Tim English in action during the Western Bulldogs' clash against Gold Coast in round 11, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

ALL-AUSTRALIAN ruckman Tim English has returned to full contact training on the Western Bulldogs' pre-season camp on the Sunshine Coast, but it was the form of two new midfielders – James Harmes and Ryley Sanders – that caught the eye during Thursday's match simulation at Maroochydore Sports Complex.  

English has experienced an interrupted pre-season at the Whitten Oval, completing all the conditioning work but sitting out contact training in December and January due to migraine-related symptoms.

The 26-year-old transitioned back into full training on Tuesday during a wet and wild session in Maroochydore that saw more than 200mm of rain saturate the region, before being unleashed across 80 minutes of match simulation in sapping Queensland heat and humidity. 

Harmes is on a path to face his old side Melbourne in the Dogs' opener at the MCG on March 17 after producing a standout performance in conditions that had it all – pouring rain, scorching heat and wild wind – kicking four goals and finding plenty of the ball, dividing his time between the midfield and half-forward. 

James Harmes during a Western Bulldogs match simulation session in Maroochydore on February 1, 2024. Picture: Western Bulldogs

The 28-year-old sought a fresh start last October after his senior opportunities dried up in 2023 – Harmes played nine times for Simon Goodwin's team despite strong VFL form – moving to the kennel on a three-year contract in exchange for a future third-round pick. 

With star midfielder Bailey Smith rupturing his anterior cruciate ligament in December and forced to watch on from the sidelines this week, Harmes' recruitment has grown in value since the paperwork was submitted during the Trade Period.

Sanders is the other fresh name that looks almost certain to make his debut in round one, adding another compelling match simulation session to an impressive maiden pre-season to date.

Western Bulldogs players during a match simulation session in Maroochydore on February 1, 2024. Picture: Western Bulldogs

The 2023 pick No.6 played almost the entire scratch match in the midfield and amassed plenty of disposals, cutting the game apart at times with his hands and feet, as well as making an impact at stoppage with his tackling and clearance work. The Tasmanian will start the season as one of the favourites for the Rising Star award if he maintains this form across the final block of the pre-season.

After being around the mark for a debut this time last year before injuries derailed his pre-season and disrupted his first campaign, Harvey Gallagher is firmly in the hunt for an early-season debut after banking a strong second pre-season. 

The 20-year-old produced some eye-catching moments playing in the midfield on Thursday and is rated highly internally. If the Bendigo Pioneers product performs in the pre-season matches against Hawthorn at Whitten Oval on February 23 and at University of Tasmania Stadium on March 2, Gallagher will come under serious consideration for a debut in round one. 

Harvey Gallagher in action during Footscray's VFL semi-final against Box Hill on September 9, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Veteran key defender Liam Jones was close to best on ground on Thursday, using the knowhow he gained playing a season for Palm Beach Currumbin in the QAFL to master the tricky conditions, regularly finding a fist to provide a late spoil or cutting across to haul in an intercept mark. 

After finishing fifth in the Charles Sutton Medal in his first season back at the club – and back in the AFL after sitting out the 2022 season – Jones will be the key pillar in defence again for Luke Beveridge, but he might be joined on a permanent basis by James O'Donnell.

With former Adelaide backman Alex Keath still recovering from the knee soreness that has limited his pre-season since December, O'Donnell has thrived playing as a key back and has developed at a rapid rate across his first pre-season at the club after being signed as a Category B Rookie in April, before playing 12 games last year after making his debut in round nine.

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Buku Khamis played alongside Jones and O'Donnell and spent a chunk of the match simulation matched up on Jamarra Ugle-Hagan. After kicking 41 goals in the VFL in 2023, the 191cm swingman has returned to a spot down back and made inroads this summer.

Star key forward Aaron Naughton remained at the hotel in Mooloolaba and didn't feature on Thursday due to illness, creating more opportunities for Rory Lobb and Sam Darcy to compete for the third tall/second ruck spot ahead of the clash against the Demons in 45 days. 

Lobb has shouldered most of the ruck load in the absence of English during the pre-season, but Darcy has overcome the nightmare injury run that limited the 2021 No.2 pick to only seven AFL games to date and he looks ready to play on a more regular basis in 2024. 

Both had their moments in challenging conditions, with Darcy hitting the scoreboard with a couple of goals to continue his strong form. The Dogs are unlikely to play both in the same side alongside Naughton and Ugle-Hagan. Expect that spot to be a point of selection intrigue across the next month or two. 

Captain Marcus Bontempelli built into the session like he has built into his 11th pre-season in the AFL. The five-time All-Australian and five-time best-and-fairest winner hasn't missed a beat since returning to full training at the start of January after recovering from ankle surgery in November, producing game-breaking moments in the second half.

Marcus Bontempelli during a Western Bulldogs match simulation session in Maroochydore on February 1, 2024. Picture: Western Bulldogs

Former Collingwood and Greater Western Sydney midfielder Adam Treloar also made an impact playing in the midfield and has banked almost a full pre-season after recovering from ankle surgery this time last year. 

Much to the enjoyment of the players and football department, new development coaches Jarryn Geary and Alex Johnson featured in the early stages of the game, helping fill the numbers. Neither found too much of the ball, but more importantly, the former St Kilda captain and the Sydney premiership player exited the game without injuries.