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Bombers back Caldwell; rule out play for Dunkley ‘at this stage’

Bailey Dale, Josh Dunkley, and Jack Macrae after their grand final loss to Melbourne.

Bailey Dale, Josh Dunkley, and Jack Macrae after their grand final loss to Melbourne.Credit:Getty Images

Dunkley, this time last year, had been earmarked by the Bombers to be their midfield bull but a deal with the Bulldogs, who asked for two first-round selections, was unable to be reached. He regained the faith of his Bulldogs teammates and was an important figure in their run to the grand final.

Dunkley is contracted until the end of 2022 and said this month he had not thought about life beyond this contract. Asked if the Bombers would sound Dunkley out, Rutten said it was “not on the table at this point”.

Rutten praised skipper Dyson Heppell for reinvigorating his career at half-back, and said there were emerging captaincy options – including three-time best and fairest Zach Merrett – if and when a change was made.

He also looks forward to midfielder Dylan Shiel having a strong pre-season. Shiel was restricted to eight matches because of a knee issue, returning for the last six.

“He had as good a strike rate at centre bounces as any player in the competition early in the season and then we just missed him,” Rutten said.

“I think to be able to play him in and around the ball and ahead of the ball is going to be where Dylan best suits. He’s an A-grade player, so to be able to get him and Caldwell into that midfield mix that we didn’t have for large parts of the season will really strengthen our playing group.”

Shiel’s absence meant Parish spent more time in the midfield, and the latter flourished, averaging more than 30 disposals per game and finishing second in Essendon’s best and fairest, the Crichton Medal.

Former Crow Jake Kelly is expected to join the Bombers when free agency begins while, as it stands, they have picks 11, 48 and 54 in the national draft.

Meanwhile, Geelong triple-premiership star James Kelly has returned to the club and will be an assistant to Chris Scott next season. Kelly spent 2021 away from football, having been an assistant at Essendon for three years prior. The Cats had been searching for assistants, having lost Matthew Knights to the West Coast Eagles and Corey Enright to St Kilda. Matthew Scarlett has stepped down.

“I’m excited to come back to the club, to a place I love, and be able to contribute as a member of the coaching staff,” Kelly said.

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