Essendon’s Conor McKenna closing in on new contract
Jon Pierik and Patrick Bartley
Essendon half-back Conor McKenna, one of the club’s emerging talents, is closing in on a new contract in a season when the future of veteran Jobe Watson remains unclear.
Captain Dyson Heppell said on Wednesday he hoped Watson would play on in 2018.
Heppell believes Watson’s presence on and off the field since returning from his 12-month suspension had been a strong reason for the club’s success in recent weeks.
McKenna, the dashing Irishman, has also been a key factor in the Bombers’ improving form. McKenna was handed a one-year extension and elevated on to the senior list after the 2016 season, but Fairfax Media understands discussions are underway for a two-year extension.
He has played 12 senior matches this season and his speed and creative play from half-back, in conjunction with Andrew McGrath, last year’s No.1 draft pick, have helped to turn the Bombers into a formidable force.
McKenna, overlooked by Carlton when a youngster in Ireland, had been a 2015 rookie draft international selection and had begun his time with the Bombers as a small forward.
While McKenna appears to have a long career ahead, Watson says he will determine his future once the season is done. Heppell, though, wants the champion midfielder to play on.
"As the year goes on, Jobe’s form has improved and he’s like a lot of the players who were returning to football. I’d love to see him play on but that will be a decision entirely left up to Jobe. We are building a chemistry now. It’s round 18 and we’re playing better together.
“I know we are in the middle of the field [in terms of the ladder], but we’re experiencing continual improvement.”
Coach John Worsfold said on Wednesday that Watson, who was rested from last Friday night’s win over the Saints, was a non-debatable part of his best side when fit and would return for the clash against out-of-form North Melbourne on Saturday.
Josh Green’s hamstring injury opens up a spot in the forward line, with Jayden Laverde in firm contention to replace him, having booted nine goals in two weeks in the VFL.
Heppell described Essendon’s loss to Brisbane in round 15, after leading comfortably throughout the match, as a crossroads for their season.
“It was a big moment. After the game we had an honest approach, an honest conversation. We had honest feedback which we took on board,” he said.
Heppell believes the players who stood out of the game last year because of a WADA suspension are steadily coming back into touch.
“What’s better is we’ve improved in a couple of areas,” he said.
“It all seemed to click last week, that was our best overall performance [against St Kilda].”
Meanwhile, Worsfold says the Bombers, in 10th spot with eight wins, need to find consistency to be a part of the finals.
“If we’re not consistent then the finals will take care of themselves - we won’t be there,” he said.
“Our focus, and it’s not a worry, is building consistency and challenging ourselves to play at the more elite level and have less drop-off in our performances week to week.”
Worsfold said Laverde was a strong chance to return to the seniors.
“He’s looking really solid. It’s a credit to the program. He ran when he was injured and has come back in (to the VFL) and had an impact so quickly,” he said.
“We’ve had Josh Begley available and on the verge in the last number of weeks as well, so he’s definitely one we’ll look at with (Kyle) Langford and (Ben) Howlett all being good performers as well.”
The Bombers are chasing three wins in a row for the first time since mid-2014.