Sport

Players to watch in AFL's pre-season

Hugh McCluggage (right) with the Brisbane Lions coach Chris Fagan.
Hugh McCluggage (right) with the Brisbane Lions coach Chris Fagan. DEAN LEWINS

FOOTY is almost back.

With the JLT Community Series starting on Thursday, supporters are beginning to eagerly flick through the playing lists to find their club's next big thing.

So who are the players to watch this pre-season?

We've assessed every team and found the players that are most likely to whet the appetite of footy supporters across the four weeks of the JLT Community Series.

ADELAIDE

BRAD Crouch's hamstring injury may open the door for Cam Ellis-Yolmen to win a spot in Adelaide's midfield during the pre-season. The ball-winner played just two senior games in 2016 but dominated the SANFL, with an elite rating for disposals, contested possessions, clearances and score assists. This could be the break he needs to cement his position.

BRISBANE

IF there was a ready-made goalkicking midfielder in the 2016 national draft, it was Hugh McCluggage. The North Ballarat Rebel averaged 28 disposals and two goals per game during last year's TAC Cup. After impressing Lions track-watchers early, all eyes will be on McCluggage during the JLT Community Series to see whether he can somewhat replicate those incredible Under 18 numbers.

CARLTON

IT will be interesting to see whether Jacob Weitering spends more time forward this year. He was rock solid in defence last season - finishing third in the AFL's Rising Star award - but given his strong marking and neat skills, it would not be a huge surprise to see the 19-year-old in the forward half. Regardless of where he plays, Weitering oozes class and the JLT Community Series will be another opportunity for him to prove his worth.

COLLINGWOOD

AN outstanding intra-club performance from Matt Scharenberg has the former top-10 pick ready to rumble in 2017. That will be music to the ears of Magpie fans, who have waited patiently since he was selected in the 2013 national draft but spent the vast majority of his first three years in the medical room. Now that he's recovered from a foot complaint and two knee reconstructions, expect the South Australian to hit the ground running in the JLT Community Series. Where will he play? In short, anywhere - although he has looked most comfortable running off half-back in the limited chances he's had at VFL and AFL level.

ESSENDON

LIKE all No.1 draft picks, plenty of focus will be on Andrew McGrath when he runs out against Collingwood on Thursday night. Tough, explosive and clever, the teenager could easily start in John Worsfold's best team and will use the JLT Community Series as an opportunity to further prove himself. Although he will likely be used off half-back and on a wing, expect McGrath to eventually mould into one of the competition's finest midfielders.

 

Cam McCarthy celebrates kicking a goal for the Giants.
Cam McCarthy celebrates kicking a goal for the Giants. PAUL MILLER

FREMANTLE

IT has been a difficult couple of years for precociously talented key forward Cam McCarthy, but Fremantle supporters will be desperately hoping he can fill the sizeable Matthew Pavlich breach in 2017. It will be no easy task for the ex-GWS Giant, who booted 35 goals from 20 games in 2015.

GEELONG

NOTHING would help Tom Hawkins more than another strong marking forward. Enter Aaron Black, who arrived in Geelong at the start of the summer following 64 goals from 50 games for North Melbourne. If he performs, he could be the missing piece of the puzzle the Cats need. All the early signs suggest he will have a prominent role to play under Chris Scott, but then it will be up to him to take his opportunity and make the spot his own.

GOLD COAST SUNS

THE Suns may have found another x-factor in Ben Ainsworth, who looks to have slotted in nicely at Metricon Stadium this summer. Drafted with pick No.4 last November, the 179cm half-forward is seriously quick and has super-strong hands too. He's the type of player that could get off the leash if opposition defenders don't pay him enough respect. The Suns will be hoping he fulfils this promise in the pre-season and then into the all-important home and away campaign.

GWS GIANTS

A CLUB blessed with ample high draft picks is set to unveil another during the JLT Community Series, with Tim Taranto firming for a berth in Leon Cameron's side. He is likely to start as a forward but could progress into the midfield later in his career - or even this year. He has been likened to Nat Fyfe and Jimmy Bartel. Although he's unlikely to reach those heights any time soon, it'll be fascinating to see his glimpses this pre-season. He's one all fans - not just Giants supporters - should watch closely.

