27/02/2024

Aaron Francis is on mental health leave. Photo: Essendon FC

Ben Rutten has confirmed that key defender Aaron Francis is still away from the club as he deals with personal issues.

Aaron Francis remains back home in South Australia on personal leave and won’t be available to play football at any level this weekend for Essendon.

Head coach Ben Rutten confirmed on Wednesday that the key defender was still interstate, with the developing Covid-19 situation in Adelaide throwing a spanner in the works of his return to the club.

“He won’t play this weekend,” Rutten said.

“He’s not here at the moment, no. He’s back in SA [South Australia] at the moment. It’s hopefully not [a long term thing], we’re expecting him back later this week, all things being equal.

“We understand it’s a moving, changing landscape all the time but expectations and our hope will be [he’s back later this week].”

Francis has been brilliant for the Dons in 2021 as he discovers his best form at the top level after stints as a forward.

He has dealt with mental health issues in the past, and had previously requested a trade back to Adelaide to be closer to family in South Australia.

However, he stayed put and re-found his passion for football at the Bombers.

When Francis took his leave prior to the Hawthorn game two weeks ago, Rutten made sure to state that the whole club was supportive of his decision.

“We’re very much supportive of Aaron and his journey through mental health stuff.

“I think that’s something he’s really leading from example with that… his openness and honesty.

“We’re certainly right behind him as a footy club and very much supportive of Aaron.”

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The club had previously expected him back after the clash with the Hawks in the Launceston.

It has left Essendon’s key position stocks thin, and it now faces one of the most potent key forward lineups in the AFL on Friday night.

Tom Hawkins, Jeremy Cameron and Gary Rohan are often joined by Esava Ratugolea up forward with Mark Blicavs in the ruck, and it has Rutten pondering answers at the selection table.

“That’ll be a discussion we have [at selection],” Rutten confirmed.

“We’ve got James Stewart, Jayden Laverde and Brandon Zerk-Thatcher – [Jordan] Ridley’s one who can play pretty tall for us.

“We’ve also got Zach Reid playing in the VFL who we’re hoping to have a look at [at AFL level] again at some stage throughout this season. We’ve got some options there, it’ll just be weighing up whether we think Ridley will be able to handle that extra tall when he needs to.”

Zach Reid has played one game of AFL this season. Photo: Essendon FC

If first-year top-10 pick Zach Reid does come into the side, it will be his second game of his career after a taster against the Lions up at the Gabba earlier this season.

He was issued a tough task in the VFL last weekend against Casey, with Ben Brown and Sam Weideman in fine form. Reid battled manfully, and will develop into a superb key defender in due time.

Stay on-baller Dylan Shiel is still a week or two away from a return from his knee injury suffered in round two.

“He’s still building up with his running loads, and building his physical conditioning.

“He’s missed a bit of footy now so we’ll make sure he’s best prepared when we do make him available.”

Will Snelling has recovered from thumb surgery and will partake in full training today as he puts his hand up for selection.

Essendon travels down the highway to GMHBA stadium for Friday night’s clash with Geelong.

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