For an 18-year-old draftee, the prospect of joining an AFL club can be as daunting as it is exciting.
“Having only one other draftee my age was pretty tough at the start,” young Bomber Zach Merrett told aflplayers.com.au at the AFL Players’ Association’s Induction Camp in January.
Luckily for Merrett, the other draftee has turned out to be a great companion. Merrett and fellow draftee Orazio Fantasia have been at Essendon for little more than two months, but have already developed a close bond. The speedsters’ experiences have run parallel since being selected in November’s National Draft with picks 26 and 55 respectively.
“We’re forming a really good bond and hopefully our friendship will last a while” – Zach Merrett on Orazio Fantasia
“Essendon took three other mature-age rookies and obviously didn’t have a first round draft pick, so I’ve followed Orazio Fantasia around a lot,” Merrett said.
“It was obviously pretty daunting at the start but we’ve settled in really well.”
Aside from having each other, the two young Bombers are fortunate to each know someone else at the club. For Merrett, it’s been a great help having his older brother around to show him the ropes.
“He’s always giving little pointers, saying do this and don’t do that,” Zach said.
“He’s been really good so far.”
The Merrett brothers are set to spend even more time together in coming months, with plans to move in together.
Zach is excited about the prospect and admits, “Mum and Dad are happy with it.”
“Hopefully he’ll continue to help me and hopefully he can continue to grow as a player as well.”
While Fantasia doesn’t have the luxury of a brother to move in with, the 18-year-old who played in a premiership in the SANFL last season has a strong relationship with Nathan Bassett (the Bombers’ new forwards coach) which he believes will fast-track his progress.
“He’s helped me develop as a footballer and a person. He always had that faith in me at Norwood and I’ve been lucky enough to come across [to Essendon] with him too,” Fantasia explained.
Bassett has worked closely with both Fantasia and Merrett since coming to the club from Norwood and has already made an impact.
“He’s very knowledgeable and has a great understanding of the game, so he’s always really good when we ask questions,” Merrett said.
“He’s a very approachable guy and is always happy to come and talk to all players, whether it be me or Jobe Watson. He’s been really helpful – especially for me obviously, being in the forward line.”
Though ‘Bomber’ Thompson seemed a slightly more imposing figure than Bassett initially, Merrett said the senior coach is proving to be just as approachable.
“He’s been really good on the field – he’s serious and knows everything there is to know about the game – but off the field he’s just a normal guy and you can have a genuine conversation with him and he genuinely cares,” he said.
“I guess that’s the thing – everyone knows he’s approachable so Bomber’s been good for me so far and good for the group.”
Merrett and Fantasia have also found Essendon’s senior players to be of great assistance.
“Obviously when the Colorado boys went over we were left with Fletch, Licka and Stants so to have those three stay back was really helpful – particularly Jason Winderlich,” Merrett said.
Merrett admitted training alongside Dustin Fletcher was odd at first.
“It’s obviously a bit weird walking into the locker room with Dustin and thinking he was playing AFL before I was even born,” he said.
“He obviously knows a lot about the game and is sort of an extra coach for us on the field and at training, so he’s really helpful.”
The young duo would love to debut in 2014, but both players are aware of the challenges ahead of them. For Fantasia, getting his body prepared for the rigours of AFL remains a priority.
“I’ve talked with the dietician and I want to get to at least 75 kilos, which is their intended target as well, so maybe five to eight more kilos on top of what I am now would probably be my ideal weight,” Fantasia said.
“It’ll take time. Personally, I’m a really healthy person so I look to eat lean foods rather than high-fat foods. A lot of people think that to gain weight you need to eat more fatty foods but it’s more important to be aware of portion sizes and things like that.”
At 76 kilos, Merrett may be slightly ahead of Fantasia in terms of physical development.
“I obviously want to play Round 1 but realistically might not be a chance, so at the moment I’m just training as hard as I can and learning from the coaches and other players,” Merrett said.
With the season fast approaching, the young duo is looking forward to tackling whatever lies ahead together.
“We’re forming a really good bond and hopefully our friendship will last a while,” Merrett said.
“Hopefully we can build something together at this club.”