As Tom Bellchambers prepares for just his second final in 10 years, the Essendon ruckman admits he probably wouldn’t be on the Bombers’ list if he didn’t have a year off.
Bellchambers was one of 34 past and present Bombers rubbed out of the 2016 season for their involvement in the club’s ill-fated supplement program.
Serious ankle and foot injuries restricted the 28-year-old to just 18 games in the previous two seasons just as he looked to take the next step after a career-best year in 2013.
With his career seemingly at the crossroads, Bellchambers conceded he did lose faith in himself at times, but credits the rest he was able to give his body last year for his ability to recapture his best form and play a key role in Essendon’s charge towards the finals
The big Tasmanian has wrested the No.1 ruck mantle back from Matthew Leuenberger after a host of impressive performances in the second half of the season, most notably against star ruckmen Paddy Ryder, Brodie Grundy and Shane Mumford.
“In 2014 and 2015 it was very frustrating missing a lot of football through injury and, to be honest, as shit as it was and as disappointing as it was to have the year off under those circumstances, from a personal point of view and my football, it’s probably helped me,” he told Fairfax Media.
“If I was to go through another year like I did in 2014 and 2015, I might not be still on the list from that point of view. So to give my body a rest … I was able to get a bit of extra work done surgery-wise on my ankle and really give it that eight months off which you can’t do with football.
“This is probably the most continuity I’ve had in a season. I did miss a bit early on with a minor knee operation, which meant I was a little bit slow to start pre-season, but apart from that the game against Adelaide was the only game I’ve missed for the year so that’s really pleasing.”
Despite being sent back to the VFL after being soundly beaten by Cam Pedersen in his first game back this year against Melbourne in round six, Bellchambers knew that once his confidence returned, coupled with his new outlook on footy, he was optimistic he would regain his spot in the senior side.
“I probably played three or four VFL games and came in and I wasn’t overly concerned about coming back out of the team straight away,” he said.
If I was to go through another year like I did in 2014 and 2015, I might not be still on the list … I was able to get a bit of extra work done surgery-wise on my ankle and really give it that eight months off
“I was more about enjoying my football at that stage because I had missed so much football and it didn’t really matter to me where I was playing, whether it was AFL or VFL. I knew that if I could get a run at playing some continuous games then my form would come.
“I felt like my body was able to do what I was wanting to do, which was probably the first time in a while.
“I’ve had four or five surgeries on my ankle, so you do lose an enjoyment out of football when you’re not out there playing week in, week out, you’re not able to do what you love doing.
“So this year I came back really open-minded about wanting to enjoy my football and probably not … putting pressure on myself about playing my best football week in, week out.”
While finals footy seemed a long way away for Bellchambers when he and his banned teammates were training at St Bernard’s with flat footballs and travelling around Europe last year, the 92-gamer was “quietly confident” his team could rebound quickly in 2017.
“Obviously it’s a great achievement for the group, this time last year this is what we wanted to achieve,” he said.
“We did have a goal back then to get the group back together and we thought we could be successful and we’ve given ourselves every opportunity now … it has been a bit of a whirlwind to get where we are.”
With just one finals appearance under his belt in 10 years, and having come out the other side of the doping scandal, Bellchambers has a new-found appreciation for how special finals are.
“I was talking to [first-year player] Andy McGrath about how lucky he is to be in the position he is after playing one year of football,” he said.
“It makes me realise how important it is to be playing finals footy and after having the year off last year – footy got taken away so easily and so quickly – to really appreciate being back in finals.”
Bellchambers is confident Essendon can go one better against Sydney this week in their elimination final at the SCG after the Bombers’ agonising one-point loss last time the two sides met.
“We can take a lot of confidence as a group from how we played them up there in the middle of the year,” he said.
“They’ve obviously come a long way since then and I feel like we have, too … we’re extremely confident we can go up there and get the job done.
“It’s one thing to make finals but we want to actually win finals footy which we haven’t done for a long time.”
Essendon are aiming for their first finals win since 2004.