JAMES Hird has been driving Essendon's players since pre-season began on October 26, but the Bombers had last weekend off as the calm before the hurricane.
Sam Lonergan headed down to Anglesea for a mental break; even enjoyed ''a couple of quiet beers''. It was the last mental break for the players.
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''From now on, I'd imagine 100 per cent of the group will not have a drink,'' Lonergan said yesterday.
''If you look at our group there's 39 or 40 players all ready to go, pushing for spots. It doesn't take much to find yourself not inside the team.
''Guys are becoming stricter on themselves, more professional. It's what you have to do nowadays. Guys respect the footy jumper and they're not going to waste the time they have in the jumper by going and doing stupid stuff.''
By yesterday the players were back on the track at Windy Hill and preparing for a tough encounter against North Melbourne at the Docklands this Saturday night. Lonergan, who turned 25 yesterday, is on the road back after another injury.
In round 13 last year the in-and-under midfielder was having his best stretch of football in Essendon colours when Hawthorn's Grant Birchall fell across his left knee in a tackle. Ironically Birchall and Lonergan - both Tasmanians - are friends.
''He rang me and apologised,'' said Lonergan. ''He didn't realise it was me. But there was nothing in it.''
Lonergan knew what the cracking sound in his knee was having ripped a medial ligament in the same knee four years earlier.
''I knew it was a 10-week injury. The disappointing thing was, the three games leading into that were the best footy I'd played for Essendon. That's why we play the game. It's exciting but it's disappointing and hard at times. That makes the good times better.'''
He had surgery to repair the joint and missed the rest of the season, a great pity as Hird's arrival had transformed his career.
In the previous four seasons he played just 53 senior games. The new coach had arrived seeking assistance for captain Jobe Watson in the grunt department, especially at stoppages, and Lonergan was a willing combatant.
At the time, he had been wondering where his career was going. ''After about year four or five I wasn't sure how much more I could improve. I'd played 50 games and I thought 'where's the next step?' When Hirdy came with the teaching and learning, it's turned me into a second-year player again,'' Lonergan said.
''I feel like I've got so much more to go and I'm excited to achieve that. Whereas after four years, I felt like it could be all over for me very quickly. Now I feel I can play for as long as this club needs me.''
The Bombers will have Brent Prismall (knee), Scott Gumbleton (back) and Jason Winderlich (knee) unavailable. Winderlich played in the NAB Cup and is a chance to play round two. Hird has his strongest list available since he began as coach.
''You get to that stage when you've had enough of the training,'' said Lonergan. ''You just want games. We're at that stage. We want to see how far we've come, where we're at, what the hard work has left us with. That's really exciting for us. The NAB Cup's great, but it's the real stuff that gives you the gauge.''