Sport AFL The men (and boys) to watch in the NAB Challenge
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The men (and boys) to watch in the NAB Challenge

Paul Chapman
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The Australian Open has crowned two first-time champions and the English cricket team has returned home with its tail between its legs. Our sporting landscape is primed for football’s return – and with 18 pre-season games to take place over 18 consecutive days, fans will soon be reacquainted with the couch.

From fresh-faced draftees to big name recruits, here are 10 players to keep an eye on in the NAB Challenge.

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Hamish McIntosh: Photo: Getty

Hamish McIntosh (Geelong)

As Aaron Sandilands belted inexperienced Geelong ruckmen Nathan Vardy and Mark Blicavs in last year’s finals, supporters rued that former Kangaroos big man Hamish McIntosh was watching from the stands. McIntosh didn’t play a single game in his first year as a Cat, restricted by ankle, knee and Achilles problems. Finally fit, he is aiming to resurrect his career with a strong pre-season showing.

Jesse White (Collingwood)

After a career-best season, Jesse White found himself surplus to the Swans’ needs when his former club recruited Lance Franklin to play alongside Kurt Tippett. White will feel at home at Collingwood – and not just because of his tattoos. The versatile big man – who kicked three or more goals in five of his 15 games last year – should provide valuable support to Travis Cloke, and can pinch hit around the ground.

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Dayle Garlett. Photo: Getty

Dayle Garlett (Hawthorn)

Controversially overlooked in the 2012 draft, Western Australian teenager Dayle Garlett has received more attention for his off-field issues than his footballing ability. That should change quickly, with the lightning fast left-footer to slot into a line-up featuring the pace of Cyril Rioli, Isaac Smith and Bradley Hill. While he may find it tough to break into a premiership team in his first season, Garlett will get a chance to impress early.

Dale Thomas (Carlton)

There are three certainties in life: death, taxes and that Dale Thomas will be mercilessly booed when he plays his former club Collingwood in Round 7. Blues fans hope their new recruit resembles the Thomas of 2010-11 – who Ross Lyon labelled the best player in the AFL – rather than the injury-plagued version of 2012-13. With his ankle woes reportedly behind him, the former All-Australian will be looking to justify his big contract from day one.

Jesse Hogan (Melbourne)

If anybody knows the perils of labelling a young player ‘the next big thing,’ it’s long-suffering Melbourne supporters (see: Tom Scully). But expectations are justifiably high around 18-year-old key forward Jesse Hogan, who kicked 39 goals in the VFL last year. Demons fans – not to mention Paul Roos – will be salivating at the thought of the young man mountain in the same forward line as Mitch Clark and Chris Dawes.

Scott Gumbleton (Fremantle)

Former number two draft pick Scott Gumbleton had a wretched injury run at Essendon, managing just 35 games in seven years. Traded to Fremantle in October, the strong-marking key forward has completed a full pre-season and may serve as a foil to skipper Matthew Pavlich from Round 1. With the Dockers one of the flag favourites, Gumbleton may just become this year’s Brian Lake.

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Jack Billings. Photo: Getty

Jack Billings (St Kilda)

With goal kickers Stephen Milne and Ahmed Saad missing from last year’s team, St Kilda will be hoping for an immediate impact from highly rated teenager Jack Billings. Selected with pick three in last year’s draft, Billings is a dynamic midfielder/forward regularly compared to Geelong’s Steve Johnson. Despite a recent quad injury, he seems set to play this month and appears destined for a round one debut.

Nick Vlastuin (Richmond)

Nick Vlastuin played with the poise and class of a 200-gamer during his 18-game debut season, which included an appearance in the Tigers’ elimination final loss to Carlton. The skilful defender/midfielder, considered a future leader, has improved his fitness this pre-season in a bid to play more midfield minutes and will be a key player in Richmond’s quest for its first finals victory since 2001.

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James Aish. Photo: Getty

James Aish (Brisbane)

Brisbane landed a bargain in 2008, recruiting draft slider Daniel Rich at pick seven. The Lions may have pulled off another coup by drafting South Australian James Aish with the same pick last year. The midfielder, who was playing senior SANFL football at age 16, is likened to Trent Cotchin and will slot seamlessly into the Lions’ best 22 in the absence of retired champ Simon Black.

Paul Chapman (Essendon)

Nobody would have begrudged former Cat Paul Chapman for retiring after a career including three premierships and a Norm Smith Medal. Instead, the 251-game veteran will be hoping to better an injury-interrupted 2013 (in which he managed just eight games), reunited with former coach Mark Thompson at Essendon. Chapman’s class and big game ability is needed by the Bombers, who traded leading goalkicker Stewart Crameri to the Bulldogs.

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