Essendon has rushed running defender Courtenay Dempsey back into its line-up for Friday's Anzac Day blockbuster against Collingwood after a month-long club-imposed suspension.
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But the Bombers' midfield contingent has taken a big hit, with on-ball pair David Myers and Heath Hocking the latest casualties, Brendon Goddard to miss a second game with a groin injury and ruckman Tom Bellchambers not yet fit enough for senior selection.
Essendon announced three changes for the game on Thursday evening, with small forward Leroy Jetta omitted along with the injured Myers, who has a hamstring strain, and Hocking, who was ruled out with what the club described as "soreness".
Experienced forward Jason Winderlich returns with Dempsey and Zach Merrett, who will play his third AFL game. Collingwood has made no change from the side which convincingly beat North Melbourne last Saturday.
With Myers and Hocking out, the Bombers will be stretched in midfield, where the key Collingwood quartet of Scott Pendlebury, Dane Swan, Dayne Beams and Steele Sidebottom all featured among the Pies' best against the Roos.
Dempsey, who had been exiled to train with the club's VFL side at the start of April after failing to meet training and preparation standards, only rejoined the senior group earlier this week. Essendon captain Jobe Watson said on Thursday that the skilled and pacy half-back had dealt well with his punishment.
“He looks like he’s trained well. It’s always a risk, but if the selection committee want to go down that path it’s up to them," Watson said. “I think Courtenay offers us some unique skills that he has. I think the way that he’s handled himself the last month, the way that he looks, physically the way he’s looked after himself, I think talking to him that he’s enjoyed the experience.
“I think he’s learned a lot and grown as a person, and obviously as a player I think he offers some enormous attributes to the side that perhaps we need.
“I think that he had to discover what footy was in his life and who he was as a person and what he wanted to get out of it. Everybody has to be kept to the same standard. You don’t ask or expect anything more from any individual.
“The group expects a singular standard. I think that he’s gone away and thought about his life and footy and what it means to him and perhaps it’s opened his eyes a bit to how other people are living their lives and how privileged we are to play AFL footy."
Goddard's failure to return is another blow to Essendon, which has managed just nine goals in each of its past two defeats, against Fremantle and St Kilda. Key targets Jake Carlisle and Joe Daniher are struggling, and with ruckman Bellchambers still playing in the VFL, the Dons won't get any more respite near goal in the frame of Paddy Ryder.
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Bellchambers, who had pre-season ankle surgery, will be given more time in the reserves after playing his first game for the season against Bendigo last Friday.
“Tom’s just not quite ready," Watson said. "He’s done a lot of work getting himself back and played really well for a half, but I think they’re willing to give him another week in the VFL."
Goddard's continued absence will also hurt Essendon's scoreboard output. Only three players - Kyle Hardingham, Paul Chapman and Brent Stanton - have booted more than his five goals this season.“He just didn’t come up," said Watson. "In the end he knows his own body, and if he didn’t feel like he could perform then you know deep down.”
Pendlebury was pleased on Thursday when learning of Goddard's likely omission.
"Any time a quality player like 'BJ' (Goddard) is out of the side, it's always nice, but they're still going to be up and about tomorrow and we expect a fierce contest," Pendlebury said after Magpies training on Thursday.
A dual Anzac medallist, Pendlebury said the blockbuster was always an occasion he looked forward to."You come to Collingwood, it's the first thing you pencil in," he said. "It doesn't matter what's happened in previous rounds, it's on from the first bounce tomorrow. You get a great crowd, a great atmosphere and it's whoever works hardest on the day gets the result."