Dragons “playing for the whole 70” in NAB League decider

ONLY 23 players make the final cut for Grand Final selection, but Sandringham Dragons talent operations lead Mark Wheeler says his side will be playing for all 70 squad members used throughout 2022 in Friday evening’s NAB League decider.

As is often the case with the nature of the region, Sandringham has dug deep into its talent pool this season, but now looks more settled heading into the final game of the season. Despite going down to Oakleigh in the last round of the regular season, things have clicked for the Dragons since.

“We’ve had so many ins and outs because of how many boys go through the private school system, and unavailabilities,” Wheeler said. “We’ve played over 70 players so it’s a great reward for those boys that on Friday night, 23 get to represent the club, but we’re playing for the whole 70.

“The Oakleigh game was the first one that put us together, there was a bye, then we’ve had some games in a row. This is our fourth game where we’ve settled the team down. We’ve only had two to three changes each week and I think that definitely helps… we’re pretty happy with the way these boys connected.”

Olli Hotton is part of Sandringham’s elite midfield | Image Credit: Rookie Me Central

Though they have a great deal of respect for the opposition’s weapons, the Dragons will back some of their own firepower to perform – particularly with the likes of Will Ashcroft, Olli Hotton, and Cameron Mackenzie middling strong bookends.

“We think we’ve got a lot of avenues to goal and that’s our weapon,” Wheeler said. “We definitely think we can get it out of the mids and get some opportunity for our forwards, but we’re not reliant on one person to stand up in our forward line… we go in and whatever offer is best, we take.

“I think our defence has probably been our biggest improvement, that core eight that run through the back half of the ground have been very solid and probably been stingy on giving points away.”

Wheeler, a former talent manager of the Dandenong Stingrays, is well aware of the history between the two sides which will lock horns on Friday night. Though he, fellow staff, and players have crossed clubs over the years, there is now more a sense of camaraderie and connection between the border regions.

“It’s always been that way,” he said. “I just think we’ve both got some good genuine talent. Most of these boys are close, they go to school together, there’s a bit of rivalry going on at school but there’s not too much in it.

Charlie Clarke celebrates a goal | Image Credit: Rookie Me Central

“Coming from the zone I know their style of play. They come with intent and excitement, they want to win the ball and they’re well coached. They’ve got a great program there so definitely we respect the opposition and think it’s going to be a very tight, exciting game. We both play a good brand of football so we’re expecting that on the night.”

Compounding the closeness of the clubs, one player who missed out on selection for Sandy’s squad will line up for Dandy. Wheeler says the ability to allow opportunities for as many prospects as possible is “what the NAB League’s all about.”

“One of the players that we released, we released him to go play for Dandenong, Harrison Collopy,” he said. “I’m wrapped he gets his opportunity, and he’s been playing some good football… he got his opportunity at Dandy and now he’s going to play in a grand final for them which again, I’m pretty wrapped for him.”

In terms of team selection, Wheeler says his side has no forced omissions, but a difficult decision will have to be made on Thursday night with defender Jakob Anderson ready to return. The Vic Metro representative missed last week with hamstring awareness, and will play pending the week’s final training session.

Friday marks Sandringham’s fifth Grand Final appearance in the competition. This year’s Dragons will vie for the club’s fourth flag, and first since 2016 in what promises to be a ripping decider at Ikon Park.

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