North Melbourne gun Jack Ziebell has locked into a gruelling pre-season determined to increase the fitness base which has proved a roadblock to him elevating his game.
After proving last year he can perform his role as well as any midfielder in the league, Ziebell, 22, said the challenge this season was to do it for longer, knowing continued improvement from players in his age bracket could be a key factor for the Roos’ finals push.
The vice-captain also believed he was ready to step in as skipper for as long as Andrew Swallow remained out injured, confident his leadership had matured in the past few seasons.
While he was not actively pushing for the role, the impressive midfielder would have no hesitation in accepting it should the club look at the situation as a chance to fast-track his development.
Ziebell has also expressed his goal to “stay out of hot water” with the match review panel this year, after missing games through suspension in 2013. But the Roos’ hard nut made it clear he had done nothing over the pre-season to curb his “instinctive” aggression.
“If you (do), you are probably going to sit there and worry about things that are out of your control, so I’m probably not going to change the way I play,” the former Wodonga junior said at the club’s community camp in Ballarat.
“I play on instinct, so it’s like telling Daniel Wells not to run fast when he plays — that’s just the way he plays.”
Fellow vice-captain Drew Petrie took over the captaincy when Swallow went down with a serious Achilles injury late last year and the club could again feel the job is safer in the 31-year-old’s hands, with Swallow potentially out for much of the first half of this season.
Ziebell admitted “it would be nice” to take over as skipper, but insisted he would be just as happy to support Petrie again.
“Leadership is an ever-evolving thing, just like working on your game, I suppose,” he said.
“At the start, when I was first put into the leadership group, I was still fairly young.
“I found it a little bit difficult to talk to the older guys and tell them off a little bit, and put a bit of pressure on guys who are more senior than you to perform. But I’m a lot more comfortable doing that now.”
Ziebell emerged as an elite clearance player, tackler and goalkicker among AFL midfielders last season, ranking second in the league in the crucial centre-bounce takeaways category.
He was also a handful for opposition teams when he ran forward, kicking a career-high 20 goals (his previous best was nine).
But Ziebell knows he needs to lift his aerobic capacity to ensure he can go harder for longer.
Despite rating highly in key categories for engine-room players, Ziebell averaged the fourth-fewest minutes per stint on the ground — going to the bench 11.6 times each match, which was the most of any player in the AFL last year.
In light of those numbers, the restricted interchange this season is set to add even more pressure on Ziebell’s fitness, but North Melbourne is one team the new rules might not affect, given it averaged only a handful more rotations than the new limit of 120.
But far from backing off, the Roos have gone harder, with numerous players saying this pre-season had been the hardest of Brad Scott’s tenure as coach.
“Ever since I’ve started playing in the AFL, it’s an area of my game that needs work,” Ziebell said of his fitness base.
“But I think I’ve got it to a level now that is acceptable.
“It’s not the type of thing that happens overnight, I’ve been working on it over the past few years and it’s improved again this year.”