"He's had a cow of a season", but Essendon ruckman Tom Bellchambers has Saturday afternoon's clash with Carlton to audition for a spot in the Bombers' finals team, says coach Mark Thompson.
Bellchambers has not played a final previously, having been left out of the Essendon side which lost elimination finals in both 2009 and 2011. The 25-year-old has been limited to just six AFL games in 2014, with a pre-season ankle injury leading to patchy form throughout the year.
Thompson indicated, however, that the Bombers' preferred team structure was to play both Bellchambers and fellow ruckman Paddy Ryder, and that Bellchambers could therefore break his finals duck if he played well against the Blues at the MCG.
"He probably played his best game last week," Thompson said before Essendon's training session on Friday. "He's lost weight, he's doing more cross-training. He couldn't be more ready to play, but he's had a cow of a season, he's been absolutely destroyed by the pre-season injury to the ankle."
On a possible Ryder-Bellchambers combination, Thompson said: "That would have been our preferred setup from the start of the year."
The Bombers have secured their spot for the finals, but needs to beat Carlton or they could face a trip to Perth or Adelaide in week one of September action.
Midfielder Dyson Heppell trained with the main group in his bid to return from a broken hand suffered last week at training. Thompson suggested there was no guarantee Heppell would face the Blues.
"Not confident, he's got to get through this session, he's got to train, catch the ball and take a hit," he said. "He can't make it worse, that's why the surgeon and doctors thought he might even be playing after one week, and he would definitely be playing this week if his hand hadn't swollen."
While Heppell seems likely to be a starter in September, the same cannot be said of tall utility Jake Carlisle, who suffered a minor hamstring tear on Tuesday. Thompson conceded he was confused by the situation surrounding Carlisle's condition.
"I've never heard of a one-week hamstring injury, so it's probably more likely he won't play but saying that, it's not very big," Thompson said.
Despite a finals berth already being secure, the ramifications of the Carlton clash remain significant, a fact which Thompson hinted had not been lost on his players.
"We're playing our best team ... we're not in a position where we can flirt with anything," he said.
"We need to win, we need to go into the first final with good form."
He also believed that his Blues counterpart Mick Malthouse was not one to shy away from a battle, and therefore expected Essendon to be tested.
"We just love playing Carlton, they love playing us. They're physical games and there's nothing more enjoyable than when the siren goes and you're victorious," he said.
Thompson said despite the "nightmare" off-field issues the club has had to face, his locum season at the helm could be viewed positively.
"It's been hard, but it's been rewarding. The players especially, didn't want it to be a gap year," he said.