GALLERY: Top Cat backs Bourke

GEELONG champion Jimmy Bartel says Kolora-Noorat export Nick Bourke can make his AFL debut this year.

The Brownlow medallist said Bourke had grasped his chance as a rookie since arriving at the club in November and had impressed on the training track.

Speaking at a school clinic at West Warrnambool Primary School yesterday, Bartel was also full of praise for Billie Smedts and backed the North Warrnambool Eagles talent to push for a permanent spot in the Cats' line-up this season.

The three-time premiership midfielder said Bourke had settled into the AFL environment with ease.

"You wouldn't know he was off the rookie list," Bartel said.

"He's settled in really well and is again another one we have used down at half-back at summer time.

"He is learning quickly and we might see a bit of footy out of him during the middle of the year."

Bartel said Smedts was among a group of young players which included Josh Caddy, George Burbury and Lincoln McCarthy who could have a big say in Geelong's finals chances.

Smedts has played 27 games since he was drafted to the Cats with pick 15 in the 2010 national draft.

He was trialled in defence during pre-season after playing the bulk of his football at half-forward.

"He is still only 21 and people develop at different rates and he had a few injury issues when he first started so he never really played much in the first two years," Bartel said.

"Hopefully people can be patient with him. He's still finding his role and position in the team but hopefully this year he cements a spot, maybe across half-back or up on a wing.

"I think he is just adding a lot of strings to his bow at the moment.

"He is obviously very creative and you see now with footy a lot of scores are launched from the half-back line just because guys get a bit of space and work off their man.

"If he is another weapon we can use down in our pretty stable back line with Harry Taylor, (Corey) Enright, (Tom) Lonergan and (Andrew) Mackie, hopefully it gives us another dimension down there."

Bartel, 30, will notch up his 250th game when Geelong launches its season against Adelaide on March 20.

"I can't wait. I just need the season to roll around," he said.

"I am stick of training and pre-season."

Bartel rated Sydney, Fremantle and Hawthorn as the Cats' main challengers for the 2014 premiership but highlighted the evenness of the competition.

He said Geelong had moved on from its heart-breaking preliminary final loss to the Hawks and was well prepared for another gruelling season.

"We were close and it was disappointing but we have to take the positives out of it," Bartel said.

"We were only again another kick away from a grand final and we do have a lot of depth left on our list and hopefully a few of those younger guys take the next step again and get us one step closer to a grand final."

Bartel said it was important to visit south-west Victoria regularly.

"A lot of our supporter base is from the western region and they're also fantastic in the way they drive up for every home game, so as many kids we can convert to Geelong supporters the better," he said.

Bourke, 19, helped run clinics at Our Lady Help of Christians Primary School and Warrnambool College yesterday.

"It is a bit surreal at times having kids know your name and ask for autographs whereas a couple of years ago you'd walk down the street and they'd not know who you are," Bourke said.

"It's a bit different but you get used to it and I am really enjoying it."

Bourke, who was drafted as a wingman, played a midfield role in a VFL practice match on Friday.

"It was good. I finally got the first run around in the hoops and I enjoyed it," he said.

"I played through the midfield actually,which was a bit different, a new position. But that's what it is all about you come in and learn new positions."

The Geelong school visits were part of the region's Auskick launch.

justine.mc@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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