At just 25 years of age, Zach Merrett will play his 150th game on Saturday afternoon. Close friend Andy McGrath has opened up about his ‘meticulous’ teammate and that impending free agency decision.
The 2017 All-Australian is having another superb season and has cemented himself as one of the premier midfielders in the competition. Merrett is averaging a career high 30.5 disposals per game in 2021, placing him sixth in the competition.
He will head into the off-season as one of the most in demand players in the league. Port Adelaide earlier this year flagged its interest in the star Don, and Brisbane has followed suit in the past week.
As a restricted free agent, Essendon can choose to match the contract put in front of Merrett, or let him walk in exchange for draft compensation that would likely be a first round pick.
Andy McGrath has spent his four-and-a-half seasons at Essendon learning his midfield craft under the ball magnet, and they’ve formed a close bond as teammates and friends.
Speaking at Marvel Stadium on Wednesday, he was forthright about his desire to keep Merrett around the club for as long as possible, but understood it was a long-term decision to make after Essendon underwent an overhaul of its list in the off-season.
“We all love Zach and we value everything that he brings to the footy club,” McGrath said.
“He’s obviously got a decision to make and he’s a very meticulous guy. He’ll go through all the right processes to figure out what’s best for him.
“In terms of Zach and the Essendon Footy Club, we all love him. He’s one of our most valuable players; he’s our vice captain.
“The form he’s playing with at the moment is just superb and his leadership around the club has been just outstanding.
“He loves the club, he loves the boys and we all love him.
“Obviously he’s got a decision on his hands but I’d love for him to stay and I think everyone at the Essendon footy club is of that same opinion.”
Merrett was removed from the leadership group in 2020, but was re-instated at the beginning of the 2021 season as vice captain. With skipper Dyson Heppell missing due to injury at stages this year, he has led the Bombers out in games including their 75-point demolition of St Kilda.
Essendon coach Ben Rutten echoed McGrath’s praise of Zach Merrett ahead of his 150th game, and cited his leadership as the basis of his importance to the club.
“He wants to be good, he wants to be the best he can be. He wants to be part of a successful club and a great environment,” Rutten said.
“What we’re seeing from Zach is … he’s pretty committed and invested in what we’re doing. We’re seeing a great version of Zach at the moment which is what we’re pleased with.
“He’s certainly been a really important, valuable leader for us this year.
That level of leadership for the younger Bombers has been instrumental, but it wasn’t a role that was natural to Merrett and he’s had to work incredibly hard on that aspect of his game.
Learning that he can impact those around him with his actions on the field has seen him elevate his defensive play in 2021.
“Last year was an important growth period for Zach, and we’re seeing a bit of the fruits of that this year,” Rutten stated.
“He’s an incredible player and his influence over more people is becoming really more pronounced.
“When he’s playing his best footy, his ability to pressure the ball, tackle and defend hard is probably underrated in his game.
“I think he’s one of the more well-rounded midfielders in the competition. We know what he can do with ball in hand but sometimes it’s the off-ball stuff and defence stuff he does that can really inspire his teammates.”
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The move of Heppell to a half back role this season and with midfielders Jye Caldwell and Dylan Shiel missing through injury, McGrath and Merrett have been joined in the on-ball unit by Darcy Parish.
Drafted as an inside midfielder with the fifth pick in the 2015 AFL Draft, the 23-year-old has been given the opportunity as a full-time midfielder this season. He took full advantage of his preferred role on Anzac Day, collecting 42 disposals and kicking two goals in a dominant best on ground performance.
“Darcy’s great – he’s probably been held out a little bit in the last few years just based on opportunity and his development, he’s played a little bit of half forward,” McGrath said.
“He’s been given that [midfield] role now that Jye Caldwell and Dylan Shiel have had a little bit of time off with injury and he’s taken that with both hands.
“His ferocious attack on the ball and his cleanliness around the contest is his trademark and he showed that on Anzac Day as to why he can be one of the best midfielders in the comp.
“He’s one of my best mates and I’m so proud of him and how he’s developed in the last couple years, and I can’t wait to see what he can do moving forward.”
Alongside McGrath and Merrett, Parish has formed an effective midfield brigade despite their age demographic and smaller bodies. On average, the trio is just over 23 years of age and just under 180cm in height.
However, it is a midfield unit that has gotten the better of Collingwood’s on Anzac Day, and led Carlton in clearances last week with debutant Nick Bryan in the ruck.
Parish and McGrath are just two players of the growing nucleus that will carry the ‘Baby Bombers’ forward for the next decade.
Both Ben Rutten and Andy McGrath have made it clear that, on the eve of his 150th game, Zach Merrett is very much a part of that journey if he so chooses.
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