‘Itching’ for his chance

PAAAAWhen assessing the quality of the Kangaroos’ youngsters, it is easy to forget they still have a former No.7 draft pick to unveil.

After embarking on a list rebuild at the end of last season, North has unveiled eight debutants this season – Jy Simkpin, Braydon Preuss, Mitch Hibberd, Declan Mountford, Sam Durdin, Ed Vickers-Willis, Daniel Nielson and Cameron Zurhaar – and successfully introduced recycled recruits Marley Williams (Collingwood) and Nathan Hrovat (Western Bulldogs).

Entering round 18, there are only eight players on the Roos’ list yet to taste senior football. One of them is former Giant Paul Ahern.

Ahern was the No.7 pick in the 2014 NAB AFL draft, having been recruited by Greater Western Sydney after a stellar under-18 season when he averaged 17 disposals at 72 per cent efficiency for Vic Metro on his way to All Australian honours.

Ahern joined the Kangaroos in last year’s trade period in exchange for pick No.65 as the Giants sought to create space in their salary cap.

North took Ahern knowing he would not play a game at any level in 2017.

The former Calder Cannon had undergone two right knee reconstructions in 2016 – in February and September – and the plan was to get him right for day one of the 2018 pre-season.

Now 10 months into his rehab from his second operation, Ahern told AFL.com.au his projected return was on schedule.

“I’ve been doing a lot of change-of-direction and a bit of volume running just to try and keep up my fitness going into the pre-season,” Ahern said.

“I’m starting to feel really confident on my knee, it’s probably the best I’ve felt over the journey, so I’m looking forward to being fit to go on day one of pre-season.”

Not being able to prove himself to his new teammates on the training track and, particularly, in games has been frustrating, but Ahern is trying to make the most of his year on the sidelines.

“It’s been a bit different,” he said.

“I just try to get around the boys in the gym and that kind of thing. Obviously when other players are in rehab I try and get to know them there, that way I don’t really have to be on the field.

“And I just try to build that leadership amongst the group and earn that respect by just working hard in my rehab.”

Ahern last played in September 2015, when he was part of the GWS NEAFL team’s preliminary final loss to Aspley.

The 182cm midfielder could not break into the Giants’ senior team that year despite a prolific season in the NEAFL, then his knee woes ensured his second and final season in western Sydney was a write-off.

But the Roos have high hopes for the 20-year-old, who is equally adept at stoppages and as an outside runner.

Between now and the start of the pre-season, Ahern will continue the painstaking process of building strength in his knee, aiming to take part in some skills sessions with North’s main group before the end of the 2017 season.

After rupturing the same anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) twice in such a short timeframe, Ahern’s rehabilitation has also had a significant mental component.

Working with club psychologist Michael Inglis has been “really good” for Ahern, while he says North’s decision to put him on ice this season has also helped.

“The club pretty much told me early on that I wasn’t going to play this year. So it was good knowing that if I had little setbacks here and there it wasn’t going to affect me in the long run,” he said.

“I can just take everything at my own pace, which has been a positive.”

With just six rounds of the home and away season remaining, Ahern can see light at the end of his rehabilitation tunnel.

“Even coming into the pre-season, once I can fully get out there on the track and just put all this rehab behind me I’ll definitely be really happy,” he said.

“I’m just itching to get back out there and make myself and my family proud.”