Brendon Goddard is already a hit with Essendon fans, but will he perform at his best with the Bombers?
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Will the soft-tissue injury curse strike again?
Never say never, but it would be surprising if Essendon get struck down with a spate of soft-tissue injuries again in 2013. There will be strains and tears, as there are at every club, but it seems the powers-that-be at Windy Hill have implemented enough checks and balances in the off-season to avoid a repeat of last season's debacle.
For starters, fitness guru and national punching bag Dean 'The Weapon' Robinson has reportedly had his responsibilities revised, with former Athletics Australia boss Danny Corcoran taking on an overseeing role. The Bombers also seem to have backed down on their 'big bodies' philosophy and are endeavouring to strike a better balance between size and mobility. Endurance training and aerobic capacity has been the big focus of Essendon's pre-season, with a number of players shedding weight as a result.
The Bombers should be leaner and faster this season, and no more prone to soft-tissue injuries than any other club. They will likely write off 2012 as an anomaly or as the result of a tried and failed strategy. That's good news for James Hird, who – if sections of the media are to be believed – will be under pressure to deliver this year.
Frankly, it would take one hell of a poor season for the Bombers to part ways with their coach. Short of finishing in the bottom four, we can't envision a scenario in which Essendon gives Hird the boot before the year's end.
That's not to say the heat isn't being slowly turned up. The Bombers will be expected to show significant improvement on last year's campaign, in which they plummeted from a 10-3 record to 11-11, losing eight of their last nine games and finishing 12 points adrift of the top eight.
But the changes wrought in the pre-season, plus the addition of Brendon Goddard (who we'll get to below) and a top-to-bottom cleanout of the list should hold them in good stead. Hird still has two years to run on his contract and the Bombers will back the coach – and the players – to quickly make up ground on the rest of the competition.
How much of a difference will Goddard make?
On face value, the Bombers with Brendon Goddard are better than the Bombers without him. Essendon's defence absolutely fell apart in the back-end of last season, allowing 100+ points in eight of their last nine games (including an astonishing 180 points against Hawthorn). The pursuit of Goddard was born as much out of need as it was desire.
Goddard is, often, one of the best utilities in the game. At the very least the ex-Saint will give Essendon a touch of class across half-back and in the midfield. Goddard's skill as a rebounding defender is second-to-none on his day, although admittedly he looked disinterested for much of last season. Assuming Hird and Mark Thompson reinvigorate his footy, the 27-year-old will be an elite asset for the Bombers and probably the recruit of the season.
Goddard's value extends beyond his own capabilities as a footballer, however. His addition to the half-back flank allows the Bombers to free up Dyson Heppell for a more permanent role in the midfield, where he will join a core group that includes A-graders Jobe Watson and Brent Stanton and rising star David Zaharakis. That's a significant coup in itself.
Is Joe Daniher ready to go from day one?
The father-son recruit is capturing plenty of attention during pre-season training and could force his way into the senior side early in the year, according to the coach.
"In my mind when we drafted him I was thinking maybe he would play four to five games if he's lucky this year, but he keeps making me think he's going to play more," says Hird.
"Certainly we don't want to ruin him but he's making us think about playing him a lot more than we were."
The accepted wisdom says Daniher hasn't filled out enough to occupy a spot in Essendon's forward line just yet. More to the point, the Bombers have such a wealth of talls at their disposal that it seems almost negligent to throw him into the mix so soon.
With that in mind, we doubt Daniher will hold down a regular spot in the senior side this year. Given his age, inexperience and developing body, he'll be kept in cotton wool for the most part. The bodies of young key position players are notoriously fickle; the Bombers don't need Daniher on the park just yet, so why take the risk?
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