ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA – SEPTEMBER 22: Eddie Betts; Sam Jacobs of the Crows and Taylor Walker of the Crows walk from the field after the First AFL Preliminary Final match between the Adelaide Crows and the Geelong Cats at Adelaide Oval on September 22, 2017 in Adelaide, Australia. (Photo by Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images/AFL Media)
Coach Don Pyke is not concerned Adelaide’s premiership window is closing, saying the professionalism of the Crows’ star veterans is helping them defy their advancing years.
Despite a disappointing 12th-place finish in 2018, many expect the Crows to rebound in 2019 and return to the kind of form that carried them into the 2017 Grand Final.
On paper, Adelaide remains one of the competition’s most talented teams, but some of its most influential players are getting long in the football tooth.
Six Crows will be 30 or older when the home and away season kicks off on March 21 – Eddie Betts, Richard Douglas, Sam Jacobs, David Mackay, Josh Jenkins and Bryce Gibbs – while Andy Otten will turn 30 in May.
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AFL.com.au asked Pyke whether the Crows’ ageing core meant they had to make the most of the next few seasons.
The dual West Coast premiership player made it plain he didn’t subscribe to that view.
“The funny thing I’m seeing now with the older guys is that the professionalism is completely different to say when I was playing, to the point where these guys are still in fantastic nick,” Pyke said.
“So a guy like Eddie Betts, at 32, has had a fantastic off-season and his fitness has probably gone to another level again.
“And it’s the same with the other guys. In their 30s they’re still getting better, and I keep telling them: ‘The game will be the game and the game will demand out of you what you need to produce. I don’t care whether you’re 18 or 35, if you can maintain your level then you can keep playing. But if you don’t, the game will potentially catch up with you.’
“The pleasing part is that with all of our more senior players I’ve seen real growth in them and real improvement in them, which holds them in a good space.
“It’s not necessarily about their date of birth, it’s more about are they still able to produce what they need to produce?
“I haven’t seen any signs yet that someone’s tiptoed off the cliff and is starting to fall off, which is good.”
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Pyke said the fact AFL football was now a full-time profession meant players were able to look after their bodies far better than footballers of 20 years ago.
So where New England quarterback Tom Brady, 41, tennis icon Roger Federer, 37, and basketball great LeBron James, 34, have shattered the accepted age ceilings in their respective sports, Pyke sees no reason why today’s footballers can’t continue to play – and play well – into their mid-30s.
“Twenty years ago, 30 was almost like the death knell for people in football or cricket or any sport, whereas now you have people playing longer,” Pyke said.
“All of our guys (in their 30s) have had really good pre-seasons and that’s on the back of the work that they’ve done, the drive that they have to do the work in the off-season to make sure that when they come back they’re ready to perform.
“I couldn’t be happier with that group.”
Pyke also said Walker was well placed to rebound from a tough 2018.
A pre-season bout of plantar fascia and a mid-season hamstring injury limited the forward to 14 games and 26 goals last season, but Pyke said Walker’s was now “really good” and had allowed him to complete “his best pre-season for a couple of years”.
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The Crows coach was also hopeful the decision for Walker to share the captaincy with Sloane this season would ease the heavy off-field burden he carried over his four years as sole skipper.
“It was a difficult year for him last year because he came in underdone and never really got going. That made it hard because he was chasing his own game a little bit,” Pyke said.
“Through that he had some really strong and admirable performances for us, but clearly he wasn’t able to do the things he wanted to do from a playing viewpoint.
“I think just having Rory there means that load doesn’t sit purely on one man’s shoulders. And at times some of the criticism on him was unfair because it was almost, you know, if Adelaide aren’t winning then what’s Walker doing?
“He plays forward of the ball, so at times it’s hard for him to influence the game as much if it’s not arriving.”
Source: Adelaide Crows website