Injured St Kilda star Dan Hannebery celebrates with Sandringham teammates on return from injury. (Photo: Sandringham Zebras)

With teams split up across Australia and no state league footy for most, coaches are facing a bigger challenge than ever in getting injured players back on the park.

It was a question coaches and performance staff had to ponder in 2020’s hubs, but it’s arisen again. Lockdowns across Australia have forced teams into fleeing across the country in search of safety.

For some teams, like St Kilda, it only has 26 players in the squad over in Western Australia.

12 of the 18 AFL teams will have no state league footy this weekend for their depth players and those on the comeback from injury.

Throughout the season, we’ve seen injured stars including Greater Western Sydney’s Stephen Coniglio and West Coast’s Luke Shuey make successful returns through their state league affiliates.

Essendon’s Dylan Shiel, Carlton’s Charlie Curnow and St Kilda’s Dan Hannebery are all players who are currently facing this issue.

Curnow was set to play 60-70 minutes in the VFL clash against Collingwood last weekend, before Victoria’s lockdown postponed all games.

Speaking to the media on Wednesday, Saints coach Brett Ratten touched on the challenges of getting match fitness into players while over in WA.

“Dan hasn’t played much footy at all [this year],” he said.

“He had the VFL game where he played 65 minutes, but before that he hadn’t done a lot of work.

“Some players just need games, they can’t come into an AFL game straight away because of the foundation of what their fitness is like. We need to make sure that we get enough miles in their legs.”

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With the majority of teams either currently based out of Victoria or Queensland, the Saints aren’t even afforded the luxury of playing practice games with joint squads.

Essendon and North Melbourne took on Brisbane on young Roos forward Charlie Comben’s return game from long-term injury, slotting three goals.

It was a case of odd bedfellows for the traditional rivals, the team being dubbed ‘Victoria’.

Noble was pleased with what he saw from his young charge in the first half, highlight his “movement, his reading of the play,” and “his connection” with his teammates.

This was a case of a game that was all but a VFL match minus the premiership points. Brisbane VFL coach Mitch Hahn led the Lions team, Cam Ellis-Yolmen and Jarrod Berry also making strong returns from injury.

Similarly in South Australia, Xavier Duursma played his second game on the road to recovery for the Port Adelaide Magpies. He performed strongly, finishing with 27 disposals, seven marks and four tackles.

Looking around Australia

Back in Melbourne, Demons coach Simon Goodwin is busy preparing for the top of the table hit out with the Western Bulldogs.

With Victoria’s restrictions, finding a way to get game time into the team outside of the 22 has similarly been a struggle.

They might boast one of the healthiest lists in the competition, but still leaves Goodwin with nearly 20 players without a chance to keep up their match fitness.

“We’ll do that through some training, some scrimmage work,” he explained to media on Wednesday.

“Some opportunities have presented in that space, and it’s a very challenging situation for the players that aren’t playing… for continuing to get the game legs that they need, continuing their mentality and continuing to improve.

“We’ve been doing that situation now for 18 months, so our players and our staff have done a great job of continuing to get those games over the line.”

No major damage for Jones, after training scare
Melbourne stalwart Nathan Jones is available for selection this week after recovering from a calf issue. (Photo: Melbourne FC)

With an uncertain future on which states will be able to host games as the season reaches its final stretch, Ratten doesn’t yet have any answers to the burning questions.

In fact, it raises even more for the coach to worry about before the clash with the Eagles.

“It might [have to] be clubs join up a little bit back in Melbourne [for practice games], or whatever’s left over, I’m not sure how that’s going to play out.

“We might not get back until probably Sunday morning, at some point. Can the players under that fatigue get up and play a game that day, if we can organise it? It’s going to get pretty difficult for us.

“And too, depending on what the draw says for the Carlton game, we’ll just have to make sure we’re managing our players to get through.

“It’s going to look a bit different for some, and how do we get them to play AFL in the short term? It’ll be a bit of a challenge.”

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