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Howlett buoyant over young Thunder prospectsWednesday, May 13, 2020 - 2:46 PM - by Chris Pike

PEEL Thunder might have been thrown a curve ball with the announcement that they won't have access to any Fremantle Dockers AFL-listed players in 2020, but captain Ben Howlett remains buoyant of what they can produce given the young talent coming through.

The AFL has announced that no listed players will be taking part in any state league competition for 2020 as football prepares to emerge from the restrictions enforced to battle COVID-19.

Obviously in terms of the WAFL, that means that Peel Thunder is significantly impacted given their partnership with the Fremantle Dockers. 

The Thunder now have to readjust their plans for the 2020 season should and when it begin to know that they likely need to find extra bodies to be able to field league and reserves teams this season, and indeed to ensure their competitiveness.

While it is an obvious blow, it's not one that the Thunder see as being irrecoverable from and given some of their experienced leaders like Howlett, Hayden Ballantyne, Jackson Merrett and Ben Hancock they have some players ready and able to lead from the front.

There are also players like Keegan Power, James Sturrock, Haydn Matthews, Corey Morris, Michael Randall, Matt Bogensperger and Matthew Piggott who have been in and out of the league side.

That's largely been due to the presence of AFL-listed players from the Dockers who will now get the opportunity to have a good run at showing what they are fully capable of.

Then there's also the exciting brigade of young players coming through at Peel with the Thunder coming off an appearance in the colts Grand Final last year.

When you put all that together and while they might still need to add some extra bodies ahead of the season starting, there's still reason for optimism that Peel can be a competitive outfit in 2020.

Howlett certainly sees things that way and he has no question that with the work done in recent years to earn respect in the football community, that Peel is in a solid place now that they do have to go it alone for the 2020 season.

"There is a lot of talent coming through here and our colts obviously played in a Grand Final last year so I think there's that new, fresh vibe around the place with the young talent coming through that we are keen to show. I'm sure that they are going to perform really well throughout the season," Howlett told 91.3 SportFM.

"Not only is the Peel region really strong but right through the south-west as well which is my old stomping ground. The talent down there and throughout the Peel region has really grown, but not only that I think we've changed the culture around the football from when I first started to now. 

"The feeling around this football club is that we are a semi-professional club and a strong club, not a country team playing in the WAFL. People now want to come here and I think our facilities are one of the best in the WAFL. 

"People are really starting to notice us as a powerhouse in the comp and we want to keep it that way. We aim for finals every year if we can and hopefully we go well."

Howlett certainly isn’t lacking for personal motivation as well. When he was on the field in 2019, he was a tremendous leader and contributor both in terms of being a prolific ball winner and the league's leading tackling machine.

He continues to prove himself an outstanding leader and he now deserves to be seriously in calculations as the best Peel Thunder player at all-time for what he's done either side of his 124-game AFL career with Essendon.

The Donnybrook-native won a Peel fairest and best award in 2009 before joining the Bombers, won another upon return to the Thunder in 2018, and at 86 games with plenty left in the tank, the 31-year-old is the ideal man to remain skipper.

But he needs support and the return of Sandover Medal winner and 171-game Fremantle forward Hayden Ballantyne is significant, especially with the way 2020 has now panned out and the way the pair can lead the way for an increasingly youthful group.

"As senior players we've been focusing even more on some one-on-one mentoring so that's something that Hayden and I have been doing as much as we can," he said.

"We speak with them one-on-one and come up with a bit of an action plan with those younger players to talk about what they want to get out of the year and their football, and focus on personal goals and also team success goals. 

"Each individual has something they are working on to try and improve so we've given each player their own KPI's and Hayden has been instrumental in that, and he pushes the young players. His experience and knowledge is fantastic for our younger guys."

While it remains a great unknown the state of the 2020 WAFL season, Howlett is looking forward to seeing the players at Peel who will be given the opportunities to show what they are capable of when it does fire up.

"I think we'll see a few of our colts underage start to come through, guys like Jackson Knight, James Ewing and even guys who have been around for a few years Haydn Matthews and Matt Bogensperger and guys like that," Howlett said. 

"They were training well before all this happened and were dominating our match play. Some of those younger guys like Michael Randall spent time in the pre-season training at Fremantle too and I know they loved that exposure, and benefited from it when they came back to train with us at Peel."

Even when winning the premierships of 2016 and 2017, Peel was a renowned defensively-minded, physically strong and contested-ball focused team which was partly passed down from the way the Dockers were being coached to play by Ross Lyon.

But with Justin Longmuir now taking over at the Dockers, Howlett does expect to see a more aggressive game plan float down to Peel given that's the way they have trained even if they will no longer have the access to the Fremantle-listed players.

"We have probably been a heavily contested football team and we pride ourselves on that contest, but last year that 6-6-6 rule probably allowed us to break free a little bit more and use our outside runners," Howlett said.

"What it does is free up and open up the game a little bit so guys like Ben Hancock on the outside can get a hold of the ball a lot more often, and use it really well. Even guys like Jackson Merrett can take advantage of their speed and run and carry the ball a bit more. 

"It makes the game a bit more open and I know a lot of our outside players really enjoy it so I think you'll see with our new game plan and that set up that we will be a very free-flowing team that moves the ball quickly."