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‘Open mind’: Shock plan for No.1 pick

Brisbane Lions Training Session
Will Ashcroft could return for the Lions in round 16. Picture: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images

A successful history and faith in his conditioning staff could be enough for Brisbane Lions coach Chris Fagan to thrust Will Ashcroft straight in to his side after his recovery from an ACL injury with the former No.1 draft pick set to be available to play next week.

Ashcroft, 19, hasn’t played since he suffered the knee injury against Geelong in round 19, 2023. An AFL return next Friday night against Melbourne at the Gabba would be 341 days since the incident, three weeks under the normal 12-month recovery time.

But the teenage star has been so diligent in his recovery that he has been in full training for weeks and Fagan conceded “a player of his ilk” would be considered for an automatic senior return rather than through the VFL.

The Lions successfully returned both Eric Hipwood and Cam Rayner to the AFL from similar injuries without a need for a game in the reserves and Fagan said Ashcroft had been conditioned “to play AFL when required”.

“So at this stage he’s expected to be available next week, so it’s going to be an interesting selection dilemma. I hold Will in the highest regard, as do his teammates,” Fagan said on Thursday.

Brisbane Lions Training Session
Will Ashcroft should be back next week. Picture: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images

“It’s going to be great to have him available again and we’ll just see what that looks like when we get to next week. I’ve got an open mind.

“It’s too early to make that call, we haven’t played this weekend yet. We don’t know if we’re going to get injuries, we don’t know what the form is going to be like.

“There’s so many what-ifs and maybes. A player of his ilk is very much capable of coming straight back into the team.

“The way our medical staff and fitness staff condition these guys to play, they’re not conditioned to play half a game in the reserves as a build-up, they’re conditioned well enough to be ready to play AFL if they’re required. We’ve just got to make a decision.”

Fagan said Ashcroft had planted the seed for a return having been telling the club’s assistant coaches that he is “about to come back”.

Having played 18 games in his debut season in 2023, Ashcroft was a lock for the AFL’s Rising Star Award before he was injured.

But with another 12 months in a club environment, and having seen more elements of the requirements to play at the top level, Ashcroft could return an ever better player, Fagan said.

“I reckon he’ll come back a better player because he’s been able to observe what goes on at the footy club for the past 12 months and take a few more things in,” Fagan said.

The Lions have lost Keidean Coleman, recruit Tom Doedee, Lincoln McCarthy and Darcy Gardiner to ACL injuries this season, and sitting 13th on the ladder with six wins, six losses and one draw, Ashcroft’s potential injection could be timely.

Saturday’s clash with Port Adelaide will mark co-captain Harris Andrews’ 200th game and Fagan was glowing in his praise for the All-Australian defender and the impact he had had on Brisbane’s rise to grand finalists in 2023.

“I could talk about Harris for half an hour,” he said.

“He’s a tremendous leader, you know, he’s a very self-motivated person and he was the day that I arrived. I mean, I think when I turned up, he might have been 20 or 21 and it struck me straight away just how professional he was and how hard he worked at making himself into a player.

“Look back on his career and you know when he was a young 18-19-year-old playing AFL footy, he was lining up on guys like Tom Hawkins at their peak and he got a few touch-ups early days but he’s turned himself into arguably the best tall defender in the game.

“And you know there’s nobody in this club more that wants to win than Harris Andrews.”