The Ayres Files – The Watch (Preseason 2023)

Every year without exception, we read the articles about the player who is “training the house down” and “tearing up the training track”- and every year without exception, I take the piss out of the articles about the player who is “training the house down” and “tearing up the training track”.

This year I decided that I’m never going to beat them, nor am I ever going to join them. So instead, and given that up until the third Test, the Australian Cricket Team weren’t giving me much to hedge my hopes on, I opted to watch a sizable chunk of pre-season games, practice matches and match simulation to get me pumped up for season 2023.

In doing so, I found myself jotting down some names in my famous little black book (AKA the ridiculously inundated Notes app of my phone), of players that I am in eager anticipation of having a big impact this season. Initially, it leaned towards the established players that have shown enough in the past to have me excited for what ceilings they may shatter this season, this particular note became my Must Watch Players list.

Now, some of you might think that I’m teetering dangerously towards ‘BREAKOUT SEASON PREDICTION’ territory with this article, and in some cases you may just be right.

So! To counteract such a ridiculous notion, I decided to add a second part to my note, which was titled: Watch This Space – and this was reserved for players of a much lesser known quantity (to me personally), be it a player I’ve seen very little of or a brand new recruit/draftee that has shown enough promise and hype during the pre-season to have piqued my interest.

As you’ll soon find out if you decide to read on, here is my list of both Must Watch Players, and Watch This Space players.





Must Watch – Jordan Dawson

Sydney made it bleedingly obvious that they didn’t want to lose Dawson, and Blind Freddie could see why. This season is going to be an interesting one to see how the former Swan handles the captaincy of the Crows, only 12 months after being traded to Adelaide. Last year was a massive tick for the versatility of his game, this year I look forward to seeing if he can back up those efforts along with leading the side.


Watch This Space – Izak Rankine

One of the biggest trades of the offseason, Izak Rankine makes the Crows forward line all of a sudden look a heck of a lot more dangerous. Having established himself as a sublimely skilled, albeit sporadic player in his time at the Suns, Rankine playing alongside Darcy Fogarty, Taylor Walker, Josh Rachele and Elliot Himmelberg in the Crows forward line, all of a sudden makes Adelaide a team of interest when it comes to scoring and forward half pressure.




Must Watch – Keidean Coleman

I loved what I saw from Coleman last season. The flashy defender was one of my choices for Brisbane’s most improved player, after stringing together an impressive 18 games with a vast improvement in almost all statistical metrics. The potential addition of fellow speedster Conor McKenna to the backline will make an interesting mix of pace if both defenders can be squeezed into the same side.


Watch This Space – Will Ashcroft

This one basically writes itself, doesn’t it? Despite what quirky draft concessions, point values and matched bids the AFL’s drafting system may project, Ashcroft was as good as the number one draft selection last year, and looks every bit as capable of living up to the hype. Watching clips of the 18-year-old in match simulation and even during the practice matches, it’s hard not to be excited at just how talented this kid is. Also a shoutout in this space to Jack Gunston – I think the former Hawk is exactly what the Lions needed, and more.




Must Watch – Blake Acres

Quite simply, Carlton needed a capable wingman and Blake Acres had a breakout season doing exactly that for Fremantle last season. The fact that the Blues picked up the former Docker so cheaply will make matters oh so much sweeter in season 2023. Whilst it will be hard for Acres to shine in a midfield consisting of Patrick Cripps, Sam Walsh and George Hewett, the idea of flying under the radar may just work in his favour.


Watch This Space – Tom De Koning

I really liked what I saw last year as the 22-year-old assumed a fair portion of ruck duties in the absence of key big man Marc Pittonet, and also got behind the ball to defend when required. I’m tipping another solid season with a clear improvement as the re-inclusion of Pittonet will free up the young tall to play a more comprehensive array of roles around the ground.




