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From Leongatha To Leaders

When Essendon and Hawthorn meet in the first Saturday night blockbuster at the MCG, both sides will be vastly different to the ones that left the Docklands turf in Round 12 last year.

Ideally, the Hawks will boast their three prized recruits for the first time, while nearly half of Essendon’s 22 could potentially fill a role in their first AFL match since returning from a year-long ban.

It’s not only those stepping onto the field that will be new, with Round 1 also featuring two fresh faces at the helm.

Jarryd Roughead and Dyson Heppell will captain their respective sides for the first time since receiving sole captaincy duties.

The pair also happen to be locals from the Gippsland town of Leongatha — located 135 kilometres south-east of Melbourne with a population of a little more than 5,000 people.

Like any country town, local footy is it’s heartbeat and to hold claim to two AFL club captains simultaneously is a feat previously unmatched for the place known colloquially as ‘Gatha.’

Roughead played for the Leongatha Football Club in the early 2000s while Heppell’s tenure began around the time his Hawthorn counterpart was first drafted, and in their time, they both crossed paths with Leongatha local Ken Fleming. Roughead was coached by Fleming throughout under-16s and he was on hand in a supporting role when Heppell came through the ranks.

“It’s a big thing for the town. It’s massive to have two local products captaining their AFL sides at the same time,” Fleming told

“Especially with Jarryd coming back after his sickness, I honestly think his first game back this season will be more significant than his very first AFL game.”

Separated by six years, Roughead and Heppell were stars of their local competition from an early age.

Eventually taken with the second pick in the 2004 draft, Roughead initially participated in football to play with his mates in between a packed basketball schedule, but his talent was undeniable.

“He’d only be available to play for three or four games for us for the year, so he’d waltz in and play with his mates without any training and just dominate,” Fleming added.

“Jarryd didn’t play in any successful junior sides and we’d often be getting smashed, so we’d put him in the backline and kick the ball to him every time we kicked out from full-back because he was the best mark in the team.

“He was a beautiful mark and a sensational kick for his age. He could read the play and everything was easy for him, it really was.”

Heppell, on the other hand, dominated because he did everything at 100 percent.

“When Jarryd played, he probably wasn’t the hardest trier in the world but he didn’t have to because of his talent, whereas Dyson busted his gut every time, especially at training.

“Dyson almost made it embarrassing for his teammates because he just got so much of the ball. Sometimes his coach would restrict his movement and say ‘listen Dyson, you’re not allowed to go inside the 50m arc just to give everyone else a go.’

“He would still get 40 or more possessions and they were only 15-minute quarters.”

Heppell’s hardworking attitude began in the backyard where, as the middle child of three boys, being the best basketballer and footballer in the immediate family meant as much as being the best on the weekend.

The 2014 Crichton Medallist’s younger brother Aaron, two years Heppell’s junior, knows only too well the lengths his brother would go to ensure victory.

“The two main things were his competitiveness and his self-drive, which were really evident early on,” Heppell told

“There were often games of basketball that ended in tears because we’re all so competitive. We had a fair few tussles in the yard.”


The two former Leongatha Parrots have become more than elite level players and their standing within their respective club walls has elevated them to the role of the main leader for 2017.

Fleming believes it was only a matter of time until they developed into leaders given their talent.

“Because they were such dominant players, I think everyone knew that the leadership would come with experience and that’s how it’s turned out.

“But I honestly didn’t think Jarryd would be as good as he’s turned out. We knew he would play AFL but I didn’t think he’d reach the heights he has. He was more a muck-around kid who was at the back of the lines talking about all sorts of things other than football.

“Jarryd was more laid back while Dyson was more intense and more determined.

It was behind the scenes where Heppell grew as a professional, ensuring he prepared at an elite standard before he even entered the AFL system.

“I found the little things he did with his diet especially surprising. Through those critical years as a junior and early on in his AFL career he put a lot of work into his diet with meal preparation and things like that to get an extra edge,” Aaron added.

“As a young bloke, he was always an influential figure among his peers and was often the captain of his junior footy sides, throughout the TAC Cup and he’s obviously worked on it since being in the AFL system which leads him to where he is now.”

Until he joined the Bombers VFL squad three years ago, the younger Heppell was unaware of the impact his brother was having on the senior team.

Dyson was only 21 at the time Aaron entered the VFL system but was already highly regarded internally as a leader and able to influence more experienced teammates.

Despite being a caring, knockabout kid from country Victoria who could easily be everyone’s best mate, Heppell will have no trouble delivering a stern word on or off the field.

“I didn’t think he would give anyone a bake but a couple of times when I’ve trained at the footy club during match simulation stuff he didn’t mind getting into me if I did something wrong.

“He might have white-line fever, so if things aren’t going right he’ll let you know, but it’s all mended on the other side of the fence.

“I don’t think he’ll have any trouble giving anyone a spray when he has to.”

When Roughead and Heppell greet each other to toss the coin in the middle of the ground, it will mark a significant occasion for the small country town where their AFL journeys began.