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Sunday Age

From boys to men with bark

Date: 04/02/2001
Words: 997
          Publication: The Sunday Age
Section: Sport
Page: 11
IT is a time of year when you catch yourself looking twice.

Where last year you had seen a gaggle of young footballers with wispy frames and spindly arms and legs, 12 months had added much more to their CVs - more muscle, greater bulk, strength and physical presence. The rawness of youth had been transformed into the hardness of a professional athlete.

To see an example of these changes, look no further than a group of young men at the Western Bulldogs, all of them recruited by the club in the 1999 national draft.

In the space of just over 12 months, this group of seven - Robert Murphy, Daniel Giansiracusa, Patrick Wiggins, Mitchell Hahn, Lindsay Gilbee, Patrick Bowden and Ryan Hargrave - have all bulked up considerably, each adding between seven and 14 kilograms.

Essentially, 2000 had been a concentrated year of physical development for the then 17 and 18-year-olds - although Murphy, Wiggins, Hahn and an earlier draftee, Luke Penny, all made their debuts for the Bulldogs.

The club has a policy of selecting young footballers with loads of ability, but, because of their physical immaturity, gives them plenty of time to develop.

The Bulldogs' list this year will be the youngest that coach Terry Wallace has overseen. It contains 12 players aged between 17 and 19 and in line with the Bulldogs' policy, they will be played in the short-term to strengthen them as long-term prospects.

``We've probably been criticised a few times in the past when the draft's come out," said Wallace. ``They've said: `They've gone for very slight players; they always seem to go for these sort of guys'. But we believe we can actually change their body structure; we can't change their ability.

``They've either got the ability or they haven't, but we can hone them into our game style. The body structure is the easiest thing for us to change and have an influence on.

``The reality in this day and age is that in other sports around the world, you've got world champions running around at 18 and 19 years of age. It's just our job to develop those guys up as quickly as we possibly can."

Murphy, for instance, is a telling illustration of this. Looking back at photographs of himself from last year, the 18-year-old from Gippsland was a veritable twig, so slender that he appeared as if he could be snapped, and weighing only 68 kilograms.

But by the time the 2001 AFL season is under way, he will be around 82 kilograms. ``When I look back, I think I'm pretty slight now. I can't believe they even drafted me the way I was," said Murphy.

``I felt like we were a world away from where (the seniors) are, all pretty muscled, and we were skinny kids around the traps."

The 2000 pre-season signalled the start of a program for Murphy and his cohorts that would continue relentlessly throughout the year. At its core were three compulsory weight sessions a week with weights coach Adrian Fiser, complemented by the use of creatine, protein supplements and recovery formulas, especially for the lighter members of the group, such as Murphy, Gilbee and Giansiracusa.

According to player development manager Peter Rohde, it was a matter of survival for the seven players over the first five months as they battled to complete each session and make it through the week. But as the year progressed and there were opportunities to play - in the VFL or the AFL - their confidence grew. They realised that while they were by no means the strongest, neither were they the lightest or the weakest any more.

``It was a pretty daunting thing to go there and see (the seniors) throwing big weights around while we were playing with little kids weights," said Murphy. ``I didn't really put on a lot of weight until right near the end of the season when footy training tapered off and my natural development caught up with it."

As their bodies grew stronger, Wallace encouraged them to take pride in their physical selves. As the long break approached, he called a meeting to emphasis the need to continue the program to the best of their ability over summer, so as not to lose ground. They responded by keeping in touch with Fiser, sometimes even travelling out to him at Beaconsfield to train with him.

``I think you've got them once they start wanting to look good," said Wallace. ``I've got no problem with guys wanting to look in the mirror and see that they're starting to look better in the body department. I don't think that's a bad thing for them because then they start to take pride in themselves as professional athletes, and that goes on."

Despite the Bulldogs' emphasis on the cultivation of youth, Wallace is emphatic that the premiership dream remains very much alive.

``I don't want a kindergarten," he said. ``We were probably undermanned in regards to some of the other clubs in the area of development and we've always believed that you've got to be doing both at the same time.

``I don't believe in `we're a developing side or a side going for a premiership'. I think you should be doing both all the time. Our senior core group of players is still very strong. We can look at leadership players around the club - Grant, West, Johnson, Darcy, Smith, and then you've got Croft, Romero, Liberatore - so we've got a nice blending of experience with youth and I think that's a very healthy situation," said Wallace.

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