Must Watch – Jack Ginnivan

Public enemy number one and he loves it. As a matter of fact, so do I. Jack Ginnivan is easily in my top three players that I love to hate when my team is playing his, yet I equally love his antics when watching him take off against other sides. Missing the first two games of the season will not be ideal, but I’d love to see the small forward outdo last year’s goal tally, which will be made even tougher if the umpires continue to deny free kicks. I’m in no way implying that the kid requires free kicks to score, but 17 of his 40 goals did come from free kicks last year, and he couldn’t buy himself a free kick in the latter rounds.


Watch This Space – Dan McStay

The unknown quantity that many have labelled as a poor option to bring in, I’m backing McStay to have a terrific season if played in a role that best suits his talents. Brisbane tried rather unsuccessfully to play the forward further up the ground and allow more space within the forward line for Joe Daniher and other key forwards. If the Magpies can play McStay much closer to goal in almost a reverse-Travis-Cloke, the former Lion will have a great impact.




Must Watch – Nic Martin

In just his second year, Nic Martin will take his already impressive debut season to a whole new level for the Bombers, as a tall, pacy wingman with tremendous decision-making and crafty foot skills. Playing Martin in the forward half and as a starting wingman along with Kyle Langford and Sam Durham is one that excites me this season. Martin’s ability to hit the scoreboard should have a great impact, especially as Essendon usher in a new generation of small and tall forwards alike. Another quick mention to Darcy Parish for a whole different reason, with the star ball magnet coming out of contract at season’s end, he isn’t just a must-watch for me, but his entire contract situation will be a must-watch if it continues to drag out throughout the season.


Watch This Space – Alwyn Davey Jnr

The thing I find ironic about the Tadpole Twins is that Alwyn Jnr became the more in demand player on the back of some terrific junior football last year, but prior to his brother’s untimely knee injuries, Jayden was in fact widely touted as the more skilled player.




Must Watch – Sean Darcy

Up until last season, it was hard to go past Max Gawn and Brodie Grundy as the top echelon of ruckmen within the AFL, with a plethora of dominant talls ranging from Jarrod Witts to Tim English making up the next rung of the ladder. But if there’s one ruckman edging towards a massive season for me, it’s Sean Darcy. After proving his immense talent across the past few seasons, Darcy now partnering with former Demon, Luke Jackson, will have a much greater understudy than he had in Rory Lobb, and is my tip to have an enormous impact this season, thrusting himself further into contention to be labelled as one of the best ruckmen in the league.


Watch This Space – Jye Amiss

Despite being left out of the practice side that took on Port Adelaide last week, this is the season for the 19-year-old former top 10 pick to stamp his authority in Fremantle’s forward line. A memorable debut against North Melbourne followed by another strong showing in the Elimination Final win over the Bulldogs, I had the young, bidding forward earmarked to force his way into the Dockers forward line this season.




Must Watch – Tanner Bruhn

In five years’ time we will look back at this offseason period where Geelong nabbed Ollie Henry, Jack Bowes and Tanner Bruhn as a huge turning point in the annals of a team whose perennial success is the envy of the competition. One of the reasons will be the instant success of Tanner Bruhn slotting straight into Geelong’s premier midfield. After 30 games in two seasons at the Giants, expect big things from the former Geelong Grammar graduate.


Watch This Space – Jhye Clark

Speaking of memorable offseason moments, managing to add the three aforementioned players, as well as drafting Jhye Clark with Pick 8, will have a continuing ripple effect for the Cats across the upcoming generation. Clark had an insanely impressive year in 2022 and will slot seamlessly into Geelong’s midfield at some point throughout the season.


Gold Coast


Must Watch – Ben King

The return of the King! After tearing his ACL during last year’s pre-season, Ben King has returned to the track and played some solid game time against the Giants in his side’s official practice match, kicking a goal and lighting a fire inside the hearts of Gold Coast fans. If King is able to hit the track and get back to his form of 2021, the Suns will have one of the league’s most promising key forwards as a focal point amidst Mabior Chol and Levi Casboult.


