Zach Merrett high fives fans after the R13 match between the Bombers and the Hawks. Picture: Getty Images

ESSENDON star Zach Merrett will use his shock demotion from the club's leadership group as a chance to develop his captaincy ambitions, according to teammate Michael Hurley.

Merrett was among a host of changes to the Bombers' leadership group, with wantaway forward Joe Daniher and Orazio Fantasia also cut from the squad.  

The complete overhaul will see four fresh faces serve under captain Dyson Heppell in the five-man group this year.

Fantasia received enough votes to be added to the group but withdrew from the process as he focuses on his fitness to return to his top form after a poor 2019 campaign.

Less than four months after his failed trade request to Sydney, the out-of-contract Daniher (along with Merrett and Fantasia and the retired David Myers) has been replaced by Devon Smith, Dylan Shiel, David Zaharakis and Hurley.

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Merrett's axing comes after he spent four seasons in the leadership group, including the last three as vice-captain, and Hurley said a change in process had been central in the new-look group.  

"It doesn't take away from Zach as a leader. He's the ultimate competitor and a great team man, and he may not be in the group this year but going forward I think he's going to be a really strong leader for the club," Hurley said.

Michael Hurley says Zach Merrett still harbours leadership ambitions. Picture: AFL Photos

"I can't speak for the other players but I know my votes went in and he polled strongly for me.

"I think we've seen in the past that guys come in and out and I don't know exactly why that's happened but as I said he's a great young leader and a really driven individual young individual so I'm sure we'll see the best of him this year."

The 24-year-old captained the Bombers five times last year in Heppell's absence and in 2016 was the club's youngest captain since 1982.

Hurley, who was cut from the group ahead of the Bombers' 2019 season, said Merrett still held leadership ambitions and could use this season to look closely at his leadership.

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"It's just a good opportunity to reflect on your leadership style. I know last year I wasn't in the group but I think my leadership grew throughout the year," he said.

"I saw things slightly differently, became a bit of a conduit for some of the players who weren't in the leadership group and some of the younger players. Zach will find ways to grow. He's a smart young guy, driven, so I think his leadership will continue to grow and we'll see him as a leader in the future."

Fantasia, who contemplated leaving for South Australia at the end of last year, sits out after serving as a leader in the past two seasons.


Shiel has been added for the first-time ahead of his second year at the club, while 2018 best and fairest Smith joins after a knee injury reduced him to seven games last season.

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Zaharakis re-joins the leadership group for the first time since 2016 and Hurley has been added after one season out. 

The Bombers raised eyebrows last year when Hurley and fellow defender Cale Hooker were dumped from the 2019 leadership group, leaving the pair shocked.

David Zaharakis hits the weights in Coffs Harbour. Picture: AFL Photos

Hurley said it was "a mixture of emotions" last season, but having first been elevated in 2012 as a leader, he had evolved in the role.

"I was fortunate enough to be put in as a younger player and learned a lot through my younger years. I have been in and out a few times. But criteria can change and the way the players vote can change so I've been in and out, but I'm honoured to be back in the group and I'm looking forward to the year," he said.

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The Bombers went through a voting process comprising the whole playing group while away on their training camp in Coffs Harbour.

Fresh off inking a contract extension until the end of 2022, Heppell will lead the Bombers for the fourth consecutive season.

Captain Dyson Heppell is gearing up to lead the Bombers for a fourth straight year. Picture: AFL Photos

Daniher has returned to Australia following a visit to his groin specialist in Ireland, and Hurley said the key forward was making encouraging steps in his return from the debilitating injury. 

"There were some promising signs yesterday. I was running some laps over on [Essendon's secondary training] oval and big Joey trotted out and started doing some 100s, so that was really pleasing," he said.

"He's shed a bit of weight so he's looking fit and strong and hopefully we'll see him out there a bit more."