Virtually every player will tell you they’ve had a career-best pre-season at this time of year, but not many will tell you they’ve rebuilt their program from the ground up like Zach Merrett.
A bleak season for Essendon led to mass changes in off-field personnel and scathing findings from the club’s external review, which saw “training standards” listed as one of areas in need of improvement.
While bemused at the idea players in the AFL could be genuinely ‘unfit’, Merrett clearly took the feedback to heart.
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“I think you always want to get fitter and stronger,” the 27-year-old told foxfooty.com.au.
“I know we copped a fair whack for the fitness level, but for me it was sort of like you always want to get fitter, you’re always trying to.
“I think for me, I had to park my ego a little bit. I had a system I felt was working, I was playing some pretty good footy, but to get to that next level, I felt like I had to sort of get back to being a bit more vulnerable.”
While Essendon has effectively refreshed almost its entire football department, Merrett too has taken some matters into his own hands in a bid to avoid the torrid on-field results in 2022, which saw the Bombers finish 15th with just seven wins.
“I changed my whole program basically from when I finished the season. I definitely got fitter, I got a few more a few more PBs under my belt running-wise and readjusted my whole gym program to cater for the way I wanted to run,” Merrett said.
“My attitude and mindset was very much around being the best defensive player at the club from day one and I’ve driven that extremely hard, but also did it myself without sort of talking about it, just sort of went about actions more than talking.
“I think the guys are probably noticing that shift.”
It’s a scary prospect for the rest of the competition given Merrett is already one of the competition’s most respected midfielders and a three-time best and fairest winner at the Bombers.
While nowhere near as extensive as this off-season’s changes, Merrett has become somewhat used to a senior coaching carousel during his time at the club – Merrett himself noted “I’ve had five (coaches) now in nine years, basically.”
He, along with everyone else at Essendon, will be hoping Brad Scott’s appointment is the circuit breaker that actually works.
The signs, so far at least, are promising.
“I think the big difference is probably his experience, I think that was obviously why the club went Brad’s way,” Merrett said.
“He’s seen it before, he’s really, really good with people. He understands personalities.
“I think we’ve resourced the whole footy department a lot more now as well with five or six new coaches to go with Brad. It just feels like it’s an environment to get better. Hopefully that results in some more success.”
There’s a lot to rebuild at Tullamarine, with a lack of unity and clear communication plaguing the side during its 2-10 start to last season and culminating in the sacking of Rutten and a host of changes at board and coaching level.
Frustration from Essendon supporters throughout 2022 was palpable and that frustration extended to the players, who said all the right things off the field but did all the wrong things on it.
“I think the frustrating part was probably that our defensive system was so bad that we weren‘t able to execute and then in turn you end up looking like you’re unfit as teams do when they lose,” Merrett reflected.
While not divulging Scott’s new game plan, Merrett added there was a welcome philosophical difference he had noticed so far.
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“I think the way that probably ‘Truck’ (Rutten) and the coaches wanted us to play the last three years had been very role-based and very prescribed,” he said.
“Whilst it looked like Dylan (Shiel), Darcy (Parish) and I were there (in the midfield) a lot, we were actually playing sort of very unique roles, which without going into detail made it difficult to just to play on instinct.
“I think the way Brad wants us to play, the way the coaches are coaching now is that we have a lot more freedom just to play as normal midfielders do in the competition.”
Drafted with pick No.26 in 2013, Merrett enters his 10th full year at the club knowing what is a genuine change and what is papering over the cracks.
This time, rather than a fresh coat of paint, Merrett believes the engine – like his pre-season – has been rebuilt from the ground up.
“It does (feel like a new club) … as a player, I think, you’re given the best opportunity now to improve every day, and hopefully now we can put it together, all that individual improvement to the team,” he said.
“It’s been really refreshing.”
Story Credit: foxsports.com.au