Hunt, Bulldogs prepared for big campaign

Published on Friday, February 16, 2024

Author : Miles Earl

North Heidelberg senior men’s star Liam Hunt believes his side has the ‘competitive edge’ necessary to challenge for the 2024 Melbourne Greyhounds Division 1 premiership.

After starting the year 0-3, the Bulldogs finished fourth in last year’s home and away campaign, before putting together strong performances in the elimination final and semi-final to reach their third top flight preliminary final in four completed seasons.

However, they suffered a heavy defeat in the penultimate game of the year, going down to eventual runners up Bundoora by 87 points and extending their Division 1 grand final drought to 18 years.

Hunt was named as his side’s best player in two of his side’s three finals matches and seven times in total during his first full season with the Bulldogs since 2018 due to VFL commitments. His role in North Heidelberg’s preliminary final run culminated with a club best and fairest.

The star midfielder explained how this year’s pre-season has been his most grueling yet in anticipation of a campaign which he hopes will be one where the Bulldogs relinquish their preliminary final troubles.

“I think anytime you drop out in the finals series, it doesn’t matter how you lose, I think it gives you drive over pre-season and off-season,” he said.

“The way it panned out wasn’t the greatest, a lot of things didn’t go right for us, but in saying that I think we’ve moved on and I think we’re ready. If round one was tomorrow, I think we’d be prepared.

“This pre-season has been one of my hardest, I’ve been around a little bit to notice but this pre-season has been really contested, a lot of one-on-one stuff. I think we have a real competitive edge.”

While Hunt has been aligned with North Heidelberg since 2018, he’s had an extensive 93-game VFL career spanning back to 2014 with the Northern Blues, before he had four-year stints at Coburg and Williamstown, winning a club best and fairest and earning VFL Team of the Year honours during his time with the Lions.

But after returning to the NFNL for a full season last year, the 29-year-old has a new perspective on the game, explaining how he can utilise his experience from the VFL to assist the development of the younger players looking to take their own leap.

“I’ve been trying to push for our guys to just try and become really professional and it’ll give you the best outcome for the week if you look after yourself,” he said.

“That’s what I try to bring back to the younger guys, just some experience and having a 29-year-old brain and teaching younger guys how to go about it each week.

“In a way it’s a pretty serious competition, especially div 1 footy and at North Heidelberg we take our footy very seriously.”

The club has been able to sign some important recruits to strengthen their squad, including Adam and Ben Giobbi and Tom Wallis, while midfielder-forward Jack Mapleson is set to return to Shelley Street.

Each will look to play critical roles for Jason Heatley’s men at all areas of the ground.

The Bulldogs will be keen to refine their defensive structure, with it being one of their weaker points throughout last season.

They averaged 70 points against in the home and away season last year, much more than eventual grand finalists Heidelberg (49.5) and Bundoora (55). It’s something Hunt believes his side will look to fix this time around.

“We’ve been running size especially from our back half, we do need to tidy up our scores against… we’re getting a lot of goals scored against us,” he said.

“We’ve got the attributes to score on one end, but it’s at the other end where we got to try to nullify teams for when they do get a run on to prevent them from getting three, four, five goals and push them down to a couple.

“It is a tough competition, but I’d like to think we’re pretty deep in our defense, with Nic Matthews, Murph, Tom Wallis and we got Josh Hamilton running through there, so we’ve got a lot of talent back there.”

The strengths of North Heidelberg have come forward of centre in recent years, and that was no different in 2023 despite the retirement of legendary NFNL goalkicker Shane Harvey in Round 4.

The midfield was where the Bulldogs were able to take hold of the competition, thanks to their dominant use of the ball and rapid entries up forward.

It’s what Hunt and midfield partner Jesse Tardio did so well in 2023.

Hunt spoke about his close friendship with the 2022 Division 1 Coaches MVP winner, expressing how their relationship has allowed for their chemistry to elevate the club to a position of winning each week.

“Me and Jesse are really close, we’ve known each other for ten or twelve years, he knows my strengths, I know his strengths, he knows my weaknesses I know his, so we keep each other accountable at the same time and that’s important,” he said.

Meanwhile up forward, North Heidelberg’s forward line was dangerous at the worst of times. Led by 58 majors from Majak Daw, the Bulldogs were the highest scoring team in the home and away season, scoring over 96 points a match.

But while the forward line worked so well in 2023, Hunt hinted there wouldn’t be such a reliance on Daw this season.

“We’ll have a bit more of a versatile forward line… we’re probably going to be playing Majak a lot to the ruck this year. Looking back at that prelim weekend, he had two or three guys on him the whole time, so I think we need to have a bit more options going forward,” he said.

“I think if Maj comes more in the ruck, it’ll allow us to have a few more leading options to go forward rather than just kicking it down Majak’s throat every week.”

In terms of North Heidelberg being a true premiership contender this season, Hunt was quick to acknowledge the standard that back-to-back premiers Heidelberg have set during the last two years, and having not defeated the Tigers since the 2019 qualifying final, the midfielder says there’s still work to be done.

“Heidelberg have to have the respect of being premiership favorites after last year and even Monty, then there’s probably us as well,” he said.

“We have a lot of depth; I think each year we recognise we are getting better and better, obviously the competition is getting better, and the Heidelberg’s and the Montmorency’s of the world are getting better and better.

“I think we still have plenty of work to do, but until we can start winning big games at the end is when I think the comp should start thinking we’re premiership contenders.”

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