Arthur Jones and Ryley Sanders celebrate a goal during the Western Bulldogs' match simulation against Hawthorn on February 23, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

THE WESTERN Bulldogs haven't produced a Rising Star winner yet, but they will have a leading contender in 2024 after Ryley Sanders solidified that status by starring in the Western Bulldogs' 25-point win over Hawthorn on Friday, while Sam Darcy has sent a timely selection statement ahead of round one. 

Sanders, 19, continued his brilliant maiden pre-season in the AFL by standing out around stoppage, collecting plenty of the ball and laying tackles across four 30-minute quarters, linking up with new vice-captain Tom Liberatore in a sign of things to come this season. 


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The 2023 pick No.6 already looked set to make his debut against Melbourne in round one before Friday's match simulation, but lived up to the pre-season hype with an eye-catching effort that included a brilliant goal on the run from outside 50 in the 16.12 (108) to 12.11 (83) win at the Whitten Oval. 


With the Western Bulldogs spreading their first-choice players across both games – the second game included Box Hill and Footscray players – Marcus Bontempelli, Adam Treloar, Tim English, Cody Weightman, Jamarra Ugle-Hagan, Ed Richards, Taylor Duryea and Bailey Dale didn't play in the main game but all featured in the reserves fixture later in the afternoon.

Darcy put his hand up to take the second ruck spot (behind English) and third key forward spot (alongside Aaron Naughton and Ugle-Hagan), splitting his time between ruck and inside 50 where he finished with three goals and performed strongly against Ned Reeves and Lloyd Meek in the ruck. 

The 2021 No.2 pick has endured a nightmare injury run across the past two years, managing only seven AFL games due to a range of different issues, but after completing a full pre-season for the first time, the 208cm utility is in an intriguing battle with Rory Lobb for a spot in the Bulldogs' best 23.  


Lachie McNeil was subbed in or out of nine of the 13 games he played last year, but is well placed for more opportunity this year after slotting four clever goals – the most on the ground – against the Hawks, while Naughton finished with three majors.

Former top-10 pick Nick Coffield is on track for his first AFL appearance since 2021 after a knee reconstruction at the start of 2022 derailed his time at St Kilda. The defender slotted in alongside Liam Jones in defence on Friday, but is up against veteran Duryea and forward-turned-defender Buku Khamis for a spot and will need to maintain the form next Saturday night in Tasmania.

After conceding the first six goals in a poor start against the breeze, Mitch Lewis finally put the Hawks on the board four minutes into the second quarter. Blake Hardwick then kicked two in two minutes, before Jack Gunston used his body to work Jones under the ball and converted. Two more goals reduced the margin to nine points at the end of the second term, alleviating early fears of a blowout.


Mabior Chol sent a fright through the Hawthorn camp when he landed heavily on his shoulder late in the second quarter and was gradually escorted up the race into the rooms. The former Gold Coast and Richmond key forward returned at the start of the third term with his right shoulder strapped and took a couple of grabs in the second half, but finished with 0.3 as he continues to develop synergy with Lewis.


With James Blanck (ACL) and Denver Grainger-Barras (turf toe) walking around the Whitten Oval on crutches, 2022 Fothergill-Round-Mitchell medallist Ethan Phillips entered the game after half-time and produced some promising moments playing alongside James Sicily down back. Jai Serong is another option after a decent pre-season and performance on Friday, while Jack Scrimshaw also showed he can be considered against bigger bodies this year with a decent showing against the Dogs.

Hawthorn has endured a nightmare injury run to start 2024 with reigning Peter Crimmins medallist Will Day ruled out of round one and aiming to be available within the first month of the season. Cam Mackenzie staked a claim for that spot at the Whitten Oval, standing out with his decision making and composure, particularly after quarter-time. Henry Hustwaite also put his hand up for an early shot in the 23 after inflicting damage at stoppage, showing again the progress he has made since playing the final two games of 2023. 

Western Bulldogs coach Luke Beveridge missed the match simulation due to illness with midfield coach Brendon Lade coaching, as planned, but will be back at the club in the coming days ahead of next weekend's practice match against the Hawks in Launceston.

Bontempelli, English, Ugle-Hagan and co made light work of Box Hill but, most importantly, got through the practice match unscathed, banking important minutes ahead of next Saturday’s game at University of Tasmania Stadium.

