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By: Daniel Cencic
A HOST of new recruits at Balwyn are set to add flexibility as the club looks to return to finals this season.
The Tigers finished sixth in Division 1 last season with 10 wins and eight losses, missing the finals for the first time in 23 years.
Headlining the additions at Cherry Road this off-season is ex-Sydney forward, Xavier Richards.
25-year-old Richards played 12 games for the Swans from 2013-2016, including the 2016 AFL grand final.
Richards in action during the 2016 AFL grand final. PHOTO: David Caird
Bolstering the club’s defensive stocks is returning four-time premiership defender John Milhuisen, while Jack Martin has transferred from Doncaster East after forming an integral part of the Lions’ back six in their Division 2 flag last season.
The Tigers have also signed 203cm ruckman, Ryley Monkhorst.
The Williamstown-listed Monkhorst is the son of 1990 Collingwood premiership ruckman, Damian, and was named best afield in last year’s AFL Outer East Division 1 grand final for Woori-Yallock.
Despite Monkhorst’s VFL alignment, senior coach Rodney Eade is confident the big-man will be a regular feature in the Tigers’ line-up.
“I think he’ll be with us most of the time,” Eade said.
“He didn’t start (pre-season) until late January but he’s progressed really quickly.
“Just having a big-bodied presence like that will be a plus for us in the ruck (and) he’s enjoying the company of his teammates.”
Midfielders Alex Urban (East Ringwood), Bradyn Taglieri (Eltham, Northern FNL) and Kane Smartt (Colac, Geelong FL) also join the club, while 2016 premiership player Shaun McDonald returns after two years’ absence.
Departing the club is Shane Tregear (Corowa-Rutherglen, Overs and Murray league) and Tom Roach (retired), who will coach Bayswater in Division 1 this year.
The Tigers are set to benefit from the return of 2016 Chandler medallist Cam Manuel and live-wire forward Charlie Haley from injury, as Eade oversees his first full pre-season in charge.
“We’ve done things a little bit different this pre-season,” he said.
“The camp has been completely different than what it’s been in the past, we did it earlier.
“I think it’s good that they (the players) continue to be strong in the mind.
“We had recruits who were injured and missing for the whole year (and) I think they (the players) responded really well with their ability to stay in games and to accept challenges – we lost to Blackburn by less than a kick.
“I hadn’t been involved in the club before but from that point of view there were some positives and learnings to come out of it (last season), and obviously more depth which we’ve got.
“We’ll change some things up with the way we play – it’s a good club like that, it’s a good players’ club.”
Rennie Gilchrist is set to captain the club again this season, with the 30-year-old to see more freedom in his on-field roles.
“I spoke to the president Richard (Wilson) and our football director Paul (Johnson) the other week and Rennie’s keen to continue – I’m pleased with that,” Eade said.
“We’ll have a discussion during the year about whether he wants to continue the year after but if he doesn’t he’ll probably be involved as to who is the next captain as he’s done such a great job for a long period of time – not only a physical leader but a spiritual leader as well.
“He’ll play different roles this year with the influx of players into the club there’s a bit more flexibility.
“He can play wing, halfback and we’ve got a few more midfielders.
“He’s trained well and is probably a little bit fitter than what he was last year as well.”
Rennie Gilchrist is set to captain the club again. PHOTO: Davis Harrigan Photography
The Tigers’ golden era which saw four premierships in five seasons continues to bear fruit in the way of on-field leaders assisting Gilchrist, including key forward Jeff Gobbels and a host of others.
“(Also) Kris Pendlebury, Jackson Weatherald and Shaun Cross, so there’s a good core of senior experience who can relay messages and rally the troops – they’re good for morale,” Eade said.
“Taylor Gilchrist in my opinion has really stepped up and his voice and leadership on the track is a real positive for us.”
Meanwhile, Pendlebury is set to see more time up forward in 2019, after the long-time defender was swung into attack last season.
“I think it was probably on a needs basis last year against Noble Park (on Queen’s Birthday weekend), the first game he went (forward) to just give us a bigger target,” Eade said.
“It’ll be horses for courses (this year), I think he’ll probably like to stabilise our defence but we still haven’t got an enormous amount of height in our forward line.
“Xavier Richards is the other one that’ll swing back so there’s a bit of that flexibility I was talking about.”
Eade is keen for a return to the finals in the EFL’s inaugural season of the Premier Division competition.
“We’d like to be up there and abouts every year,” he said.
“Once you’re in the finals, things can go horribly wrong at that stage or you can get it all right with all your ducks in a row, depending on a lot of different things.
“We’ve seen teams in the AFL win premierships over the past few years who just got it in a row at the right time of the year.
“Our first objective will be to win enough games to make finals.”
Balwyn begins its 2019 campaign when it takes on South Croydon at Cheong Park on Saturday, April 6.