Covering the Goulburn and Murray valleys

Fans in a tizz as Essendon Bombers converge on Benalla

Essendon Football Club participated in its annual community camp at Benalla last week.

MONIQUE FREER February 12, 2014 1:08pm

Mixing and mingling: David Martin, Kevin Hill and Andy Bowkett with Tayte Pears and Brent Stanton.

Black and red littered the streets of Benalla last week when Essendon Football Club participated in its annual community camp.

Almost the entire senior squad made the trip up Hume Fwy, with the exception of injured pair Paul Chapman and Dyson Heppell.

The highlight for about 300 students from Benalla P-12 College, St Joseph’s Primary School, Australian Christian College Hume and Euroa Primary School was a super-clinic with the players on Wednesday afternoon at Benalla Showgrounds.

Essendon Football Club captain and 2012 Brownlow medallist Jobe Watson said the players enjoyed connecting with fans of all ages during the regional visits.

‘‘The benefit of spending time out in rural communities is that they’re huge supporters of AFL football, and due to the proximity of where they live probably don’t get the opportunity to come and engage with players,’’ Watson said.

‘‘We have a lot of players who come from the country so I think it’s important to give back and cultivate the local communities so players still feel like they can grow up in the country and play AFL football.’’

The community camp kicked off on Tuesday with a civic welcome and visits to local primary schools, before players attended Benalla Saints, Benalla All Blacks and Goorambat and district football clubs’ training sessions.

‘‘Anyone who plays in the AFL started somewhere and can remember the days of local footy training and how fun it is,’’ Watson said.

‘‘We were trying to give them a taste of the drills that we do and they started to understand the concepts, which was good.’’

Keen fans travelled from across north-east Victoria to attend an official function at Benalla’s Lakeside Community Centre on Tuesday night, where attendees were seated at tables with Essendon stars such as Watson, Michael Hurley, Patrick Ryder, Dustin Fletcher and coach Mark Thompson.

Essendon defender Cale Hooker was a popular attendee at the dinner, and said he enjoyed the opportunity to give back to regional communities.

‘‘I know when I was growing up and a footballer came out to the school I was over the moon, so hopefully it is like that when we come out,’’ Hooker said.

WorkSafe AFL Victoria Country football development manager Zac Guilfoyle said the community camp was beneficial for Benalla in particular, as it would help address dwindling numbers in junior football.

‘‘If the kids come out and see their heroes walking around the street hopefully that’ll entice them into playing footy and we can enhance our registrations in footy and Auskick,’’ Guilfoyle said.

‘‘It’s all about making these AFL players and these AFL clubs more exposed to the community and making the community feel like they are their friends, they’re not the big, bad guys that operate down in Melbourne.’’

After a tumultuous season in 2013, Watson said he was keen for his side to improve this year.

‘‘If we can be a more consistent side than what we were last year — I’d love to see some improvement in players and in the team,’’ he said.

‘‘We don’t put goals on where we want to finish but I think if we become a more consistent side we’ll have a better year than we had 12 months ago.’’

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