Bombers back Caldwell; rule out play for Dunkley ‘at this stage’

Essendon coach Ben Rutten insists a healthy Jye Caldwell can be the big-bodied midfielder the Bombers need and says the club has no intention of again pursuing Josh Dunkley “at this stage”.

As the AFL world now shifts its intention to the trade period, Rutten says the Bombers, beaten by the Western Bulldogs in an elimination final, will only do a deal if there is strong merit. He declared they will not jeopardise the progress already made this year, which included Darcy Parish emerging as a gold-plated midfielder.

Essendon coach Ben Rutten has big plans for young midfielder Jye Caldwell.Credit:AFL Photos

Caldwell, listed at 83 kilograms, managed only three senior matches this season because of a hamstring injury, playing in the opening two of the season and then not until the elimination final, when he had only 14 touches.

Rutten said the former first-round draft pick, traded from Greater Western Sydney at the end of last season, had impressed enormously over the summer, and hopes another strong pre-season has him primed for 2022.

Jye Caldwell lays a tackle on Josh Dunkley in the elimination final at Launceston.Credit:Getty Images

“We saw three games out of Jye Caldwell and I’ve got some really high hopes on Jye,” Rutten said on SEN on Monday.

“He was probably our best performer throughout the pre-season in terms of our training and pre-season games. I was really disappointed that we lost him in the second round.

“He’s a third going into his fourth year. He’s a big, strong, inside player and he’s got fantastic hands. I think he’ll really be able to complement Darcy (Parish), (Zach) Merrett and (Dylan) Shiel in and around the ball.

“Again, that’s another example of rather than looking elsewhere, I’m really keen to work out what we’ve got in our squad because I think we’ve got a fair bit of capacity still there.”

Bailey Dale, Josh Dunkley, and Jack Macrae after their grand final loss to Melbourne.Credit:Getty Images

Dunkley, this time last year, had been earmarked by the Bombers to be their midfield bull but a deal with the Bulldogs, who asked for two first-round selections, was unable to be reached. He regained the faith of his Bulldogs teammates and was an important figure in their run to the grand final.

Dunkley is contracted until the end of 2022 and said this month he had not thought about life beyond this contract. Asked if the Bombers would sound Dunkley out, Rutten said it was “not on the table at this point”.

Rutten praised skipper Dyson Heppell for reinvigorating his career at half-back, and said there were emerging captaincy options – including three-time best and fairest Zach Merrett – if and when a change was made.

He also looks forward to midfielder Dylan Shiel having a strong pre-season. Shiel was restricted to eight matches because of a knee issue, returning for the last six.

“He had as good a strike rate at centre bounces as any player in the competition early in the season and then we just missed him,” Rutten said.

“I think to be able to play him in and around the ball and ahead of the ball is going to be where Dylan best suits. He’s an A-grade player, so to be able to get him and Caldwell into that midfield mix that we didn’t have for large parts of the season will really strengthen our playing group.”

Shiel’s absence meant Parish spent more time in the midfield, and the latter flourished, averaging more than 30 disposals per game and finishing second in Essendon’s best and fairest, the Crichton Medal.

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