HAWTHORN

IF fit, Jaeger O'Meara is a potential Brownlow Medallist. His persistent knee injury has recovered (so it seems) and he will take on Geelong in Hawthorn's first JLT Community Series game on Friday night in Tasmania. A fit and firing O'Meara is a tantalising prospect, one that should worry all opposition teams. The question of durability still looms large and the pre-season competition will be his first real test.

 

Michael Hibberd in action for the Essendon Bombers in 2015.
Michael Hibberd in action for the Essendon Bombers in 2015. JULIAN SMITH

MELBOURNE

THE jury is out on some of Melbourne's most recent recruits. Jordan Lewis should provide great midfield stability in the short term, but how do Jake Melksham and Michael Hibberd slot in to a line-up chock-a-block full of medium-size running players? The latter is an especially intriguing prospect after his year off. At his best, Hibberd is a key playmaker. He averaged the equal-most disposals of any defender in the competition from 2012-15. Only Heath Shaw has notched more intercept marks in the defensive 50 during this time. The JLT Community Series will give a reasonable indication of whether the 27-year-old still has that spark. Expect him to play a pivotal role.

NORTH MELBOURNE

NORTH Melbourne has replenished its list over the past six months. One of its 10 inclusions is Nathan Hrovat, who was starved of opportunity at the Dogs. Nevertheless, the 22-year-old could be a more than handy addition to Brad Scott's side. Of the 24 AFL matches he has played where he hasn't been the sub, Hrovat has notched more than 12 disposals in 23 of them. It's a solid return for a player who is still developing his craft. Expect him to play most across half-forward during the JLT Community Series.

PORT ADELAIDE

BRETT Eddy is not yet a household name, but he's certainly impressed in his first pre-season at Port Adelaide this summer. The 27-year-old booted 74 goals for South Adelaide last season and is highly likely to get a run in the JLT Community Series as a trial for a spot on Ken Hinkley's senior list. The Power is one of the clubs that do not have 40 primary-listed players, therefore opening the possibility of a rookie upgrade for Eddy before round one.

RICHMOND

NOT unlike fellow ex-Sun Jaeger O'Meara, Dion Prestia has had his struggles with injury. The midfielder, who was traded to Punt Road in the off-season, impressed in Richmond's intra-club match last week. At his best, the 24-year-old is a prolific on-baller. Since 2013, he is one of just seven players to average 10 or more contested disposals and 400m gained per outing. Four of them are Brownlow Medal winners and the other two are Jack Steven and Joel Selwood.

 

Paddy McCartin of the Saints marks the ball.
Paddy McCartin of the Saints marks the ball. JULIAN SMITH

ST KILDA

PADDY McCartin showed glimpses of his supreme natural ability last season but is yet to play more than four successive AFL games, largely due to concussion worries. Expectations remain high for the former Geelong Falcon, but whether 2017 is too soon to live up to them remains to be seen. The JLT Community Series will be a good gauge as to where McCartin is at in among a forward line of Josh Bruce, Nick Riewoldt and Tim Membrey.

SYDNEY

AS Sydney continues to renovate on the run, it's imperative that young players such as Ollie Florent come in and play a role alongside more established stars. Although he is a first-year player, the club has high hopes for the 18-year-old. Florent's a versatile midfielder and proved just how talented he was in the NAB All Stars match at Punt Road before the 2016 grand final.

WEST COAST

IT will be unusual and weird to see Sam Mitchell in a West Coast jumper this pre-season. Perhaps the most intriguing sub-plot will be watching how the 2012 Brownlow Medallist waxes with the 2014 Brownlow Medallist Matt Priddis. Both are super clean at ground level and know how to find the footy. Could Mitchell be the player that propels the Eagles back up the ladder? Don't put it past him.

WESTERN BULLDOGS

IT is still unclear how Travis Cloke will fit into Luke Beveridge's forward line, but presuming he gets an opportunity during the pre-season competition, all eyes will be fixed on his every move. The left-footer endured an underwhelming 2016 campaign, but may be buoyed by a fresh start and the prospect of playing alongside Tom Boyd and Stewart Crameri. Cloke always attracts attention and 2017 will be no different.

Topics:  community series

News Corp Australia