scare through the Essendon camp in the first quarter when he went down after landing awkwardly in a marking contest. However, Francis was able to return to the field. It was an ‘almost’ game as a forward, with the big man launching himself at every ball but unable to bring down a big mark. His competitiveness and movement around the ground were the big positives.
There’s a reason he finished third in the Dons’ best and fairest. Snelling kicked three goals, and everything good forward of centre seemed to feature the diminutive forward. He’s classy with ball in hand, and always unselfish despite the three majors. Look for him to build on his big 2021 as a pressure forward linking play between the midfield and goals.
Cutler spent his day in defence as he did in the second half of last season. He’s beginning to look more comfortable in one-on-one situations, but his leg speed was found wanting a couple of times matched up with Cody Weightman and Jason Johannisen. He’s around the mark for Round 1 but could be on the outside looking in with a fully fit list.
Cox assumed his usual role on the wing, and was competitive all day with his workrate and improved physicality. He shanked some kicks, but also had some ‘wow’ moments with his length plucking the ball off his toes or out of the air. He spent some time in centre bounces in the final quarter and showed off his ground level game.
Produced one of the highlights of the day with his specky at half-foward. Ridley’s ball use and intercepting prowess make him one of the great weapons out of the backline in the competition, but the big question will be if Ben Rutten can find a way to free him up. There were good signs from Stewart and Laverde with their jobs on the talls, which bodes well for Ridley’s intercepting game this season.
Laverde switched onto multiple opponents throughout the day. Aaron Naughton’s leap gave him the most trouble when he wasn’t able to find his body with the ball in flight, but he blanketed Jamarra Ugle-Hagan when he switched onto him.
Perkins was a standout all day, kicking two goals and featuring heavily in centre bounces in the second half. After an injury-interrupted pre-season it was important for him to get a good showing and he did just that, playing all four quarters and doing some mercurial things.
Stewart continues to grow as a key defender. His position is much-improved from 12 months ago and he spent a good chunk on Naughton which was an entertaining match-up. He’s slightly unsure of himself with ball in hand but continues to fight for the Dons which is exactly what they need from him.
Hind spent some time higher up the ground, getting forward to kick the first goal of the game. With McGrath moved back, it could give the speedster an opportunity to run up and down a wing for some periods. He’s oozing confidence right now and is set for another excellent season.
Wright was competitive but unable to hit the scoreboard, often double-teamed deep forward. He was still a big positive for the Dons, rarely being out-marked and bringing the ball to ground for his smalls to go to work.
Heppell has cemented his credentials on a back flanker, and continued his strong form over pre-season. The most important thing for the skipper is his voice and leadership which he offers in abundance. If he can stay injury free, 2022 could be a huge year for Heppell.
After a limited pre-season, it was brilliant to see Jones feature in the first half of the Dons’ hit-out. His movement around the ground for his size, plus sticky hands above his head and spacial awareness stood out. While he missed some easy set shots, the signs are there that Jones will be an important key forward this season.
Baldwin played the second half and was ever-present, involved in all attacking forays and hitting some opposition bodies. He kicked the penultimate goal of the day from directly in front which was just reward for a high-intensity half from the big man. He may be behind Wright, Francis and Jones right now, but Baldwin looks likely to feature at AFL level soon.
Redman was quiet in the backline, though still got forward to have a couples flying pings at the goals. He’s become a reliable defender, able to remove those momentarily lapses from his game. However, there remains immense pressure on spots so he will want to tidy up his ball use out of the defensive 50.
Kelly had a positive impact in his first hit-out with the Dons. Splitting his time between talls and smalls in the backline, he restricted his direct opponent and used the ball well the other way. Kelly could prove to be a vital cog in the Bombers’ defence over 2022 by giving Ridley an opportunity to intercept.
Guelfi plied his trade as a small forward, buzzing around and impacting positively. With a lack of small forwards on the list, it seems likely he’ll make his way into the side in the role, but he still doesn’t have the innate goal sense of others.
Wanganeen came onto the ground in the fourth quarter and immediately kicked a beauty. He followed it up with a blistering crumb, and another brilliant reading of the ball out of the back of a pack to seal the game for the Dons.
The son of Dons legend Gavin has produced all pre-season – he’s hardly been able to play games of football over the past two seasons due to injury and Covid, but has thrived in the elite environment at the Hangar and has Bombers fans very excited with the announcement he’s been added to the list.
Martin offered some nice moments in his game time in the second half. He has a beautiful kicking action that found its target more often than not, and had impressive contributions as a forward and defender. He’s a great size and moves around the ground beautifully, and is a great addition to the Dons list.
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