From LocalFooty.com.au (Leader Group Newspapers)
Reported Paul Amy
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THE way Port Melbourne coach Gary Ayres sees it, no team will go into Round 1 of the 2010 VFL season as a stand-out premiership favourite.
In his mind, 2008-09 champion North Ballarat will probably feel the loss of six premiership players and struggle to maintain its gold standard.
That, he thinks, leaves a few clubs to do some serious bidding.
``I think it's a case of who's going to take it and run with it?'' Ayres said.
He is entitled to think it can be his Boroughs.
In its two years under the former Hawthorn champion and Geelong and Adelaide coach, Port has built a formidable record, winning 16 home-and-away games in 2008 on the way to the grand final and 12 last year as it reached the preliminary final.
That is splendid going for a club that has no weekly influx of AFL players.
But can Port take a step or two more and win a premiership for the first time since 1982?
Ayres says it can, but he has some riders: it must consistently put something close to its best team on the ground each week, its young players have to improve and it gets a dash of luck.
``Every year I've been here I've believed we can do it and this year's no different,'' he said. ``Things have to go your way. That's the same as any other team. ``But on any given day I think we can match it with anyone.''
Ayres thinks his squad is more even than in the previous two years, believing the gap between his ``development'' and top-line players has closed.
David Pitt, David Robbins, Blake Grima, Bo Nixon, Matty Smith, Pat Hassett and Adrian and Fabian Deluca have gone, taking many games of senior experience with them.
A nonsentimental appraisal is that Pitt, Robbins and Smith had seen their best days, that injuries dimmed the thunder of Grima and Fabian Deluca last year, and that Adrian Deluca, although versatile, was more handy than brilliant.
There can be no denying that cool half back Nixon and combative wingman Hassett are major losses. And it must be remembered that captain John Baird will miss half of the season as he recovers from an Achilles injury.
Adam Bentick (Carlton), Shane Valenti (Melbourne), Malcolm Lynch (Western Bulldogs), Callum Sinclair (Collingwood VFL), Dean Galea (Williamstown), 2008 Hawthorn rookie Hugh Sandilands (Box Hill Hawks) and Dan Keeley (Frankston) head the list of 26 newcomers.
``What we have done better this year with our recruiting is get in better young players, through the Oakleigh Chargers and Bendigo Pioneers,'' Ayres said.
``When I see the group training, I think the overall skill level has improved.''
With ball hogs Bentick and Valenti joining an onball division involving Sam Dwyer, Toby Pinwill, Chris Cain, Ryan McMahon, Michael Dillon and Nathan Batsanis, it's little wonder Ayres expects Port to make things happen in the midfield.
``We've got a lot of options to float through there,'' he said.
Adrian Bonaddio will be the main target. ``Bonna'' was down last year, at one stage being spelled by the selectors. He had a shoulder reconstruction over summer. ``Adrian had a lot of off-field issues on his plate last year, with his courses and exams,'' Ayres said.
``He'll be the first to admit he never got going. Thirty goals? That's not even two a game.'' Ex-Oakleigh Chargers Billy Burstin will get a chance to play at centre half forward. With a shot of confidence, Ayres said, ``he can be a very, very good player for us''.
Burstin is just one tenderfoot Ayres is looking to emerge. Heath O'Farrell, Matthew Suckling, Zac Sengstock, Brendan Neville and Matthew Wall are others being issued with a take-the-next-step challenge.
Sandilands is being tabbed for a role in a backline anchored by Jarrod Dalton, Corey McGrath, Steve Brewer and Sam Pleming.
With David Fanning, Dylan McLaren and Tim Martin carrying the ruck, Port appeals as the most settled team in the league.
But Ayres is taking nothing for granted and says his players can't afford to either. ``You can lose your position pretty quickly if you don't apply yourself,'' he said. ``For us to be amongst it every player is going to have to show an absolute bucketful of that Borough spirit that we talk about.'' Port's first practice match is on Saturday against Frankston.
It opens the season against the Gold Coast at Southport on Saturday, April 10.
Myles Pitt: tall forward from the Dandenong Stingrays. Ayres: ``I've been very pleased ed with him. He's very coachable, he wants to learn, soak it all up. It wouldn't surprise me if he's playing in Round 1.''
Matthew Suckling: ex-Sandringham Dragon coming in to his second season. Ayres: ``His transformation in the past 12 months has been quite remarkable. His stranding within the group has risen enormously due to his dedication and hard work.''
Tim Martin: emerging ruckman who won the reserves best and fairest in 2009. Ayres: ``We'd love to see him grab a spot. He's had an injury-free pre-season and he can be a steady ruckman for us at senior level.''