AFL 2024; Sam Draper is back training pain free and nearing a playing return

Essendon ruckman Sam Draper will return to full training for the first time since he underwent groin surgery and is “pain free” ahead of a potential practice match bout later this month.

The 25-year-old hopes to join Bombers teammates on the track for the full session on Wednesday after slowly increasing his training loads since undergoing surgery at the end of last season.

Draper wouldn’t put a percentage number on his current fitness but said he was targeting a return in either an AFL or VFL pre-season game after a “great couple of weeks” of rehab.

He said fully fit recruit Todd Goldstein was clearly ahead of him in the Bombers’ ruck pecking order as they approached the season, but was adamant he could play in tandem with the North Melbourne great when he was fit to return to senior level.

Draper played 13 consecutive games to begin the 2023 season and formed an effective partnership with retired ruck Andrew Phillips before he was struck down by injury, after which the Bombers only managed to win three of the next eight games and fell out of the top eight.

“The last two weeks I’ve been running around, kicking footy’s, doing little drills here and there with the boys and being pain-free, which is great,” he said on Tuesday.

“I’m looking at training (Wednesday) with the group which is quite exciting, so I’m feeling really good … hitting speed, that’s no issue, it’s just more the short and sharp stuff I reckon. (Wednesday) is a big test for me, so I’m really excited for that.

“I’m hoping to (play a pre-season game) – I’ve been trying not to think too far ahead with this injury … but I definitely am aiming to play some of those practice games.

“I’m not sure what that looks like whether it’s AFL or VFL, but my biggest thing is main training tomorrow with the boys, and I’ll be looking to do that.”

Draper said the glaring failure of the Max Gawn-Brodie Grundy combination at Melbourne did not discourage him from believing he could form a strong partnership with Goldstein, pointing to his impact as a forward when he played alongside Phillips last year.

“Me and Andrew Phillips were playing well together before Gawn and Grundy (happened), so … I feel like we did work well together, me and Flip,” he said with a smile.

“Goldy is an amazing player too so I feel like it definitely can work … I’m really different to some other rucks I reckon, I can play forward and feel comfortable there.

“I think we can definitely be a good partnership together, I think the last couple of years I’ve learnt my craft in the forward line and I feel really comfortable playing forward … just get my goalkicking right and I feel like I’m pretty dangerous.”

Draper did not rule out a round 1 return at senior level, but said he would need to manage his groin issue carefully in the early stages of the season before hoping to be able to “forget” the saga.

“It might mean I might have to rest a week, I’m not quite sure, but definitely a more cautious approach coming out of this rehab post-surgery end of September,” he said.

“(Brad Scott) has been awesome at just saying, ‘there’s no pressure on when you come back – whenever you’re 100 per cent, you’re good’.

“It’s frustrating, but learning how to deal with that frustration, I think it’s definitely going to hold me in good stead for the future.”

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