SOUTH-West footballers Martin Gleeson, Zach Merrett and Lewis Taylor will make their AFL debuts this weekend in a massive result for the Hampden league.
Essendon last night named Gleeson and Merrett for its season-opener against North Melbourne at Docklands tonight.
Brisbane chose Taylor as one of its three debutants for its round one clash against reigning premier Hawthorn in Tasmania tomorrow.
Gleeson, 19, Merrett, 18, and Taylor, 19, forged their reputations in the Hampden league, shining as juniors for Koroit, Cobden and Terang Mortlake respectively before getting their opportunities at TAC Cup level.
The Bomber first-gamers were drafted one year apart — Gleeson via pick 53 in the 2012 national draft and Merrett followed suit, snapped up with pick 26 last November.
Taylor landed at the Lions two picks later.
The Bombers-Roos round one showdown shapes as a significant moment for the Hampden league, with four of its graduates involved.
Merrett will become the fourth Cobden footballer to make his AFL debut in four years, joining North Melbourne’s Ben Cunnington, Sydney’s Gary Rohan and older brother and Bombers teammate Jackson in the illustrious group.
The Merrett brothers and Cunnington, who has played 74 games for the Kangaroos, will play tonight, heightening Cobden’s excitement.
Gleeson is the first Koroit player to make his AFL debut since Joe McLaren lined up for St Kilda in 1996.
The 2005 Maskell medallist played 52 games for the Saints and 12 for North Melbourne in an AFL career which spanned six seasons.
McLaren’s brother Chris coached Gleeson at Koroit in 2011 — a senior season which proved a turning point for the exciting but raw teenager.
The creative half-back made his Hampden league debut in round one and went on to play every game, sparking interest from TAC Cup club North Ballarat Rebels, which listed him for the 2012 season.
Chris McLaren said Koroit had watched Gleeson’s progression with interest and had rallied around for his Essendon debut.
“We are all extremely proud of him, the whole club and community,” he said.
“It’s a community club so the whole town is behind him. Quite a lot of us are heading down.
“We are taking a mini bus down.”
McLaren saw something special in Gleeson from an early age.
That belief was justified when three-time Geelong premiership player Paul Chapman singled out the lightly-framed teenager at a community camp in Koroit some years ago.
The pair are now team-mates following Chapman’s off-season move to Essendon.
“It’s a bit ironic. We had Geelong down for a community camp and Paul Chapman was taking training and doing match simulation and Marty was dominating,” McLaren said.
“He asked who he was and said ‘he’s a gun, he’ll get drafted’.”
The 186-centimetre defender has belied his slim frame throughout his career and enters his first game at 70 kilograms.
McLaren said Gleeson’s football nous and courage held him in good stead.
“That is his body shape, he’s never going to be huge but he’s put weight on and has gotten stronger,” he said.
“I remember seeing his dad and seeing if it was all right to play him in the seniors (when he was 16) and he was obviously so small and light but ended up being one of our best players.
“He always has time and is never rushed on the football field and his decision-making is good. He is very courageous and reads the ball well in the air.”
Former Cobden coach Wayne Robertson picked the younger Merrett in his 2012 Hampden league senior grand final side.
The silky half-forward played 11 senior matches for his home club before joining TAC Cup club Sandringham Dragons last year.
Robertson said Merrett’s dedicated approach to pre-season would have impressed Essendon staff.
“He’s obviously demonstrated he can go against bigger bodies after coming out of the under 18s,” he said.
“The games of Hampden league seniors he played would have put him in good stead as well.
“His skill level is up to AFL standard.”
Robertson said having four ex-Cobden players represent the small country club in one AFL game was a stunning result.
“He will have a tremendous amount of support from our local region,” he said.
“If he debuts with his brother that’s a fantastic achievement and with Cunnington running around for the opposition, it will be a proud moment for the Cobden football club, with three players drafted in the past five years running around on the same AFL ground together.
“Full credit to those boys — they got to that level because of the people they are.”
Taylor, who battled a foot injury last year, is a zippy forward-midfielder.
Terang Mortlake coach Matt Irving described Taylor as a “player with really good lateral movement left and right” and as “super quick” when speaking to The Standard in November.