After a two-year hiatus from the AFL, new Essendon part-time development coach Alex Rance says the time is right to jump back into the game he still loves.
The former Richmond star premiership defender and five-time All-Australian, who retired two years ago after a serious knee injury, will reunite with senior coach Ben Rutten and assistant Blake Caracella, having worked with the pair at the Tigers.
His role will focus on developing the technical and leadership skills of the Bombers’ key-position and first- to fourth-year (Jack Jones Academy) players.
“It’s very exciting. After my retirement in 2019, the last two years have showed me that I still love the game, but I just needed to work out where it fits in with my life and priorities,” Rance said.
“I feel I’ve got a really good understanding of what I want my life to look life, in terms of putting my priorities first.
“[It’s exciting] to jump back in and do support work in something that was a strength of my game – that contest craft and working with key-position players. I’ve always had a passion for helping young people achieve young goals in that leadership and mentor role.
“It works really well for me to come in and dip my toes in the water just for the pre-season and have that exposure to high-level athletes and young athletes who want to improve in that key-position area.
“At this stage it’ll be a day or day-and-a-half a week in pre-season. I’ll work with anyone who wants to work on their key-position craft. I’ve got a curriculum of drills and technical focuses to try to improve on, but one of the things I also talked about with Ben Rutten was role modelling some of the leadership behaviours which made me successful as a player.”
The opportunity to work alongside Rutten was one of the key factors in Rance’s decision to take on role at Essendon.
Rutten served as Rance’s line coach in the Tigers’ 2017 premiership season, while Caracella was also part of Damien Hardwick’s coaching panel.
Rance said he held the pair in the highest regard, maintaining a friendship with Rutten since the Richmond days.
“The opportunity came up through conversations with Ben Rutten. Ben has been a really close friend of mine,” he said.
“On a personal level, we’re similar people. We love camping and being out of the city, and I think that has drawn us closer to each other over the years. We have a personal and professional connection, which is nice.
“From a professional perspective, ‘Truck’ [Rutten] and ‘Cara’ [Caracella] have been the greatest principle-based coaches I’ve experienced. Admittedly I haven’t had a lot of coaches over my time, as once we had success, it was a pretty stable coaching panel at Richmond.
“They [Rutten and Caracella] allow players to play their strengths by coaching them by principles, not by rules. I think you could start to see the identity of Essendon across the year, and how much more evident it became towards the back of the year as the players knew where they fitted within the system and the principles Truck wanted them to play by.
“I really respect the way Truck coaches and teaches, and that’s the same with Cara.”
Rutten and Caracella won’t be the only familiar faces for Rance, after the 32-year-old suited up for the Bombers’ VFL side in a one-off appearance on the Gold Coast in July.
With only 11 Essendon players available in Queensland for the VFL clash with Southport, Rance was one of 11 ring-ins who donned the sash in a nail-biting loss to the Sharks.
Thankful for the contribution + wisdom.— Essendon VFL (@essendonvfl) July 26, 2021
Marty praised our top-up players after a narrow loss to the Sharks. pic.twitter.com/CXPHKy5KSw
While his impressive performance sparked external commentary about a potential return to an AFL list, Rance said the most satisfying aspect of the day was mentoring his peers.
“It was a really nice full stop on my playing career. It was interesting comparing my second half to my first half. In the first half I felt like I was playing well, but I ran out of gas in the second half. It just shows how finely tuned you have to be as an athlete to perform at a high level for long enough,” he said.
“Now I know that I’m prepared to support, but not prepared to give up my whole life in the pursuit of being an elite athlete again. It was exciting [to be back playing], but the thing I enjoyed most was seeing the growth of someone like [Brandon] Zerk-Thatcher, and how he responded to feedback, along with some of the other young players in midfield.
“That was what I really got a kick out of - helping blokes position themselves so that they can execute, and give them confidence to play to their strengths.
“It’s such an exciting list at Essendon. I spoke to them in the change rooms after the game, and told them the talent was definitely there. It’s just a matter of doing it regularly enough – that’s the difference between good sides and the rest. It’s exciting to see how much more growth this team has, because they showed in 2021 the amazing amount of talent and potential they have.”
Rance will balance his commitments at the Bombers with those at The Academy - an AFL passion-based education program for year 11 and 12 students, which he co-founded in 2016.