While the news of Zach Merrett’s six-year deal with Essendon is making headlines, the Bomber-for-life still has his focus firmly squared on the next challenge.
The club will travel to Tasmania for the first time since Round 17, 1992 to take on Hawthorn on Sunday.
To put that into context, only eight of the players named across the extended squads of both sides were even born the last time Essendon touched down in the Apple Isle.
Merrett is relishing the fresh experience, and the opportunity to play in front of the Tasmanian crowd.
“I’ve never obviously played down in Tassie, but certainly enjoy playing at new stadiums and I think it’s going to be great for our fans down there to come and watch live,” he said in Friday morning’s press conference.
“Obviously we never get down there as a club so [I’m] pretty excited to play the Hawks down there and hopefully it’ll be a good atmosphere in front of them.”
The match-up will be the Bombers’ first rematch of the season, after going down to the Hawks in round one, as their fierce rivals forged a gallant fightback from a huge deficit.
Since then, they’ve shown marked improvement after a slow start, particularly notable in defeating finals contender West Coast in Perth three weeks ago.
“I guess it’s hard to define or measure, how far we’ve come,” Merrett said.
“It does feel like we’ve improved since that moment, I think we have taken challenges head on as a group and accepted our shortcomings and tried to improve from those moments – whether it be that loss or getting wiped by Port or Brisbane on the road.
“I think we’ve tried to improve and learn from those lessons and own them as a group. It definitely feels like we’ve improved and hopefully the results are reflective of that.
“Obviously disappointed back then but we got some great learnings out of that result and I think we’ve executed those learnings in the past 10 to 12 weeks.”
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Both Essendon and Hawthorn are firmly in the middle of rebuild periods, and it shows on the stat sheets.
They come into the clash as two of the youngest sides in the competition, Hawthorn with an average age of 23.7 and average games played of 73, while Essendon is 23.2 years old and has played 60 games on average.
Essendon will no doubt be using this game as a barometer of sorts, to see where it now sits.
“I think we’re both sort of young groups on the improve, and they played some really good footy last week against Sydney who are obviously in some good form as well,” Merrett said.
“We know that any Alastair Clarkson coached team will be ready to go.
“For us it’s just a chance to keep improving, and keep blooding our younger players and keep getting them to improve.
“They’ve still got some super players individually at the Hawks who I’m sure will be ready to go and we’ll have to be at our best to beat the Hawks.”
Expectations for the remainder of the season will be hard to quantify both for Bombers fans and internally.
What they have shown so far is exceeding expectations of even the most optimistic pundits, sitting in 11th place currently with a 5-7 win/loss record.
The emergence of young players including Nik Cox, Archie Perkins and Harry Jones has been putting smiles on Essendon faces from the opening bounce of the year.
Now settled into the club for the long term, Merrett has a realistic view of how the Bombers will keep tracking in season 2021.
“I think to get playing consistently [is the expectation],” he said.
“We’re trying to grow into a real blue collar team and I think our fans will be proud of the way we’ve done that in the first few weeks with our effort, but I think we can keep improving in our ability to execute as well as that effort.
“What that turns into win/loss who knows, but I think you can have a bit of a feeling of how we’re improving and if it keeps tracking that way, I think we’ll be super proud of the year.”
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