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Haunting final kick reminds 'Worpedo' of what it takes

James Worpel discovered finals were a totally different ball game during his debut season - AFL,Hawthorn Hawks,James Worpel
James Worpel discovered finals were a totally different ball game during his debut season

THE LAST kick of James Worpel's debut finals campaign has not left his mind two months on. 

The Hawks' hopes were as good as dashed at that stage – trailing Melbourne by 26 points inside the last four minutes – but his forward-50 turnover to Nathan Jones has "haunted" him since.

Worpel, or 'The Worpedo', was one of the bright spots in Hawthorn's 2018 campaign, but had a difficult pair of finals that coincided with the club's straight-sets exit. 

"I did struggle a bit in my two finals. Finals is a completely different ball game," Worpel told AFL.com.au. 

"I learned from that and just to be exposed to it; hopefully I'll be around the team at the end of next year to make up for it.

"My last kick went straight to Nathan Jones. I was trying to centre it after I was in the forward pocket.

"It's haunted me enough already, so you've got to try and put it away a bit, but it does make you want to prepare better and want it more, so it will definitely be a driving force behind my pre-season." 

The Hawks' top brass will undoubtedly forgive him – with the expectation he returns a better player in 2019 – after an impressive first season in the AFL littered with unforgettable moments.

There was the time Worpel kept his feet in a test of strength with Essendon's dual All Australian defender Michael Hurley before running into an open (and match-sealing) goal.

 

And, of course, the following week, when the 19-year-old out-hunted Geelong champion Joel Selwood to snatch the Sherrin from his grasp, with the two bulls coming from opposite directions. 

But it was another match that Worpel identified as his most memorable.

Hawthorn sent the strong-bodied teenager back to the VFL for an extended period mid-season after giving him a relatively early test at the elite level that showed he still had some work to do.

Worpel's return AFL game in round 18 against Carlton was a stunner: 32 disposals (14 contested), five inside 50s, four tackles, three clearances and three goal assists. 

The Worpedo had arrived, and he played every match thereafter. 

"I had some form in the VFL and got a bit of confidence, so coming back against Carlton was my most enjoyable game, I'd say, because obviously I played an all right game," he said. 

"I just felt comfortable at the level and that's a big thing if you want to play AFL footy. 

"The game against Essendon was exciting and those little moments are going to pay dividends come big games at the end of the year. All those little moments you get are gold."

As for the cult-hero status that followed, Worpel smirked and said: "I'd rather be loved than hated."

The task now is backing up and improving his all-round game.

A brutally honest exit meeting with Alastair Clarkson saw the four-time premiership coach challenge Worpel to lose weight and get fitter to be more of a threat away from stoppages.

An unfortunate case of 'Bali Belly' helped that cause, but the boy from Bannockburn also worked closely with Geelong Falcons head of athlete development Matt Critchley in the off-season.

 

The result is a more-chiselled Worpel, who played at slightly heavier than 88kg this past season and is down to about 84kg.

"I needed to do it for my running. I feel a bit lighter on my feet and that was one of the big areas I wanted to improve," he said.

"The rigours of being an AFL mid these days; you have to be pretty elite in a lot of areas, because there are a lot of good players.

"Running is something that can come easily to some people, but I struggle a little bit, so every bit I can get to help me is gold." 

Hawks recruit Tom Scully, the No.1 pick in the 2009 draft, a veteran of 152 AFL games and the game's undisputed best gut-runner, can expect a tap on the shoulder this summer.

Seeking Scully's counsel is all part of Worpel's plan to make an even bigger impact in 2019, and he is happy for contract negotiations to wait until he settles into season two.

"As a young boy, you just want to roll in and get some respect and I didn't have too many expectations on myself to play games or anything like that," he said.

"It's a dream to play in the AFL and I was lucky enough to get that in round six against St Kilda, so it came pretty early for me and last season was just a big surprise to me.

"But your second year is a bigger thing and expectations are a lot higher for you, so I'm looking forward to it."