Given the lack of injuries and the intensity seen at training, it's no exaggeration to suggest most players have had exceptional summers at West Lakes. It would appear Josh Jenkins has thrived on the increased expectation in the absence of Kurt Tippett, lifting a personal best in the gym – as did 19-year-old midfield prospect Sam Kerridge, who bench pressed a ridiculous 130kg. Forward dynamo Taylor Walker has been the standout performer in the gym as he looks to backup what was a breakout 2012 season. 'Tex' is noticeably bigger than last season and, judging by his performances in Adelaide's five-minute runs in which players simply run as far as they can in five minutes, he's bolstered his fitness base as well.
Brent Moloney came to the Lions with a point to prove and has done everything possible in the pre-season to make it. Following a disappointing 2012 with Melbourne, the combative midfielder was traded to the Lions and has impressed everyone at the club. He has been in the top-five in the running time trials and has already been a big influence on his younger midfield mates. Claye Beams and Mitch Golby have been two young standouts that can cement senior places in 2013.
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Matthew Watson, the big blond with the booming left boot has been difficult to miss at Visy Park this pre-season. The 20-year-old – the No. 18 pick in the 2010 NAB AFL Draft – has played 11 AFL games and could easily double that tally this season, if his form in a recent intra-club game is anything to go by. At 195cm and 100kg he also looks set to impose himself more physically, particularly in the air. His kicking is a genuine weapon that will be put to good use, especially at kick-ins, where he is also capable of unleashing ball-bursting torpedoes.
Everything Andrew Krakouer does is quality. A deft movement through traffic or a perfectly executed sidestep, he's always one step ahead of the pack. At each training session, his sublime skills and cleanness with ball in hand shine out. No surprises, then, that he sparkled in the Pies' intra-club hit-out last Friday. He didn't win a stack of the ball, but his possessions were constructive and instructive. The veteran forward has little to worry about with his knee, after the torn ACL he suffered in pre-season last year. He's still not at full fitness, yet, but he is building. An ominous sign for opposition teams.
Game changes: your team's tactics for 2013
Coach James Hird identified Tom Bellchambers as a leading pre-season performer only weeks ago, with the 23-year-old eyeing the No.1 ruck role at the club. The youngest in Essendon's ruck triangle – with David Hille and Patrick Ryder – Bellchambers was perhaps the best performed of the three in 2012, playing 16 games and being particularly effective early in the year. With his agility, smarts, physicality and efficient tap-work, Bellchambers has all the tools to be one of the best ruckman in the game. A strong pre-season is an important step to getting there.
Nick Suban has been the club's best performer this pre-season as he looks to establish himself in Ross Lyon's best team. The 22-year-old played 14 games last season but was the starting substitute in four of his last five matches, including Fremantle's two finals. Suban's accurate and penetrating kicking has stood out in training, and he is noticeably fitter. Used mostly in half-back and high forward roles last season, it has been suggested that Suban could rotate more frequently through the midfield in 2013. Due to take a step up in his fifth season after injuries restricted him early in his career.
After missing all bar one game last season through foot injuries, Travis Varcoe has taken his frustration out on the training track this summer. The 24-year-old has hardly missed a training session and has starred in the Cats' match practice drills, regularly breaking the lines with his speed and guile. Varcoe has also built a solid fitness base that should allow him to play in bursts through the midfield this season. For the rest of the time, the Cats will be regaining a 100-game player who looks ready to again turn matches in attack or across half-back.
If you're looking for pre-season superstars, look no further than young tagger Joel Wilkinson. Wilkinson has the unique double of winning the club's 2km time trial and also being its strongest man, bench pressing 160kg. Despite the training exploits, Wikinson is still a fringe player and has to jump a few midfielders to win a spot. Last season's revelation Harley Bennell has been super impressive the past few months, while former No.1 draft pick David Swallow has overcome a host of niggles from last year to put together a pre-season among the Suns' best.
GREATER WESTERN SYDNEY
Pick No.10 in the 2011 NAB AFL Draft, Liam Sumner played two games in Greater Western Sydney's debut season – including the club's first victory over Gold Coast in round seven – before injury struck. A foot problem kept the speedy midfielder sidelined for the rest of the year, but he has enjoyed a full pre-season and is tracking really well ahead of the new campaign. Adam Tomlinson, the ninth selection in the same draft, is also impressing with his development. A 193cm, 89kg key position prospect, Tomlinson made nine appearances last season and has come back bigger and stronger this year and is an important part of the Giants' long-term plans.