Watch This Space – Bailey Humphrey

A proven ball-winner, Bailey Humphrey will add an undeniable presence throughout the forward half for the Suns at some point in season 2023. Strongly built and possessing genuine game-breaking ability, Humphrey has the talent to crack into the senior side and make an impact in his debut season once his current foot infection has cleared.




Must Watch – Tom Green

Does Green have another level? Here’s hoping. After a breakout season last year in every sense of the word, Green put pen to paper early this year to ink a new contract and take his name off a growing list of players set to come out of contract at season’s end. In a new-look side under coach Adam Kingsley, Green is one of my picks to take his game to another level this year, and begin the Giants’ climb back into finals contention in coming years.


Watch This Space – Finn Callaghan

Whilst losing players to the calibre of Hopper and Taranto undeniably hurt, the chain reaction this can have is one that can surprisingly benefit the team in the long run. With room in the midfield aplenty, I expect to see some genuine game time in the middle or on the wing for Finn Callaghan this season, a luxury not often afforded to young midfielders in the past due to the abundance of top end talent in the Giants’ midfield.




Must Watch – James Sicily

Now, this may seem like a bit of a vanilla selection, but I’m more excited to see how Sicily goes this season with the burden of captaincy riding his shoulders. Already proven as one of the best defenders in the game, there are question marks flying around his style of play and living on the edge when it comes to his aggression and temperament. My eyes will be firmly fixed on seeing if the Hawthorn captain can keep his emotions in check whilst leading this young crop of players into the next generation for the Hawks. For the record, I’ve backed Sicily in to be a tremendous captain, much to the sheer disagreement of others.


Watch This Space – Cam McKenzie

Watching the odd training session and even last week’s practice match against Collingwood, if there is one player ready to jump straight into senior football, it’s Cam McKenzie. A genuine ball winner that appears to have terrific decision-making credentials will be a perfect building block for this rebuilding Hawthorn midfield.




Must Watch – ‘Grawndy’

One of the biggest questions hovering over this season – how will Max Gawn and Brodie Grundy fare in the same side? Often across the past decade or so, these two have been regarded as the best ruckmen in the league. It’s not very often we see the two highest ranked players in a position line up for the same team, much less being ruckmen. All eyes will be firmly fixed to who goes where and how it all works, but it’s an exciting prospect for Demons fans nonetheless.


Watch This Space – Lachie Hunter

Another left-field selection, but I can see the recruitment of Lachie Hunter being a hugely underrated trade from last season, and one that will fly under the radar to have a massive impact for a side that’s almost certain to push for top spot once again this season.


North Melbourne


Must Watch – Griffin Logue

This selection is further justified and multiplied by the recent injury to Ben McKay, Griffin Logue was fantastic in defence for the Dockers last season and is a great tall option for Clarko to work with as the master coach rearranges this North Melbourne side, building for a tilt that hopefully sees the Roos climb from the bottom of the ladder and back into contention.


Watch This Space – Harry Sheezel

Hands down one of the most exciting prospects to enter the AFL system this season, Harry Sheezel is a player that I’m tipping to have an immediate impact this season, and for many seasons to come. One of my favourite picks from last year’s Draft, Sheezel ticks every box as a player to watch. An uncanny ability to find the goals, paired with some terrific aerial feats with the ball overhead, you’ll be completely forgiven for letting the lid off with this kid, North fans. As an opposition supporter, I’m bloody excited for what Sheezel can bring to the game.


Port Adelaide


Must Watch – Connor Rozee

This is the year. We’ve heard it time and time again, and five rounds into last season it felt like it was another pipe dream. But a solid remainder of the season by Connor Rozee last year has me pondering just what heights the 23-year-old can reach this season.


Watch This Space – Jason Horne-Francis

This! Now this one is the intriguing one for oh so many reasons. There are a dozen different avenues to lay the blame on, but one this is for certain and that is that the entire football world will have their eyes firmly fixed on the former top pick and what he’s able to produce this season. From the controversy that saw him exit North Melbourne less than a year after being drafted, to recent reports that current coaching staff have had to address onfield issues, this will be a huge story across the season regardless of which direction the story goes.




