Kaine Baldwin’s transition to defence holds plenty of potential for the Bombers in 2024.
The 21-year-old found his feet throughout the 2023 season in a previously unexplored role as a key back, pairing superb VFL form with impressive stints when called upon at AFL level.
Baldwin’s strong hands and one-on-one ability were prominent in the club’s tight victories over Richmond in Dreamtime at the ‘G and the round 22 clash with North Melbourne, averaging six marks per game across his three full appearances for the season.
Heading into his third pre-season with the Bombers, Baldwin is enticed by the prospect of building on his defensive craft, but remains open to contribute in any role asked of him.
“It’s exciting for me to get a nice 12-week block moving into our pre-season matches with training down back and exploring a few different roles. We’ve built a lot of depth defensively and created big competition for spots, which is always great from a team perspective,” Baldwin said.
“With a season (down back) under my belt, it’s been great. I feel really confident there now.
“I’m really keen to keep exploring that this year, but at the same time I’m open to moving where the coaches see fit and wherever there’s a spot available, I’m always keen to put my hand up for it.”
Baldwin’s journey to the AFL has been far from straightforward.
Consecutive ACL tears in 2019 and 2020 saw the highly-touted junior miss the national draft, but since landing at the Bombers as an SSP selection in 2021, Baldwin’s gradually rebuilt his base to endure the rigours of full seasons.
Aware that his growth would look different to some of his teammates, Baldwin believes he is now in the best shape of his career to date, attributed to strong training blocks and the mentorship of Development Coach Michael Hurley.
“I feel every year I’ve come back to pre-season has been 10 times better than the one before,” Baldwin said.
“It was always going to be a slow build for me in terms of getting my speed and agility bursts back after the injuries I suffered three years ago, and I’m hoping there’s still more to come in terms of that improvement, but this is definitely the best I’ve felt by a long shot.
“‘Hurls’ (Hurley) and I have got a really strong relationship and I’ve leant on him for a lot in terms of my footy, my development plan, and structuring my improvement. He’s a great mentor and a great friend.
“Hopefully I can continue that uninterrupted run in the next few months and try to lock down a spot moving forward.”
Spending time on a player-driven training camp to Arizona in the off-season was another building block for Baldwin ahead of the new season, again honing in on his pace and repeat efforts.
The mix of players who trained both at home and abroad have looked to hit the ground running during the pre-Christmas block, and the results have already been visible.
“My goal individually (in Arizona) was to really focus on improving my speed and agility. The facility over there trains a lot of speed-dominant NFL athletes, so we worked with track coaches that held a lot of expertise in that field,” Baldwin said.
“Our days were structured quite similarly to an AFL pre-season in terms of morning trackwork and afternoon gym sessions, but we spent a lot of our track time on repeat speed efforts and short, hard running, which the boys have taken a lot back from.
“The way the boys handled the different loading was an exciting outcome and we saw that with a lot of guys cracking their PB’s in the two-kilometre time trial, even though our training was more speed-based than aerobic-heavy.
“I spent a lot of time working with Andy McGrath and Kyle Langford, who are just professionals in their preparation. Those two have really been leading the way, and you can see guys like Archie Perkins and Jye Menzie have come back looking stronger.”
Upon returning to the NEC Hangar, Baldwin and the squad have been presented with the arrivals of eight new recruits, a solid blend of draft talent and free agent/trade acquisitions.
The exciting combination of new players and a clear club focus on strengthening the football department with increased coaching resources hasn’t been lost on Baldwin and the wider group.
“Everyone’s excited about the prospect of what the year can hold. The new guys have all been very bubbly and energetic, and the draftees haven’t been nearly as introverted as you’d expect for first-year players,” Baldwin said.
“Seeing guys like Nate Caddy come in for craft drills and cracking in, throwing his body around gives the group a lift. Obviously experienced players like Todd Goldstein and Ben McKay will be great additions as well, so there’s going to be a lot of people to keep learning from.
“Last year we saw a big improvement in the number of development coaches and staff, and again this year it’s gone up another level with guys like David Rath and Ben Robbins coming in, who will be a really important resource for me in the mental skills space.
“I can’t wait to delve into the resources we’ll have available this season.”
For Baldwin, the club’s bigger picture is beginning to take shape.
“We’ve had a frustrating few years, but we’re well-placed to have strong times ahead with this younger core and the structure we’ve implemented,” Baldwin said.
“The veterans and free agents who have joined can see this group building a promising place to come and play, and there’s reason to be excited by that.”