FREMANTLE coach Ross Lyon says Harley Bennell will definitely play in the NAB Challenge but he will have to earn his spot for round one after missing a large chunk of the pre-season due to ongoing calf issues.
Bennell has not been named in the Dockers' squad for their first NAB Challenge clash against Richmond on Friday at Rushton Park in Mandurah.
The 23-year-old has been in the Dockers' rehab group since Christmas but Lyon said his return to the main group was imminent and he confirmed he would play a pre-season game.
"He'll definitely play," Lyon said.
"He's going really well. He'll tell you he's ready to go now.
"He's had some reoccurring calf issues and with interest we read that (Chris) Yarran has at Richmond as well. So we decided to build his strength and build his run and we want him to be here for 5-10 years, not five weeks.
"We're not rushing him. We're building him really strongly. He's put on five kilos, his skinfolds are as low as they've ever been and he's in really good shape.
"We're excited for him to join the group, I think next week, and build from there. He's imminent really and getting a lot of work into him."
The Dockers play their second NAB Challenge game against Adelaide in Mount Barker on Sunday February 28 before a final clash against Geelong at Domain Stadium on March 12.
Lyon said Bennell would play in one of those games but he said he needed to perform well in order to confirm his spot in the line-up.
"He's still got to pick himself," Lyon said.
"Guys that have done a full pre-season have got a good jumpstart on him. So he'll have to reel that in. We just don't gift games here. He's got to earn it."
Young key forward Michael Apeness is also very close to returning to the main group. Apeness played just four WAFL matches last year before succumbing to a knee injury.
"He is very close," Lyon said.
"He's going really well. He had a posterior (cruciate injury). He was drafted having had an ACL, so we had to rebuild that. And then when he just got moving, he had a PCL reconstruction.
"Again, it's been a difficult period for him. He's held together really well. It's really lonely where he's been in rehab. You do your best, but it builds a real resilience and mental toughness. He's handled that really well. He's not far off."
Apeness was drafted as a 200cm ruckman/forward in 2013 and made his AFL debut in 2014, playing two games. However, Lyon said the club still needed be patient with his development.