The 2014 AFL season has seen a new generation of superstars make their mark on the competition – to celebrate, the AFL Players’ Association is calling on all footy fans to help pick this year’s 22Under22 team. Click here to create yours.
The Bombers are just two days away from what could be their first finals win in a decade.
Only three players – skipper Jobe Watson, injured defender Dustin Fletcher and midfielder Brent Stanton – remain from the side that defeated Melbourne in the 2004 elimination final at the MCG.
Though there have been a few false dawns since then, Essendon now appears to be building a team capable of pushing into the top four in coming seasons. aflplayers.com.au spoke to captain Jobe Watson a few weeks out from finals, to get his take on the next generation of ‘Baby Bombers’.
The 22-year-old midfielder just keeps getting better. After winning the Rising Star in 2011, his debut season, Heppell managed to avoid second-year blues and began to shape himself as a genuine inside midfielder. He has continued to develop, and in 2014 arrived as one of the game’s elite.
Asked whether he noticed Heppell stepping up in his absence, Watson said:
“I think he and a few of the other guys have taken more ownership and you just see him imposing himself in games. 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.
“He’s a good teammate. The guys really like playing with him” – Watson on Jake Carlisle
“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.
“Since he’s joined the leadership group, he’s just developing and demanding more from his teammates.”
Having held down a key post in Essendon’s backline throughout much of 2013, Carlisle has enjoyed a very different season in 2014 – playing mainly as a key forward.
“It’s obviously a very different position to play, but we’re starting to see some really good signs out of him in his ability to take contested marks. He reads the play really well, has a big engine, and is a good teammate. The guys really like playing with him, and I think he’ll really develop and blossom as a forward.
“He’s always got the flexibility to move down back, but I think the more he plays there in the forward line, the more we’ll start to see some of that form that he showed last year. It’s probably just been a big challenge to change from one position to the other because they’re very different in how you play. But he’s willing to learn and continue to develop as a forward.”
Like Carlisle, Daniher has plenty of development left in him but has already showed he’s capable of influencing the outcome of AFL games. Daniher is incredibly agile for a 201cm key forward, and is likely to be the focal point in Essendon’s front half for the next decade.
“Joey’s playing more consistently in the AFL this year. He’s still very raw and has a lot to work on physically and mentally, but he’s not afraid to be coached hard from the coaches and his teammates. He’s got a real desire to be as good as he possibly can be.”
THE MERRETT BROTHERS
The Merretts have played 33 games between them so far in 2014.
“They’re different people – very different. I don’t know Zach as well as I do Jackson, but… brothers are funny because people expect them to be the same but they end up being totally different people and different players.
“They live together, and are both very competitive; probably Zach being the younger brother, he’s always copped it from Jackson. They’ve got some similarities – both country kids who are highly competitive, very team oriented.
Having been selected with Essendon’s first pick in the 2013 National Draft, the younger Merrett has enjoyed a stellar debut season.
“Zach’s playing in his first year, so what he’s been able to do in his first year – playing nearly every game – he’s just being able to have a real influence whether it’s as sub or starting on the ground. He’s just really easy to play with, very skilful, reads the game really well and has become an important part of the side.”
The older Merrett started the season in cracking form, carving up Carlton in Round 3 with 35 possessions, eight inside 50s and five clearances. He hasn’t played since Round 19, but has improved on his 2013 and could come into 22Under22 calculations next year.
“Jacko’s in his third year. He’s a different style to his brother – plays a bit more sort of wing/half-forward. Jacko’s starting to find some real consistency – he’s had breakout games this year and is having games where he’s really influencing the game offensively. He’s always been good defensively, but he’s starting to get a good balance into his game.
“He’s continuing to work really hard and loves being coached hard. He’s actually really starting to develop his own leadership as well. He’s hard on his teammates, demands high standards and demands respect.”
The lean running defender started the season in scintillating form before injuries curtailed his run. Gleeson started as sub against Carlton last week, but kicked an important goal in the final quarter.
“Marty played a lot of footy early and has been dogged a little bit by injury in the second half of the year. He’s got some attributes that we really like. He’s easy to coach, a beautiful mover – he’s going to develop into a really strong half-back/wingman.
“we’ve seen a lot of development in him in a short space of time” – Watson on Marty Gleeson
“He’s a good decision-maker – very calm with the ball and we’ve seen a lot of development in him in a short space of time. He was pretty raw when he got here and probably still needs to develop his body, but his ability to make good decisions will make him a great player.”
Ashby made his AFL debut in Round 3 this season, and played 5 games for the year. With another pre-season under his belt, Watson says the 19-year-old will be one to watch in 2015.
“Similar to Marty – A lean, tall, running half-back flanker. Jason’s best attribute is probably his competitiveness. He hates being beaten and is a great one on one player. Continues to demand high standards – a lot like Jackson Merrett, very similar personalities in that they really drive their teammates and want to get the best out of themselves. They’ve still got to develop like all the young kids do but they’re not afraid of hard work and there’s no ceiling on what they can achieve.
“Jase is living with me – he moved in a few months ago – so that’s going well.”
Highly-rated as a junior, Kavanagh played just three matches in 2014, but has shown promising signs for Essendon’s VFL team throughout the season.
“We’ve seen some really good signs from him. He’s a midfielder, uses the ball really well, good runner. We’re trying to get him to develop more as a forward player as well to give him a flexibility. He will slowly develop that – it’s tough when you’ve come from playing in the midfield.
“We’re starting to see some really good signs from his competitiveness and his ability to win the ball and I think he’ll continue to develop that.”