After being voted the inaugural captain of the AFL Players’ 22Under22 team in 2013, Essendon midfielder Dyson Heppell has taken his game to a new level this season. aflplayers.com.au spoke with Heppell and Essendon skipper Jobe Watson about the young Bomber’s progress in 2014.
From the moment he stepped onto the field for his first AFL game – a polished 20-disposal performance that saw him receive the Round 1 Rising Star nomination for 2011 – Dyson Heppell has barely put a foot wrong.
“HE’S A REALLY GREAT TEAMMATE – VERY CARING AND ALWAYS STRIVING TO GET THE BEST OUT OF HIMSELF” – WATSON ON HEPPELL
The 22-year-old from Leongatha has played 77 of a possible 82 games since being drafted – collecting the 2011 Rising Star award in his debut season along the way – and, pleasingly for Bomber fans, has continually shown signs of improvement. As each year has gone by, Heppell has increased his output in terms of both possessions and contested possessions. 2014, his fourth season, has been no exception.
Since his skipper Jobe Watson went down injured in the Round 12 clash against GWS, Heppell has received more attention from opposition taggers but has still found a way to take his performances to a higher level. Naturally, Heppell will be glad to have Watson back by his side against the Eagles this weekend – but the big-haired Bomber also admits his skipper’s absence has been a positive learning experience.
“It certainly doesn’t help losing your skipper but we’ve sort of put it on each other to really share the load amongst the group,” Heppell says.
“It’s really driven from the fact that we all want to improve our leadership because Jobe’s obviously a fantastic leader on the field, and we’re sort of trying to drive to keep that going.”
Many have marvelled at Heppell’s development in Watson’s absence – not least of all, Watson himself.
“I think he and a few of the other guys have taken more ownership and you just see him imposing himself in games,” Watson says.
“That’s been the biggest difference for me, from this year compared with last year – how much he’s imposing himself on games consistently and how big an influence he’s having on the team.”
For Heppell, consistency of performance has been the most pleasing part of his 2014.
“I think I’ve been able to play a fair bit of consistent footy this year,” he admits.
“I think I’ve stepped up another level from last year, which has been really good. I’m really enjoying my footy again this year.”
“It was a real honour getting selected in that side” – Dyson Heppell on his 22Under22 selection
Anyone who’s seen Heppell do an interview or a media appearance will know he’s a fairly laidback character – as Watson puts it, “he’s been able to keep his country personality” – but there’s also another side of Heppell that isn’t as immediately obvious.
“He’s really diligent,” Watson explains.
“He’s a really great teammate – very caring but is always striving to get the best out of himself. He’s never content with where he’s at, and that’s why he’s continuing to develop.”
Though he’s still just 22 years old, Heppell has already been widely touted to succeed Watson as Essendon’s next captain.
“Since he’s joined the leadership group, he’s just developing and demanding more from his teammates,” Watson explains.
But it’s not just the Bombers who have noticed Heppell’s leadership qualities. In 2013, he was selected as the inaugural captain of the AFL Players’ Association’s 22under22 team – a side made up of the game’s elite players aged 22 or younger, as decided by fans.
“It was a real honour getting selected in that side,” Heppell reflects, one year on.
“There were some fantastic players from across the league picked in that team and I think it’s a fantastic initiative from the Players’ Association to have a 22under22 side.”
2014 will be the last year in which Heppell is eligible for the award, but he’s looking forward to seeing the next generation of Bombers make their way into the 22under22 team – both this year, and in the seasons ahead.
“It’d be fantastic if we could get a few in the side this year – we’ve got a great bunch of young kids coming through and they’re developing really well.”
When you hear Heppell talk about ‘the young kids’, it’s easy to forget he’s still yet to have his 23rd birthday. But the Essendon number 21 is always looking to improve, and the next step in his development might well be to stamp his influence as a leader.
“They’re fantastic kids and really willing to learn and for myself, I want to help them develop as much as they can.”
Voting for the 2014 22Under22 squad will open on Wednesday, August 20 and will close on Thursday, September 4. You can submit your team via the AFL Players’ Facebook page.
Keep checking aflplayers.com.au to stay up to date with all things 22Under22.