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AFL confirms Dons for NAB Challenge, club to use top-up players

Evans: Dons match scheduled to go AFL football operations boss Mark Evans says the uncertainty surrounding the Bombers' involvement in the NAB Challenge series will be resolved soon.
AFL 2014 Media - Mark Evans Press Conference 090514
Football operations boss Mark Evans has confirmed Essendon's participation in the NAB Challenge
At no stage has the club refused to take part in the NAB Challenge competition
Paul Little

NO ESSENDON player who was at the club in 2012 will play in the NAB Challenge series, after a resolution was reached between the Bombers and the AFL to ensure their participation in the pre-season competition.

In a statement on Friday afternoon the AFL confirmed the Bombers will play their matches as scheduled, starting with the contest against St Kilda at Morwell on March 7.

With approximately 18 players still at the club who are provisionally suspended by ASADA, the AFL's football operations boss Mark Evans said he believed the club could be competitive with the use of top-up players.

"We have great sympathy with the players who are facing a difficult time, but we are confident that the club can deliver a good team for the NAB Challenge," Evans said. 

Essendon chairman Paul Little said all players who were at the club in 2012 during the club's supplements program would be unavailable for the NAB Challenge, as a measure to "protect the identity of our players with provisional suspensions."

"It has always been the Essendon Football Club’s intention to work with the AFL to find a pragmatic solution to this complicated issue," Little said in a club statement. 

"At no stage has the club refused to take part in the NAB Challenge competition. We needed to carefully consider the ramifications on all stakeholders involved.

"We understand the importance of our commitment to play in the pre-season competition and our responsibility to the broader AFL community, this has never been in question."

Essendon said earlier this week it would need to find 15-20 players to fill in a squad for the NAB Challenge while the AFL Anti-Doping Tribunal considers its verdict for the 34 current and former players handed infraction notices. 

As well as the provisionally suspended players and those sitting out the games to protect their teammates' anonymity, the Bombers also have a handful of injured players on their list and do not want to risk younger and older players by increasing their workload dramatically. 

There is a precedent of top-up players being used by an AFL club, when Hawthorn called on seven Box Hill Hawks players to feature in a NAB Challenge game in 2009.

The AFL Players' Association backed Essendon's participation in the NAB Challenge, but expressed reservations about how the club would field a competitive side.

"The decision reached by all players (to play) was well-considered. The decision by those members of the 2012 list who have not received infraction notices, to withdraw from playing, was seen as essential by all players to protect the anonymity of those with infraction notices," CEO Paul Marsh said in a statement.

"Players have also expressed serious concerns around the health and safety risks of using top-up players, whose preparation for AFL matches will be comprised due to a non AFL-standard pre-season. These concerns exist for both the top-up players and the listed Essendon players
.

"We will continue to have ongoing discussions with the AFL and the Club on how we deal with this issue."

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Evans was the Hawks' football manager at the time. "It created great opportunity out of that, and the younger listed players out of that game, some of them have gone on to be premiership players," he said earlier on Friday.

Essendon football manager Rob Kerr outlined the club's issues this week and the problems associated with using so many top-up players for the pre-season clashes.

"By our estimations … we're thinking we'd probably have to find in the vicinity of 15 to 20 players to be able to compete," Kerr told the club's website.

"We've all got to recognise that these (top-up) players haven't done an AFL pre-season … they are not at the level of the preparation and readiness that you would expect an AFL player to be.

"You quite simply couldn't expect those players to play the normal number of game time - it would be putting them at risk of injury and it wouldn't be fair."