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Zaharakis gets his groove back

Callum Twomey  May 31, 2013 7:00 AM

The best of David Zaharakis Take a look at the extensive showreel of Essendon star David Zaharakis
ALMOST a year ago to the day, David Zaharakis trudged from a training session at Windy Hill, his eyes on the ground, his arm grabbing at his leg.

On a light run the day before the Bombers met the Sydney Swans in round 11 last year, Zaharakis kicked a ball and felt a pinch in his quad.

He hadn't experienced a soft-tissue tear before, and presumed it was "a normal, little, three-week injury." That hope changed when he entered the rooms.

"When I did it I didn't know the severity, so I walked off the track and went inside and tried to kick a ball with the doctor," Zaharakis told AFL.com.au.

"I couldn't even kick two metres. The pain in my leg meant I just couldn't kick the ball. From then on the doc didn't really say much and I knew that probably wasn't a great sign. To miss nine weeks was pretty bad."

To put it lightly. Before his torn quad tendon, the midfielder was playing the most damaging footy of his career, better than his 2011 best and fairest year. When he returned in round 21, against Carlton, he lacked the zip that makes Zaharakis. He was the same player, but wasn't.

"It felt weird. I had no confidence in my leg. I didn't think it wasn't going to go again, but there was that feeling in the back of my mind like, 'If I bang one in from 60m, is it going to go?' You never know," he says.

"I was really tentative on my leg. I wasn't running because I wasn't fit enough to play. It was a pretty hard three weeks."

It took until Anzac Day this year – nearly 11 months after the injury – for Zaharakis to get his groove back.

In between there had been a different quad injury, a strain that kept him out of the NAB Cup, which meant he entered the season with only one VFL game under his belt.

He was Essendon's sub in round one, was subbed in round two, and was building in rounds three and four. Collingwood, in round five, felt his full force, with four goals and 34 disposals in a best-on-ground showing.

"I felt great that day," he says. "I remember saying to the coaching staff that was the first day I felt full match fitness. It was the first day I felt fit and as explosive as I have been in previous years. Since then the last four weeks have been the same."

His average possession tally in the last month has risen back to 25, but the other pieces of his game have returned: the 23-year-old is running the with the ball and not just after it, he is bursting from centre clearances and packs, and last week against Richmond he kicked two on-the-move goals from outside 50.

Against the Swans on Saturday, he'll be expected to do the same, this time facing the Swans fit and ready.

Things have happened quickly in Zaharakis' young career. His first game won him a NAB AFL Rising Star nomination. His first goal was a matchwinner. In his third season he became Essendon's youngest Crichton medallist in 30 years. In his fourth, he was elevated to its leadership group.

Zaharakis wants to keep that momentum going. He was shut down by Richmond stopper Steven Morris in the second half last week – a learning curve he is adjusting to – and has coach James Hird making sure he doesn't get complacent.

"I speak to Hirdy quite a bit about always improving my game and trying to be the best player I can be in the competition," he said.

"All the things happened pretty quickly but if you rest on that you can stagnate. He's massively been on my back at training and in the weights room.

"I love having a coach on my back all the time. He's not too hard on me but he pushes me quite a bit which I enjoy. He said to me 'If you ever want me to pull back on you then [tell me]', but I love that he pushes me hard because it's going to make me a better player."

He's growing as a leader, too. He sees how captain Jobe Watson finds the right balance between giving honest feedback and listening to others, and wants to take it into his own style.

Zaharakis co-captained Vic Metro in 2008, alongside Michael Hurley, and was skipper of the Northern Knights in the TAC Cup. Captaining Essendon one day is a goal.

"I'm not going to say I'll take it off anyone but if it comes up and things move in a few years, of course I'm going to say I'd love to be captain of the football club," he said.

"It's something I've always aspired to become and I've barracked for the footy club since I was younger."

He has had a crash course in leadership over the last four months, with ASADA's on-going investigation into the club's supplement use.

Soon after the investigation opened, Zaharakis had most of the club's leadership group, plus club doctor Bruce Reid and staffer Colin Hooper, over at his house for a barbecue.

Since then there has been times the players have gone to the movies together, or had a meal at Crown Casino, to talk and relax in each other's company.

"We've become a really tight group. We were actually pretty close before this, which was good to see, but since it all broke it's been [strengthened]. You can whinge and whine about people behind their backs but nobody's done that at this footy club and there's been no hallway whispers," Zaharakis said.

The interviews now completed, the Bombers are awaiting an outcome.

"I can't speak for anyone else at the footy club but for me personally it's behind me, but it's just waiting for that day to happen when you get all cleared. Hopefully that happens sooner rather than later and the whole club can get on with football."

In the meantime there is footy to play, and Essendon is in the best shape to challenge for a top-four spot since Zaharakis arrived at the club.

Defensively the club is ranked second (behind Fremantle) in the competition – a huge jump from previous seasons – but it is an intangible element which has Zaharakis confident the Bombers are better placed than before.  

"Probably the maturity of the side," he says. "That's a big thing."

Follow AFL website reporter Callum Twomey on Twitter at @AFL_CalTwomey.