Sandringham Dragons coach Rob Harding has said that the “depth of talent” in the program this year is “extremely exciting” ahead of the 2023 season.
“Even looking at our bottom agers, I think the crop of talent there is going to be really good. Sandy has a fantastic reputation of being able to develop talent in this region. We have talls, smalls, we have a lot of players who are AFL players in the making,” said Harding.
“Being able to work with these young guys has really excited me. Being able to develop them from a football sense, but also helping them to grow as young men. Whatever level of football they end up playing, whatever they end up doing throughout their lives, hopefully they can end up reflecting on a great experience at the Dragons.”
Harding was appointed the head coach of the Boys program and has extensive experience within the AFL system. He recently held the position of Football Services Manager at Norwood FC in the SANFL competition.
“Being fresh into the role, it takes a little bit of time to get to know everyone and get a feel for the group, but the group as a whole has been super impressive.
“I’ve loved their attitude towards training, we’ve trained pretty hard, and we are really happy with how the program is being run in that respect.
“Being in a management role and a coaching role at the same time, I’ve experienced the broader culture and environment and how to build on that and it’s been nice to be able to impart some of that onto these young men.”
Harding has placed a large emphasis on building culture and camaraderie amongst both players and staff this season and believes that “football is a microcosm for life”.
“We talk a lot about standards and what sort of behaviours we want to exhibit within our football program. I’m big on referring that back to the rest of real life, the reality is that football is a microcosm for life. How you approach your footy should be how you approach the rest of your life. We talk about being a good teammate, communicating really well, looking after each other and showing care to others, if you do all those things with your friends and your family, you’ll be in pretty good stead as a young man.”
The coaching staff are excited by the diversity amongst the squad and what each and every player can bring to the group.
“This group is interesting because we have such a wide range of backgrounds, talents, schools, age, there’s a big management piece to the Sandy program and it’s probably same at Oakleigh as well.
“Every program has their own unique parts, the part for me that I’ve enjoyed a lot has been dealing with all these different stakeholders that are invested in these young men. Whether that’s schools, family, Dragons program, local clubs who play such a key part in their development, I really love that side of it, getting to know them as individuals and hearing their story.
“They’ve all got great stories coming here, I love emphasising that and exploring that with them and hopefully helping them to tell their own story and shape their own future.”
The side has recently begun turning up the heat in their match play blocks as they look to build towards the season proper.
“Two weeks ago, everyone seemed to chase the ball a fair bit, which you naturally get at any level right at the start of a match play block. I think there’s been great progress since then, we were able to stretch the ground a lot more and open it up, it became a far more transitional game in the second block, which is closer to how we want to play.
“We are going to need to defend a lot better as a group, clearly, but I was really pleased to see the guys show their offensive capabilities. The system that we’ve designed across the coaching group aims to maximise their talents and show the best of their strengths, so I was really pleased to see that last week.
“Seeing the improvement in our offense, we’ve done a lot of contest work and that’s my basis as a coach, our offense grew enormously after the education from the week before which stretched our defence, which is what we need. To be a better team defensively we need our offense firing, the ball was pinging right down the ground, we played pretty quick at times, we slowed it down at times and they both worked ok, it’s important to have those different gears of play and I was really pleased to see that.”
Harding has focussed on trialling a number of players in different roles throughout the pre-season, indicating the significant step up from Coates League to AFL requires players to be versatile.
“It’s important when we look at all our talent, when they get to AFL level, even if they’re a star midfielder at Coates League level, they’re unlikely to walk into a midfield Round 1 at an AFL club. I really try to impress on the guys about having multiple positions and being competent in multiple positions.
“It was really pleasing to someone like Archie Roberts who’s played a lot at half-back, play through the midfield for a half. To have Will Brown spend some time forward after training as a midfielder so far, across the board we were really able to expose guys in multiple spots.
“It’s going to be exciting this year to watch how our talls go. We’ve got Vigo Visentini who’s in the Vic Metro program, Tim Parris who had a shoulder injury last year and been really strong as a ruck and Lachie Voss and Ollie Murphy are playing as key defenders at the moment, we think they will show great progress.
“Jeremy a’Beckett and Luke Lloyd as forwards have been impressive, Harvey Johnston stood out as a midfielder, Taj Hotton’s marking forward was great. But the thing I love the most is that every one of our players on the list had a moment. That’s why they are here, it was great for their confidence and exciting at this time of year to see those capabilities come through.”
With APS and representative football creating challenges for playing continuity throughout the season, Harding hopes that the entire squad can be on the same page.
“The core focus for any Coates League club is the individual development of the players, that’s what we are here for. What we are trying to do at the moment is make sure that our whole squad are all on the same page as to how we want to play. The reality is, for them to show the best of themselves as individuals, the team needs to be strong as well. The team has to gel and play as a team, sometimes selfless running is involved in that and we as a coaching group emphasise and highlight that.”
The Dragons are set to expose every available and healthy listed player in a hit-out against Oakleigh in the coming weeks.
“We are looking forward to testing ourselves against Oakleigh, seeing where we are at as a group, it’s an exciting time of the year, everyone’s up and about, this is the best part of pre-season, when the games are just around the corner.”