Young guns

Ryley Sanders starred around the ball for most of the game and looks set for round one. Cam Mackenzie was impressive for the Hawks, as the former pick No.7 and Henry Hustwaite push for greater midfield time in 2024. Both put their hands up for round one. Nick Watson had limited opportunities, but Jack Ginnivan hit the scoreboard with two goals. 

Switching positions

The Blake Hardwick experiment continued on Friday. The defender played predominantly as a forward and hit the scoreboard during the second quarter with a couple of goals. When James Sicily exited the game in the fourth quarter he returned to defence. Buku Khamis impressed down back after returning to that role across the pre-season.  


Injury watch

Cricket convert James O'Donnell came from the ground early with an ankle injury and didn't return, taking the gloss off a strong maiden pre-season after joining the club as a Category B Rookie last April. Jack Macrae is in a race against the clock to be available for round one due to a lingering hamstring strain. Mabior Chol shook of a shoulder scare before half-time to play out the second half. Karl Amon missed due to soreness.

Fantasy tempters

Ryley Sanders (MID, $285,000) is going to be a Fantasy favourite this season – and for a long time to come – after he shone first up this pre-season. Massimo D'Ambrosio (DEF, $467,000) looked impressive in his first practice match for Hawthorn. Cam Mackenzie (FWD, $439,000) put his best foot forward as he chases a permanent spot in Sam Mitchell's midfield.

WESTERN BULLDOGS     6.2     7.7     14.11     16.12 (108)
HAWTHORN                     0.2     6.4      8.6        12.11 (83)

Western Bulldogs: McNeil 4, Naughton 3, Darcy 3, Sanders, Liberatore, West, Harmes, Gallagher, Williams
Hawthorn: Hardwick 2, Hustwaite 2, Ginnivan 2, Gunston, Lewis, Morrison, Butler, Reeves, Macdonald


First game squad: 7. Rory Lobb, 9. Ryley Sanders, 10. Sam Darcy, 12. Harvey Gallagher, 13. Oskar Baker, 14. Rhylee West, 17. Nick Coffield, 18. James O'Donnell, 19. Liam Jones, 21. Tom Liberatore, 22. James Harmes, 23. Laitham Vandermeer, 24. Buku Khamis, 25. Caleb Poulter, 28. Anthony Scott, 29. Lachlan Bramble, 30. Lachlan McNeil, 32. Arthur Jones, 33. Aaron Naughton, 34. Bailey Williams, 35. Caleb Daniel, 36. Luke Cleary, 39. Jason Johannisen, 43. Ryan Gardner

Second game squad: 1. Adam Treloar, 2. Jamarra Ugle-Hagan, 3. Cody Weightman, 4. Marcus Bontempelli, 5. Jedd Busslinger, 8. Charlie Clarke, 15. Taylor Duryea, 20. Ed Richards, 26. Dom Bedendo, 27. Joel Freijah, 28. Anthony Scott, 31. Bailey Dale, 40. Lachlan Smith, 42. Alex Keath, 43. Ryan Gardner, 44. Tim English (plus VFL players)

Notable absentees: Jack Macrae, Bailey Smith


1. Harry Morrison, 2. Mitch Lewis, 3. Jai Newcombe, 4. Jarman Impey, 5. James Worpel, 6. James Sicily, 7. Ned Reeves, 8. Sam Frost, 11. Conor Nash, 14. Jack Scrimshaw, 15. Blake Hardwick, 16. Massimo D'Ambrosio, 17. Lloyd Meek, 18. Mabior Chol, 19. Jack Gunston, 23. Josh Weddle, 25. Josh Ward, 26. Bodie Ryan, 28. Cam Mackenzie, 29. Jai Serong, 30. Sam Butler, 31. Connor Macdonald, 32. Finn Maginness, 33. Jack Ginnivan, 34. Nick Watson, 35. Calsher Dear, 37. Ethan Phillips, 38. Max Ramsden, 41. Josh Bennetts, 44. Henry Hustwaite, 45. Clay Tucker

Notable absentees: Luke Breust, Chad Wingard, Karl Amon, Dylan Moore, Will Day, Changkuoth Jiath, Denver Grainger-Barras, James Blanck, Will McCabe