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AFL Coach’s Clipboard: Essendon coach Ben Rutten reveals how he plans secure another finals berth
The Bombers made the finals in Ben Rutten’s first year but failed to pass week one. He reveals the key areas of improvements and players impressing as he looks to go deeper in September.
Essendon surprised the footy world by playing finals in Ben Rutten’s first year in charge, but the AFL’s most infamous September curse remains intact.
He reveals how the Bombers will improve again in 2022, who’s impressing on the training track, the latest on Jake Stringer’s fitness, who replaces Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti, the draftee pushing his case for Round 1, and the challenges of life on the farm.
Jay Clark: Congrats on everything last season. I hear you have spent some time on the farm on your summer break. How’s your tractor skills, ‘Truck’?
Ben Rutten: I’m a first-time farmer, so I’ve got all the gear and no idea. It’s a nice place to unwind and switch off. There are a lot of things that I’m learning as I go, so there’s a lot of trial and error, and a lot of help from people who have been there and done it before. So I’m enjoying it at the moment. My biggest problem is I’ve been trying to get a couple of cows pregnant, that’s my first little dabble at trying to breed some livestock, so hopefully they can come through.
JC: Did you host all the players there as part of a pre-season camp?
BR: We finished up a training camp and then had a bit of a get-together at my place with all the footy department, the families and partners and kids of all the players, and staff as well. It was just a good opportunity considering everything that has happened the past couple of years. Those little connection points. It was nice timing. We had a camp for a couple of days which was physically demanding on everybody, and to finish that with a five-day break, it was really good.
JC: What was the theme of the camp?
BR: We had a solid training session, and a school camp type of setup. So we had some canoeing and raft-building, and rock climbing and laser tag. We had some team events going on and it was an opportunity to work on our group dynamics, and cohesion and connection throughout those couple of days. I think we were able to do that pretty well.
JC: How do you get better? Essendon was fourth for offence, ninth for defence in 2021. What’s top of the whiteboard for 2022?
BR: There’s always a long list of things you want to do better, as a coach you are always striving for excellence or perfection with things, which can be unrealistic. But we are always looking to grow and improve, I think the final we ended up paying in the end of last year ended up being a fantastic experience for our guys, and I think that in itself gave us a bit of confidence in what we have been doing, but it also it showed up the gap and the difference in where we want to get to.
It was just one of those experiences and opportunities that we ended up playing a grand final team and a team that was in the top-two for the whole season, and to be able to play some pretty good footy and show some of the stuff we have been working on is getting towards the level we need it to be. It also showed our ability to stick at it.
The resilience in our game, and to be able to do it for longer and do it in all conditions – that is the gap we are looking to bridge, and the Bulldogs are a pretty hardened and seasoned unit which had spent the vast majority of the season at the top. That sort of stuff is invaluable for our guys. We took a lot of momentum out of that game even though it was a really disappointing loss and the guys were shattered. It gave us a little kick-start around pre-season and that is our theme. We want to build our cohesion and chemistry and spend more time training together. Understand how each other play and how each other think and another year of consistency and stability is going to be.
JC: Ruckman Sam Draper has become one of footy’s most exciting players. Raw, aggressive. St Kilda tried hard to get him. What can we expect this year?
BR: The thing to remember is he has only played 21 games or something like that. He is athletic, he is dynamic, he is kind of a spiritual warrior for us out on the ground and we love that about him. But he has still got a lot of room to improve and learn about himself and also the game.
He hasn’t grown up playing the game, so to be able to keep building his understanding of the game and what is required. Every now and then he gets his capability and his ambition a little bit mixed up, but it is also what we love about him. He does try things and he is not afraid to think he is a six-foot midfielder every now and then.
The boys love him, and we have a really strong ruck group. Andrew Phillips, who played a fair bit of footy for us last year, is working really well (with Draper), and Nick Bryan is a guy who won our VFL best-and-fairest last year. He is really athletic and is getting his ruck craft building, so we have a really nice combination there, and all of them are going to play an important part in this season.
JC: How will the forward line look? No Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti early. Cale Hooker retired. Harry Jones coming back from injury. Where do the goals come from again?
BR: It is probably a similar proposition to what we were talking about last year. We brought Peter Wright into the team and we spent periods of the summer training with different guys in the midfield training up there and Cale Hooker spent the majority of the year up there and Harry Jones hadn’t even played a game at that point, so last year we were in a similar position.
I feel some of that cohesion will take some time to build, we might be similar again this year. But we are also really excited about it. Aaron Francis has been training up there really strongly, Peter Wright is 12 months in, Kaine Baldwin is showing some fantastic signs up there. We love what Harry Jones gives us up there and we think he is really going to progress.
So heaps of excitement, and optimism and enthusiasm, but also we need to understand we are not the finished product and we will continue to evolve. Last year we demonstrated we were a reasonably high-scoring team, we don’t want to be too predictable in the way that we score. We want contribution across the board. We know there are guys playing ahead of the ball, but they are not always the ones who are finishing the goals off, so we need to be pretty well-balanced.
JC: Who replaces McDonald-Tipungwuti? Irving Mosquito is no longer the club. Is Archie Perkins your man?