Must Watch – Liam Baker

Richmond was one of the domino teams this season, where one change led to another, which led to another, which led to another.. making it hard to choose just one player that I’m keen to see have a big season. Honestly, it was a toss of the coin between Liam Baker and Shai Bolton, but as much as I love Bolton, I feel like we may see Baker take his game to an even higher level than we saw last season. Another such effect from the aforementioned dominoes is that of Dustin Martin receiving the freedom to play alongside Trent Cotchin in a prominent role within the forward line, thanks to the addition of Jacob Hooper and Tim Taranto in the midfield. Which leads me to…


Watch This Space – Tim Taranto

A more than established player in his seven years at the Giants, Tim Taranto will slot into Richmond’s style of play seamlessly, freeing up the likes of Cotchin and Martin to spend a lot more time forward, while younger heads build the next generation of Richmond midfield, as many pundits have the Tigers as substantial risers up the ladder this season.


St Kilda


Must Watch – Mason Wood

Now this one will raise a few eyebrows, but after watching practice matches, intra-club hitouts and training clips, Mason Wood has surprised me with just how proficient the utility looks this season. With injuries to forwards Max King, Jack Hayes and Tim Membrey, it could be an ultimate opportunity for a prominent start to the season from the former Roo, who has kicked off his pre-season in fine form thus far.


Watch This Space – Anthony Caminiti

Another name that meant very little to me before this pre-season, the 19-year-old key forward was a last-minute addition to the Saints list as an SSP selection, after only training with the club for little over a week. Much like Mason Wood, injuries to key forwards may see the mobile forward rewarded for his impressive pre-season.




Must Watch – Chad Warner

When asked in an article late last season who was my choice as a player to watch this year that I expected to rise exponentially, my first answer was Chad Warner. I love, love, loved what I saw from The Chad last season. The ultimate midfield utility that regularly got forward and impacted the scoreboard, Warner’s stock skyrocketed last season, yet I have no doubt that we will see his worth continue to rise. A genuine star of the future for the Swans, for mine.

Erroll Gulden needs a minor shout out here for his practice game numbers – wowee.


Watch This Space – Logan McDonald

Will this be the year that the embattled forward finally makes his mark on the Sydney forward line? I bloody hope so! All that promise, all that talent, just could not crack into or regularly hold his place in the side of the eventual Grand Finalists last season.


West Coast


Must Watch – Oscar Allen

A year without injuries, please! One of the unluckiest young players in the competition, I want nothing more than to see Oscar Allen get a good run at it in the forward line and establish himself as a forward of the future for the Eagles. With the man, the myth, the legend Josh Kennedy hanging up the boots at the end of last season, there is a vacancy in the front paddock with Allen’s name written all over it. It should be an exciting season for the Eagles and their youth.


Watch This Space – Reuben Ginbey

One player who had his name pop up regularly in Draft highlights packages was Reuben Ginbey, and I was stoked when the Eagles called the name of the WA native. With blistering pace and endurance beyond his years, Ginbey will be an exciting prospect wherever Adam Simpson unleashes the #9 selection this season.


Western Bulldogs


Must Watch – Jamarra Ugle-Hagan

I’m calling it. This will be the year that the critics are forced to lay off Jamarra, as the dreaded tag or being the #1 selection has haunted the immensely talented Bulldog since been taken a couple of years ago. With a shuffle of forwards and a rehash of the team amidst departures and arrivals at the kennel, I have Ugle-Hagan amongst my top-placed Dogs players that I’m salivating to see hit the ground running this season.


Watch This Space – Sam Darcy

Will he play forward? Will he play back? I don’t really give a shit, I just want to see Sam Darcy string a handful of senior games together and unleash his untapped potential on the AFL. Get excited, Bulldogs fans, the wait has been worth it. Let this kid develop into the best that he can be, and reap the rewards for years to come.


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