Dragons to have contested approach

REIGNING premiers Sandringham Dragons are prepared to get their hands dirty ahead of Round 1 of the newly named Coates Talent League season, as the side prepares for another strong season in the premier Under 18s competition. The Dragons boasted three picks inside the Top 10 last season with Will Ashcroft (Brisbane), Cameron Mackenzie (Hawthorn) and Harry Sheezel (North Melbourne) all making Round 1 debuts, and the latter winning a Rising Star nomination over the weekend.

Though the Dragons had such top-end success, new coach Rob Harding – who replaces premiership coach Wayne Cripps – said 2023 will be a deeper list again with plenty of depth.

I think its great for some of the guys in the program last year with Will, Cam and Harry, and being able to see how it all worked,” Harding said. “It sets a great precedent for this group, but this group is different.

“We’ve got a really deep list. We love getting number one draft picks. Its fantastic if we can get them, but for us it’s about making sure we get as many guys drafted as possible. Even more important than that, it’s about creating a great environment, one that they all learn and develop in. Hopefully they develop as men and footballers.”

With each new coach comes a shift in tactics, and for Harding who has made the trip from South Australia having been at the successful Norwood, it is going to focus “heavily” on contest work.

“We’ve done a lot of work on that over the pre-season so the boys have certainly got used to that pretty quickly,” Harding said. “Our focus on-field is about really building that strong team chemistry, and playing a style of footy that is predictable to each other. We are gonna have a lot of guys come in and out.”

Due to school football commitments and a high AFL Under 18 Championships representation on the regular, the Dragons are no stranger to having high rotations week-in, week-out. Harding anticipated there would be more than 70 players on the list once again, with a number of Under 16s pushing through for their debut later in the year.

“For us, its about being united in everything that we do, whether that’s offence, defence, contest, just playing a good team brand of footy so that we can maximise all the individual talents we’ve got out there,” Harding said.

The Sandringham Dragons coached is “pleased” with how the club is performing on the track, having also beaten Oakleigh Chargers in a practice match ahead of the season. The Dragons do not have long to wait to run out in a competitive match for points, taking on Eastern Ranges at RSEA Park on Saturday from 11:30am.

“We’ve trained really hard and I’m really pleased where the group is at,” Harding said. “We just went through our list reduction phase, which is the most challenging part particularly as a coach, with so many young men that are working really hard. A lot of them were bottom agers that we hope to have come back later. Overall really happy with where it sits so far.”

In terms of individuals, Harding said it was a “really even” list of names who had stood up during match simulation. Unsurprisingly, that list is headlined by the Academy members who have stepped up and lead from the front.

Ryley Sanders, big strong inside mid that we are really pleased with,” Harding said. “Archie Roberts is eye-catching off half-back. Will Brown is fantastic across the ground so he’s going to be that tall midfield type, and he’s going to stand out across all of our games. Vigo Visentini is a big ruckman who’s had a lot of volleyball commitments over the pre-season so far, he’s a really great athlete. Those four are the top agers.”

Aside from those top-agers, bottom-age talents Levi Ashcroft and Luke Trainor are humming along strongly, though Harding reiterated that there would not be the same best players each week in 2023.

“I think when you watch the Dragons play this year you’re going to see a large number of guys stand out at different times,” Harding said. “This year we’ve got a lot of talls, which is really exciting. Talls generally take longer to develop but I think recruiters are going to be really interested by some of the players we put out there.”

As for some surprise packets outside the already known players, Harding said he expected some to pop up throughout 2023 declaring there was a “large number of them” who could make their mark and put themselves in the draft frame.

“Right now, there’s a big focus on the ones that are already in the Academy,” he said. “I think we’re going to have a number of players go into the AFL and Vic Metro Academy in particular through this year. There will be names that haven’t appeared anywhere yet, haven’t appeared on any lists or anything like that but later on in the year they’re going to become household names. I’m looking forward to that, and looking forward to helping their development and fulfil their dreams.”

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