There's a spot on the wing available thanks to Clinton Young's departure, and Bradley Hill looks primed to grab it. Tried in short bursts as the sub last year, the 19-year-old has put on some size during his second pre-season and coaches have commented on his improved game awareness and on-field presence during match simulation. Add his natural weapons of speed and endurance, and the West Australian shapes as a senior regular.
Few players as big as Tom McDonald excel in the running component of pre-season but the 20-year-old defender is a rare beast. He keeps housemate and fellow defender Daniel Nicholson honest during the time-trials and will hit the season in great shape, after proving his worth against the odds in 2012. He finished third in the best and fairest and will lock down a key defensive position as he settles into a football career wrestling the game's gorilla forwards. A good reader of the play he will continue to work on his disposal to take his game to the next level.
Ben Cunnington has taken time to find his feet in the AFL since being taken by North at pick No. 5 in the 2009 national draft. The inside midfielder has shown glimpses of his talent over his 54 games, but has had to work hard over the past three years to build his fitness to AFL standards. Cunnington has made further inroads with his running this pre-season and has been outstanding in North's game simulation sessions. He was also best on ground in the Roos' intraclub game at Ballarat's Eureka Stadium on Tuesday. After that match, North coach Brad Scott suggested Cunnington was getting closer to dominating at AFL level. "He's starting to do the things that he was doing in under-18 footy," Scott said.
Having suffered another thoroughly disappointing season last year, the Power obviously had some serious improving to do over the summer. The return of high performance manager Darren Burgess to the club has had an immediate impact and players have commented on the increased tempo and toughness of training sessions. The injury-plagued but ever-promising Jasper Pittard has excelled over the pre-season, putting on another kg or two and getting some much-needed run into his legs. He was fantastic in the side's trial match against the Port Adelaide Magpies and is one to look out for during the NAB Cup. Former Bomber Angus Monfries has also impressed his teammates and coaches alike with his professionalism at training and endeavour to improve his game at every opportunity. Monfries has added a touch of class and grunt to the Power's midfield and forward line.
Second-year defender Brandon Ellis excelled on the track before Christmas with a bunch of impressive time trial results, and he looked a picture of fitness in the Tigers' clash with the Indigenous All Stars in Alice Springs. Tyrone Vickery is another said to be impressing with both his running and contested marking after shoulder surgery ruined his 2012 season. Tall key position player Ben Griffiths has had a strong and continuous pre-season after managing nine senior games last year, and has achieved the goal of adding muscle to his frame.
Jack Steven, the zippy midfielder from Lorne, has enjoyed two consistent seasons at the top level, and appears set to raise his game another notch this year. A Rising Star nominee in 2011, Steven followed up by averaging just over 20 disposals across his 21 games in 2012, finishing 10th in the Saints' best and fairest count. Excellent at stoppages, the 22-year-old stood out in the club's intra-club match in Seaford last Saturday.
Rated extremely highly by the Swans, Jarrad McVeigh has not always enjoyed the same level of recognition outside the club. A pivotal role in the Grand Final victory over Hawthorn showed everyone what the co-captain is capable of and he appears set to reach an even higher level in 2013. The fifth selection in the 2002 AFL Draft, McVeigh now has 194 games to his credit and has developed into a strong and vocal leader. He is also one of the club's best runners and has impressed coaches and teammates so far. New recruit Kurt Tippett is another to standout with his fitness levels in the pre-season.
The young talent on West Coast's list has been motivating the club's senior players to reach new heights this pre-season, with Andrew Embley a standout among the veterans. The 2006 Norm Smith medallist ran a personal best 2km time trial on the eve of his 15th season and has been an energetic leader on the track. Embley played a career-low eight games last season because of a serious shoulder injury, but he has been unrestricted this pre-season. He is clearly determined to remain an important part of the Eagles' running brigade with expectations high in 2013.
After struggling with injury and illness in past pre-seasons, Shaun Higgins has finally had a preparation that will give him the best chance of making the most of his considerable talent. He played mainly as a half-forward in 2012, but the 24-year-old is eager to spend more time in the midfield this year, where his clean ball use will complement Brendan McCartney's contested-style game-plan. Champion Data has rated the Dogs midfield strength 15th for quality in 2013 but that ranking should improve with Higgins feeding off an imposing unit of inside midfielders led by skipper Matthew Boyd.