BR: Guys like Mozzie (Irving Mosquito) and ‘Walla’, they are guys who are difficult to replace. We think we have got some guys like Devon Smith, Archie Perkins has played a bit up forward for us and hopefully we can get some goals out of our midfielders at times, so we are looking to evolve and guys are able to step up in those positions. Last year through opportunity and needs we found guys were able to do that and none of those guys let us down last year, so that is all part of footy and the disappointment and challenge for one player is an opportunity for another. I feel like our guys are pretty fit and hungry and want to take their opportunities when they get them.
JC: Ben Hobbs looks like a great pick. Hard nut. Is he in the mix for early games this year?
BR: He has been fantastic. Along with Patrick Voss, Alastair Lord, Garrett McDonagh, they have all done a heap of training and really immersed themselves into the program. Initially, that’s all you can ask, can they build some strong relationships and feel comfortable and start contributing? All of them have been able to.
It shows where they are in terms of their attitude, it’s been fantastic, and just like any young or less-experienced players, it is important to just be able to come into the environment and understand the way we play and start to get a feel for the guys around them.
Hobbsy is pretty ambitious and has got a good head on his shoulders. He hasn’t knocked back any challenges and he has been able to compete really well against some of our more experienced guys. He is one of those guys once you give him half a sniff, he will be keen to take that opportunity.
JC: It’s an excellent midfield group. How are you going to give everyone in there a lick of the ice cream? Dylan Shiel, Darcy Parish, Zach Merrett, Jye Caldwell, Andrew McGrath. How do they all fit?
BR: It’s a nice thing to have at our disposal, it’s something as a club we have been working towards for a few years. Whether it is Melbourne or the Bulldogs or Richmond, they all have strong midfields. The last few years it is more about those guys having a really clear picture of what their best footy looks like, and what their strengths are and what the team needs, regardless of what position they are on the field. I think we have some strong flexibility in our game, which I think is a great thing.
JC: Not many tipped you to play finals last year, but you made it. On the back of losing three senior players, it was a great effort. What’s the pass mark in 2022?
BR: The biggest expectation we are putting on ourselves is to create a program and an environment where we just continue to build and push and get better and grow. Absolutely, we got a bit of a taste of what the finals were about last year, which highlighted some areas of our game which we need to get better at. But you’ve got 18 teams wanting to crack in and make the finals.
We want to create a program that puts us in the best position to win a premiership. That is the thing we have been pretty clear on over the past few months is that decisions have been made to get us closer to win a premiership and some sustained success, so we are no different in that respect this year and we will continue to make those decisions based on what is going to best position us for that.
Create a program where we are stretching ourselves no matter whether you are a staff member, a coach or a player, I want that to be the hallmark of this footy club. That up until the last day you are at the club you are feeling like you are getting better, it’s what we are trying to build.
JC: Jake Kelly flew under the radar in the trade period. Sounds like he has fit in well. What impact will he have down back?
BR: He has done some fantastic jobs on us at times on talls or smalls, which is a real strength of Jake’s. So he gives us another option to play on some of those dangerous smalls in particular. But he has a unique strength to be able to defend and intercept the ball, but he is great with ball in hand as well. So he gives us more options and less predictability in our game. He is a good hard worker and has a great attitude and is a pretty experienced player.
JC: There’s been a lot of talk about coaching styles and how tight you can or should be with players. Justin Langer and Simon Goodwin have been under the microscope. What’s your coaching style? How close should you be?
B R: I’m more of a relationship-based coach and I think for the players it is important to build those strong relationships, and part of that is not having the same relationship with every player. It is about meeting their needs and understanding their needs, and some guys need more attention or some guys may need a little less. It is critical.
They are my No.1 responsibility, the players, and you’ve got to have a good relationship to pick up behavioural changes, and I need them understanding the way I think and I think that is just critical. It does make things difficult at times when you have to have some more difficult conversations, or tell them things they may not want to hear. But that is the price you have to pay as a coach, and I would rather that and have strong relationships than the opposite. It’s just the way I do things, and it is not necessarily right or wrong. I think it is paramount in building trust.
JC: We saw Nik Cox and Perkins really shine last year. What about Zach Reid, your other top pick?
BR: Unfortunately, he hasn’t done a heap out on the track with the guys, he has had a really difficult run. Glandular fever, stress fracture in his back, and little bit of foot problems, plus he has had Covid, so he has struggled to get some continuity. He was building up his loads from his foot and they had a little setback with Covid, which put him back a week or two in building up.
So it’s been disappointing, and he’s been flat and frustrated at times, but it is also giving him, as a young tall player, time to build his body and put a lot of work into that and hopefully give himself a great opportunity to have a long and uninterrupted career. Because there is no doubt he is 203cm or 205cm, he looks like he is growing every day and with a lean body, he’s a bit of a recipe for some problems. So in some respects we have this time to invest in his body and get some really good mechanics going that will put him in a really good stead.
JC: Where will he play?
BR: Forward and back, it will probably start to settle him down back to begin with, but we saw this time last year he played a little bit in our forward line, and he has played a bit of both, but he is one of those guys who will be able to adapt to whatever role he needs to.
JC: Jake Stringer update? Did he hurt his groin?
BR: Very minor, this time of year, and Kyle Langford (shoulder) is the same, they didn’t quite get up to the full session but both of those guys have done a power of work in pre-season. If there is an opportunity to be a fraction more conservative, this time of year that is kind of the decision we have made on both those guys, nothing to be too concerned about.
JC: Good luck, Ben.
BR: Thank you.