No.1 pick is back and ‘hungry’

AFL Rd 18 - Melbourne v Brisbane
Brisbane rising star Will Ashcroft will play his first game in 11 months when he returns from an ACL injury this weekend. Picture: Darrian Traynor / Getty Images

Will Ashcroft is confident he will return a stronger and smarter footballer and Brisbane Lions coach Chris Fagan is adamant the young gun “deserves to start in the AFL”, with a return from an ACL injury locked in for Friday night.

Fagan confirmed on Thursday morning that Ashcroft would play, with no restrictions on his game time against Melbourne at the Gabba that will be his first game at any level since he ruptured his ACL in round 19 last season.

Fagan said he didn’t expect Ashcroft to “play the house down” but was confident enough he’d done the work to come straight back in.

“He’s done a huge amount of work, he’s incredibly fit, his training form is great, he’s a highly talented, highly motivated young bloke,” Fagan said on Thursday morning.

“We’ve got a history of playing blokes straight off the back of their surgeries like Cam Rayner and Eric Hipwood and we can’t see a reason why we wouldn’t do the same with Will.

“We don’t expect him to play the house down, but he’s got to start somewhere. I think a player of his talent deserves to start in the AFL team.”

Ashcroft said he was physically and mentally ready to return after a “very long journey” and thought he would come back a significantly improved player despite his time out of the game.

The 20-year-old said he was excited to test out the upper body strength and extra football knowledge he had absorbed during a relentless rehab program.

AFL Rd 16 - Brisbane v Richmond
Brisbane young gun Will Ashcroft says he’s added ‘a few kilos’ to his upper body in a bid to return as a more powerful player after an ACL injury. Picture: Chris Hyde / Getty Images

The No.2 pick, who played all 18 games in his debut season before his injury, returned home to Melbourne for months after his surgery but was quickly back in training before he rejoined the Lions to look on during last year’s finals series.

“(Watching the finals) was hard from an individual perspective, I just wanted to be out there and I was shattered I couldn’t,” Ashcroft said.

“From a team perspective it was awesome to watch the boys win those couple of finals and then play in the grand final.

“It was definitely a whirlwind of emotions when I was probably two months down the track from it.

“(The injury) was hard to grasp just because of how quickly it happened, especially how the team was trending and how much I was looking forward to playing finals and what was to come there from a team aspect.

AFL Rd 3 -  Brisbane v Collingwood
Ashcroft says he has benefited from a series of Brisbane home games watching on from the coaches’ box this season. Picture: Albert Perez / Getty Images

“It was very difficult and tough, and I’m glad that stuff’s behind me, that’s for sure.”

Ashcroft said he forced himself to keep watching football, including his brother and top draft prospect Levi’s games, to learn during his long lay-off.

Time in the coaches’ box at Brisbane home games this season and adding a few kilos through strength training early in his rehab had left him confident he would return a more complete package.

He said the performances of fellow 2022 top-10 picks Harry Sheezel and George Wardlaw had excited him but had not left him feeling pressured to match their exploits.

“I’ve got big expectations on myself and always have and that’ll only continue,” he said.

“I want to try and break the game open more, run and take the game on a bit. I did a bit of that last year but want to add to that and combine that inside and outside craft.

“If you’re improving some degree each week, every time, you’re going to be a better footballer and person once you get to the end of it.

“It’s a team game and I’ll fit in how the coaching staff see fit. I’m coming in to compete, I’m hungry, I’ve been out for so long and I’m fresh and ready.

“We’ve got a third of the season left … I’m hungry to get after it.”