Essendon coach James Hird says he’s unsure if his side will last the distance in Saturday’s round-one AFL clash with Sydney at ANZ Stadium.
Up to 18 players sat out the Bombers pre-season campaign, serving provisional suspensions pending the outcome of the league’s anti-doping tribunal.
But with all cleared of taking banned substances on Tuesday, this weekend will be the full squad’s first proper hit-out of the year.
Hird said there was a sense of a “new beginning” at the club, but admitted there was a question mark on how fit his men will be.
“We think we’ve trained very hard, we think we’ve got the work into them, but because they haven’t played a practice match so to speak, we’re not absolutely sure they’ll get through the 120 minutes,” he told reporters.
“But I think most players, even if they’ve played two or three practice games, they realise that this is different and 120 minutes at full, round-one intensity always seems to be the hardest game of the year.”
Hird has flagged some changes to his 2014 line-up, with Jake Carlisle named at fullback for a possible match-up against Swans superstar Lance Franklin.
Franklin was the inspiration behind Sydney’s round-nine win over the Bombers last season with five-goal haul.
In his 11 games against Essendon, he’s kicked 55 majors.
“Buddy’s obviously an extremely good player and he’s hard to play on because of his athleticism and his good football brain,” Hird said.
“We’ve got our ideas of how to stop him but they haven’t worked in the past, so we’re changing a little bit.”
The Swans have named a near full-strength side, with Jarrad McVeigh and Ben McGlynn the only experienced players set to miss the opening-round fixture.
Co-captain Kieren Jack is expecting a “red hot” and perhaps emotional Bombers outfit, despite their disrupted build up.
Last year’s grand finalists have won the two sides’ past four clashes, and six of the last seven. Essendon haven’t beaten Sydney since late 2011.
The match also marks John Longmire’s 100th game as coach at the Swans.