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Young Eagles onballers set to fly

Nathan Schmook  January 25, 2013 10:36 PM

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Andrew Gaff has had an outstanding start to his AFL career

WEST Coast's young midfielders are ready to "step up to the physicality of big game football" and compete with the AFL's elite in 2013, assistant coach Scott Burns says.

Led by 22-year-old club champion Scott Selwood, the Eagles have a core group of young midfielders aged between 21 and 24 this season who are building towards their prime.

Burns, who has been in charge of the Eagles' midfield since 2009, said the likes of Luke Shuey, Chris Masten, Andrew Gaff and Selwood were ready to contend with the game's best on-ballers.

"I think now that we're majority 22-24, they're men now – they're not boys anymore," Burns told AFL.com.au.

"We'd expect them to take another step up to the physicality of big game football and have the ability to play at high intensity from the first minute to the last minute of games.

"It's quite a mature group at the moment; there certainly hasn't been any of the skinny 18- or 19-year-olds that we had quite a few of when we were developing them."

Entering just his third season, Gaff is the youngest of West Coast's regular midfielders, but the 20-year-old has made an outstanding start to his career.

Playing 41 of a possible 49 games since being drafted with pick No.4 in the 2010 NAB AFL Draft, Gaff led the Eagles in kicks (374) and uncontested possessions (447) last season and finished fifth in the club champion award.

Burns said the important outside runner, who averaged more than 24 possessions in his second season, would look to become more versatile in 2013.   

"What he's done so far has been exceptional really," Burns said.  

"We've been really pleased with him, but with that is going to come a lot of attention.

"He's going to spend a bit of time in different positions … he's got to add a few strings to his bow and we'll help him do that.

"Andrew's one of those players who physically will take time to put on size, but that will come naturally after more pre-seasons.  

"He is very strong through his core and his legs, so that's a big bonus when it comes to being a good midfielder, having that strength over the ball."

Aside from All Australian ruckman Nic Naitanui (groin) and key on-baller Daniel Kerr (knee), the Eagles have had their entire midfield group in full training this pre-season.    

Burns said the club would boast depth in the engine room with off-season recruits Sharrod Wellingham and Jamie Cripps impressing on the track.

Seasoned players Matt Priddis, Andrew Embley, Matt Rosa and Sam Butler have all had strong summers.

"It's really hard to say one player stands out at the moment," Burns said.

"They've all been really diligent and really professional so far, and their times in the fitness tests are ahead of where they were last year.

"We've been very pleased with what they've done so far and the inclusion of Wellingham and Cripps has certainly added to the quality at training.

"Getting Mark Hutchings in as well, who was runner-up in the Sandover Medal, has been very good for training.

"They're going to have a fair bit of conditioning behind them when we hit the season."

Nathan Schmook is a reporter for AFL Media. Follow him on Twitter: @AFL_Nathan