“…True nobility lies in being superior to your previous self”- Ernest Hemingway.
Avoidance comes in all flavours. Some intentional. Some not.
Regarding the latter, I hadn’t meant to avoid most of this Essendon preseason on the track. I’d been caught up in work, November and December duelling in Healesville with weather. And snakes. Both reptilian and corporate management breeds. Neither are pleasantly ideal. Tullamarine seemed a long, arduous world away, alternately flooded or hot.
Less time on Blitz, though, fell much more in the intentional bag. I’d skimmed through some training reports as befitting my “job” here. But I absorbed little. I picked up a notion of unfortunate injuries. A constant debate over selection issues. Murmurs on Captaincy. The echo of an always fraudulent Kane Cornes outrage , apparently regarding Jake Stringer , dimly reached my ears. I was content to remain in, and even to chase, a sense of ignorance. Far better, said Sherlock, to think nothing than to speculate on the unseen and arrive preconceived.
Even today, I had not set out to attend training. Unsure even if it was on, much less a deliberate aim to get there. And yet, travelling past the ground, cones, markers, small hurdles , a buggy full of footballs dragged me to a halt and I wandered , and wondered, within.
Half way through the session , I’d decided upon another avoidance. The writing of any sort of training write-up. There seemed little of note to report. Without the back story of preseason, where is the meaningful narrative to weave?
Sure, there were fragments and untainted instincts, no preconceived notions. Reid was doing some basic run throughs and agility work. He wore runners, not boots. He looks bigger than before, mainly in the legs, likely hinting of a solid upper body in time. Future time, not this one.
Hind looked smaller, less heavy than memory would have it, lithe and fleet of foot and vocal of voice. Jones has matured, the childish face fading and vanishing , replaced by a more angular and stern visage. He ran and leapt with apparent ease, marking the ball well off the ground at times, opting to kick it with his left foot for some reason at others.
The maligned Stringer was in attendance. His typical short gait in sprints could mask a problem, but who would know from his norm ? The high speeds attained , and a searing right foot pass from back pocket to a centre squared Tippa may alleviate some concern. We wouldn’t quite call him chiselled, but we also may not bestow such a descriptor on an Oxen, and yet the two may share a strength laden synonym. As the lean and not unsturdy Perkins discovered later.
Speaking of Tippa, he portrays a vision of improvement on 12 months ago. Movement is good, speed is good, endurance noticeably gooder. So far, so, ahh, good.
Jayden D ran laps, sometimes with company, often solo. Small jumping drills. Boots and casual goal kicking and passes occasionally allowed. James Stewart , heavy and strong, and Nik Cox , light and effortless, also pounded out the Kilometers in endless circles.
Anthony Munkara , tall and straight of stature , possessed of impressive speed, performed much of the training drills before switching to more mundane pursuits for a while. The mundane appears to not be his natural habitat. A shot at goal taken from 40 meters out on the left boundary line used the left foot. Success. Then switched to the other pocket for a similar shot with the right foot. Success. Training, it seems, involves taking the most difficult option. Much later, he rolled one through from well outside the boundary and then proceeded to put on a show of high marking for the benefit of the camera operators. It all reminds of a young kid kicking a sock footy around the house and celebrating with attendant self commentary in youthful exuberance.
Most early drills, after the running patterns were ticked off, revolved around defensive positioning. One group had to work from the back pocket, the other set out to stop them. Rules were strict - any kicks had to be marked by the intended team mate. An intercept, a dropped mark or spoil were a win to the defending squad , stop the drill , return to the back pocket and start again. You lost. Do better.
A full ground segmented circle work was adopted. Ball starts in defensive goal square, run from back pocket, hit up the lead on defensive wing, hit up the lead at half forward, hit up the lead coming out of the square, transition to the far pocket and work it down the other side. A gusty wind blew towards the airport end , often kicks from that back pocket fell short of the intended target. Possibly underestimating, or unaware of the tricky breeze. Kicking elsewhere was generally good, at worst efficient.
Standouts were hard to find, defensive actions generally had a latent intensity to them. Onlookers whispered of a small scuffle between Setterfield and Voss.
New Coach Scott lingered largely in the background, solemnly looking on, occasionally commenting to the swarms of assistants and fitness staff buzzing around.
Likely defenders had some shots at goal. Redman and Ridley are your men here, others a little less aplomb at finding 6 points, albeit into an interfering wind.
All of this I deemed of insufficient import to warrant a detailed post, as presumably have you, having read it. Incidents and mere vignettes of a largely faceless session, perhaps.
And then most of the squad located to the second oval. Where an enlarged version of the two team drill was played out. With, as I belatedly realised, a key difference. Both groups started in huddles on a wing. A whistle blows. The huddles break, players scattering with alacrity like a startled flock to preordained positions down back, up forward, pushing to the far wing. They are on the clock. A ball is handed to the deepest defender - often McGrath , D’Ambrosio, Redman depending on the team makeups - and play ensues. Work it out of danger. Sometimes they do, sometimes it’s turned over. The defending forwards celebrate a turnover heartily. The whistle blows again, everyone runs back to the far wing, huddles form, a few seconds of respite before the sequence starts over.
Again, standouts are harder to identify in all of this. It slowly dawns on me that this is all far more significant than at first glance, for this very reason. And the session in its entirety suddenly makes more sense, and offers more promise, for its very unremarkable exterior.
Firstly , the physical tasks themselves. There are less standouts because everyone has a role. Errors are made, but pressure is usually brought to bare. Everywhere. McGrath outmarks Phillips in the air. Jones takes a strong contested grab. Massimo and Merrett provide noticeable rebounding run . But both squads tackle fiercely and ball movement is hard work. With each successive repeat of the drill, everyone is operating under increasing fatigue. Decision and skill making must exist under this fatigue umbrella.
Secondly, possibly more significantly, someone has dreamt up this drill. Surely as a direct consequence of looking at last year’s failings. This is forcing players to work back and forth across the ground as the first stage of a defensive structure. No guarding of ground here, you start out of position and every single player has to work hard just to get to the commencement position before the ball is even in motion. Then it’s done again. And again. And again. It sees 2mp chasing Massimo. It results in a congested midfield area with big contact between Setterfield and Shiel. Menzie nurses a sore shoulder from forward pressure.
It feels very very targetted towards a key weakness last year, conceding easy transition from our forward 50. If nothing else, comfort may be found in the knowledge that the coaches understand a major problem. An assistant coach mentions to another that you can’t always get up to close the outlet, but knowing when, and when not, is part of it. Someone is looking at it carefully, and knowingly or not , players are learning setups and workrates under duress.
Simply, to be better than they have been. Even if they become less noticeable to the observer.
That may be the real standout.
We’ll see. In a month. No one will be able avoid what that looks like. Least of all, me.
Thanks for reading.